The little voices in your head

I recently offered to write something for someone that I had never done before. It feels like stepping off a cliff. I find myself plunging into swirling self-doubt, foggy clouds of negative comments stream through my mind. “I can’t do it.” “I’m not good enough.” “He’ll work out I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Self-doubt is fascinating if you can manage to be objective about it, and this applies to self-doubt in any situation. Think how you feel when you want to hack your horse alone for the first time, or try a leg yield. How much are you held back by your self-doubt? What does the little voice in your head say?

When I can be sufficiently objective, I can challenge the little voice. “I can’t do it.” This one I always tackle by starting the task, immediately I can quash the little voice – see I AM doing it. The moment you first ask for the step of leg yield, the first step on the hack you are doing it. It doesn’t matter whether it goes well or badly, the point is you are doing it.

“I’m not good enough.” This old chestnut… Yes you are. You are always good enough, always more than enough. If you spend all day wearing old pyjamas, lying on your sofa eating biscuits you are still more than enough. You are awesome and incredible.

My personal favorite little voice: “He’ll work out I don’t know what I’m doing.” This one is just insulting to everyone. If someone employs you to do a job, you have to give them some credit that they will try and pick the best person for the job. Why wouldn’t they? It makes no sense. If you choose an electrician, or a farrier, you don’t think, “he seems a bit rubbish – I’ll choose him” do you? Yet, if someone chooses us to do something, we insist on thinking that they have chosen badly. Why do we grant others such bad decision making, why do we listen to our little voices? Self-doubt, lack of self-belief, lack of self-confidence.

Let’s shout out the negative little voices – let’s replace them with voices that say “you are awesome.” “You have worked hard at this therefore you will be able to do it.” “Trust in yourself.” “It’s okay to be nervous, just breathe.” Imagine it would be like having your own personal support band in your head…

 

Looking back (in a good way!)

We are always told to look forward, look ahead, think about where you want to get to. Don’t look back, move on. And while this is good advice, it can be slightly limiting. Sometimes there is massive value in looking back so that we can see how far we have come. It is easy to become disheartened when we forget how much work we have already achieved and focus only on where we want to get to. Looking back reminds us of have much we have accomplished, and looking forward gives us new goals to aim towards.

A few months ago I got a rescue dog. Now after a few weeks she began to whine when you walked her, all the time, incessantly. Gradually over months of careful training, she only whines very occasionally. But I find myself being frustrated when she does whine. It was only when I took her around a walk that I had not done for a few months that I remembered how previously she had whined the whole way. It reminded me of how far we had come, and made me realise how much the training that I had done had improved her.

It can be hard to see improvement when it is incremental, and it is often only when someone else sees you after a period of time that they can see the improvement that you had been struggling to see. If you see your trainer once a month they will see a massive improvement that you might not have noticed. This validation if the work that you are doing will help you to strive to do more, to do better.

Even if you can’t see a trainer regularly just getting someone else to come and watch you ride your horse, or work your dog can be really beneficial. They will see what you can’t. Looking back doesn’t have to be bad, if you gain value from it. Looking back to appreciate the work you have done, can be a real boost to your confidence. So look back and then look forwards…

Step by step

I was reminded yet again about breaking down difficult challenges into smaller pieces. I know this, but constantly seem to forget it and just become overwhelmed. Yet this single piece of advice is constantly reflecting through my life. In work, at home, in relationships, in anything that requires training – horses, dogs, children, husbands…whatever the issue is, if you break it down it will become manageable.

Your boss gives you some seemingly mammoth task (bosses love doing this!), break it down into small pieces, tackle it one piece at a time. You need to teach your child to tidy their room, break it down, first put away the books, and then the clothes, suddenly each job becomes doable, and our stress is swept away.

You wouldn’t expect your horse to be able to a half-pass unless you had broken down the exercise into steps? So why do we expect ourselves to be able to do things without breaking it down into steps? In order to teach the half-pass we first need a balanced trot or canter, we need a good leg yield, a good shoulders-in and quarters-in, only once we can move all the legs of the horse, can we add all the pieces together and ask for a leg yield.

Don’t do the same with yourself, don’t ask for a leg yield without having learnt the component parts. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Set yourself up to succeed! If you spend time on the building blocks the rest will follow. If you are finding something difficult stop and think, can I leg yield before I half-pass, can I walk before I run? We wouldn’t do it our horses, so don’t do it to ourselves. Give yourself the optimum conditions to succeed, don’t send yourself off to do a medium dressage test when you are working at novice level at home. Be kind to yourself, as you would to others…

The Importance of Praise

I read this great story the other day about a teacher. The teacher wrote 20 sums on the board in front of a classroom full of teenagers. One of them was wrong. The teenagers started laughing. The teacher asked them why they were laughing, and the teenagers said “because you made a mistake.” The teacher said, “You laughed at me for the one sum that I got wrong, but you didn’t praise me for the 19 sums that I got right.” The teacher continued, “this is what will happen to you all during your working life, you won’t get praised when you do well, only criticised when you do badly.”

Firstly, he was quite right! The importance of praise in the workplace seems to be a foreign concept to many employers or managers, yet people will work so much harder for you if they feel appreciated. It’s not simply a question of being paid, people want to feel valued. Great employers have the ability to make everyone from the floor workers, to the managers, feel appreciated, it is one of the hallmarks of a good business.

Exactly the same thing applies to our horses. The good riders make their horses want to give that extra bit. Like the good employers whose staff will stay late to help, the horses of good riders will make that extra effort. If you praise your horse for all the things he gets right, he too will feel valued, and will understand what you want him to do. We forget to praise, we remember to criticise.

How often do you tie your horse up, groom your horse, tack-up and then your horse starts to fidget and you tell him off? But did you praise him for standing still all that time? Probably not! Exactly the same happens in our ridden work, we criticise our horses when they make a mistake (despite the fact we were probably responsible for it!) and forget to praise.

Interestingly the ratio between praise and criticism was subjected to academic research and reported in the Harvard Business Review. The ideal ratio is 6 positive comments to 1 negative comment. So the next time that you ride, or even handle your horse, try this. Make sure you have praised 6 times, before you criticise, and see what effect it has on your horse (and yourself!)

How to bomb proof your horse…

We have all been there. Peacefully hacking along, enjoying the view, when suddenly your horse launches itself sideways, leaving your heart thumping, and your nerves trembling. Spooking is one of the main reasons why people do not hack their horses out, but it is possible to help your horse build in confidence and reduce the possibility of spooking.

First though we have to accept that horses are flight creatures. Their survival depends on their ability to flee when in danger, the problem comes that they can’t differentiate between actual danger, for example a lion, and perceived danger for example a crisp packet in a hedge. However, with training, we can help them.

Begin with working with your horse on the ground in a safe environment, such as an arena. Make sure that your horse is listening and responsive to you on the ground. There is no point in expecting him to listen to you when he is scared, if he is incapable of doing so when he feels safe! Start with something small, such a bucket, make sure that your horse will walk quietly past the object at a distance before beginning to move closer towards it. Only once he is happy with this should you begin to increase the difficulty of what you are asking of him.

If there is something in particular that your horse is fearful of on your hack, break this down into small, manageable steps. Does he spook when passing a farm? Are their flapping plastic bags and tractors? Work on each item separately. Begin with a small plastic bag, tied to the fence, again ask him to walk past at a distance. Gradually reduce the distance between the horse and the scary object, always praising him for the correct response. Once you can lead him safely past these objects, change the environment. Set up obstacles in a field and repeat the process in this different location.

Once you are feeling confident in the field, you can progress to leading him on a hack. Again, build up slowly. Don’t head straight off to the most scary hack, but rather build in stages so that you and him can grow in confidence. Only once you can do this should you progress to hacking him out.

If when hacking you become nervous or fearful of something, find somewhere safe to dismount and lead him past. The horse has not won if you dismount. In time he will become more confident, as he watches you walk calmly past, rather than feeling you getting nervous on his back.

Horses are incredibly trusting, they put their faith in us that we will protect them. If he trusts you, he will believe you when you ask him to walk past the scary plastic bag. By carefully putting the building blocks in place and helping him to overcome his fears in small, bite-sized chunks, you can turn your anxiety into enjoyment, and your fear into pleasure. While we cannot control the environment around us, we can work to give us and our horses the tools to help control our responses to whatever we come across.

Nervous? Do more groundwork!

When I remember competing as a child, my primary emotion is one of anxiety. Even now I can feel my heart race, my stomach chewing over on itself, and my mouth sticky with fear. I was a nervous child, an anxious competitor and my horse was bargy on the ground. My anxiety around competitions would kick in the day before, as I contemplated the day ahead. Every part of the day was a source of anxiety from the grooming, the plaiting, the loading, the tacking up, the mounting, to the actual test. Such was the behaviour of my horse that the entire day became a mountain to overcome. My mother would on occasion trail round the show ground until she found a strong man to help with my horse.

As an adult, I now look back on that scenario with slight disbelief. No-one ever suggested that I could improve my horse’s behaviour on the ground, my trainers were focused on my ridden results, my mother simply accepted that that was how the horse behaved, and as a child I didn’t realise that I could strongly influence his behaviour. As an adult, I would take young horses to shows and spend most the day teaching them to stand quietly in the car park, the collecting ring, and only once I had taught them that lesson in however many trips it took, would I ever compete them.

In hindsight, there was so much we could have done. Teaching him to stand at the end of a 12ft line quietly, would probably have massively helped the problem. Or asking an instructor or professional for help. Confidence on the ground would have helped me with my anxiety turning the show days into ones filled with fun rather than panic.

Feeling confident on the ground gives one a “safe place” to return to. If you are scared on the ground as well as while mounted, the only position of safety is when the day is over, and experiencing that level of anxiety for a whole day has a severe impact on your adrenal system. If you are already at the limit of your capabilities for processing your adrenalin, you are then going to struggle when your levels are topped up by standard competition nerves.

By teaching our horses to behave on the ground and by increasing our own confidence on the ground, we build a better foundation for our ridden work. If we are confident on the ground, and we become worried whilst riding, we can always dismount and regain our confidence, but if we are fearful on the ground, how can we expect to be confident on our horse? All good things are built on good foundations, from houses to horses…. make sure the foundations of your relationship with your horse are good, so that you can turn your anxiety into anticipation and your panic into pleasure.

Confidence – it will return…

The rubbish winter is drawing to an end. Winter is hard work. The short day length combined with the erratically changeable weather so common across the United Kingdom, leaves us rushing and struggling. Our horses, usually a source of pleasure, become another daily battle. As the moments when we do manage to ride become less frequent, the enjoyment of riding can diminish.

Most things become better with practise, and confidence is no difference. On the downside, it is easy to fall out of practise if we don’t keep on performing a skill. It only takes 48 hrs to begin losing muscle, so imagine that confidence is similar to a muscle, lack of exercise over the winter can lead to reduced strength, and nerves can flit in and diminish our enjoyment.

However, there are ways to combat our winter nerves. Reduce your expectation, don’t judge your winter riding against your summer riding, the prevailing conditions are so very different, that it is simply an unfair comparison. There are plenty of ways to enjoy spending time with your horse in the winter that don’t involve riding, so if you are battling with your nerves in the winter, why not spend time grooming or massaging your horse, you hopefully will enjoy the opportunity to bond with your horse in an unpressured way.

Remember we are coming out of the winter now and as we start up again be kind to yourself. Don’t expect everything to click back into place straight away. But as the days lengthen and we get to spend more consistent time in the saddle, you will find your confidence will return rapidly. Just like your muscles, it is possible to build your confidence back up again, by simply working it a little bit every day. And just like muscles – your confidence will be strong again.

How horses can be part of the problem…

Horses are wonderful. They can be brilliant for our mental health, giving us a bond without falseness, a language without words, and a chance to find ourselves in the souls of our horses. However, for some people, and in some circumstances, horses can be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Bullying on yards has not gone unreported in the equestrian media, I’m sure we have all witnessed incidents, to a greater or lesser degree. While there are many incredible yards, where you can mix with supportive and helpful peers, there are some that are more problematic. Loneliness and isolation can occur when we are surrounded by people, and indeed to feel lonely in a crowd is a peculiarly sorrowful state.

Feeling that we are on a different path to the others in our yard can leave us feeling inadequate or alone. In an ideal world, we respect the path that others are taking, but sadly in practise this rarely happens. You may enjoy walking your horse out in hand, and derive great pleasure from that bond that you have created. Your neighbour may be fiercely competitive and gain satisfaction from beating other people. It can mar our own pleasure to have scorn poured down on us.

If you are lucky enough to be able to keep your horses at home, or on your own land, you are spared having to deal with the judgement of others. However, you are stuck around the schedule of your horses and may be forced to spend longer periods of time alone than can be healthy. If you are in a good place mentally, being alone can be healing, soothing, restful, and looking after your horses can be rewarding and beneficial. At some points in our lives, however, we may not in the best of states, and those feelings can quickly morph into other less desirable emotions. Being alone can feel lonely and we can begin to feel overwhelmed with the burden of responsibility for our horses.

If you think you are starting to feel isolated in the equine world, there are steps you can take to remedy this. Consider moving yards if that is possibility, though bear in mind that all yards come with their own issues. Find a like-minded friend who you can talk to, be it online, in person. They don’t even need to have a horse, just be supportive and kind. If you are struggling caring for your horses alone, consider asking someone to help. Again, weigh up the pros and cons of this, as inviting someone else into your space can cause other issues.

If you are feeling isolated with your horses, remember that other people feel like you do. Other people feel alone and lost, others feel overwhelmed and drowning in responsibility. Keep searching for these people, for your family, keep talking, keep reaching out. You will find allies in the strangest of places. Horses are meant to be a source of joy, all too often that joy can be lost, but, it can also, be found again.

How to bombproof your horse…

We have all been there. Peacefully hacking along, enjoying the view, when suddenly your horse launches itself sideways, leaving your heart thumping, and your nerves trembling. Spooking is one of the main reasons why people do not hack their horses out, but it is possible to help your horse build in confidence and reduce the possibility of spooking.

First though we have to accept that horses are flight creatures. Their survival depends on their ability to flee when in danger, the problem comes that they can’t differentiate between actual danger, for example a lion, and perceived danger for example a crisp packet in a hedge. However, with training, we can help them.

Begin with working with your horse on the ground in a safe environment, such as an arena. Make sure that your horse is listening and responsive to you on the ground. There is no point in expecting him to listen to you when he is scared, if he is incapable of doing so when he feels safe! Start with something small, such a bucket, make sure that your horse will walk quietly past the object at a distance before beginning to move closer towards it. Only once he is happy with this should you begin to increase the difficulty of what you are asking of him.

If there is something in particular that your horse is fearful of on your hack, break this down into small, manageable steps. Does he spook when passing a farm? Are their flapping plastic bags and tractors? Work on each item separately. Begin with a small plastic bag, tied to the fence, again ask him to walk past at a distance. Gradually reduce the distance between the horse and the scary object, always praising him for the correct response. Once you can lead him safely past these objects, change the environment. Set up obstacles in a field and repeat the process in this different location.

Once you are feeling confident in the field, you can progress to leading him on a hack. Again, build up slowly. Don’t head straight off to the most scary hack, but rather build in stages so that you and him can grow in confidence. Only once you can do this should you progress to hacking him out.

If when hacking you become nervous or fearful of something, find somewhere safe to dismount and lead him past. The horse has not won if you dismount. In time he will become more confident, as he watches you walk calmly past, rather than feeling you getting nervous on his back.

Horses are incredibly trusting, they put their faith in us that we will protect them. If he trusts you, he will believe you when you ask him to walk past the scary plastic bag. By carefully putting the building blocks in place and helping him to overcome his fears in small, bite-sized chunks, you can turn your anxiety into enjoyment, and your fear into pleasure. While we cannot control the environment around us, we can work to give us and our horses the tools to help control our responses to whatever we come across.

Are you having a bad day?

Everyone has a bad day every so often, and then every so often you have a terrible day when you feel like you have slithered all the way down the longest snake on the snakes and ladders board, right back to the bottom…

Sounds familiar? Don’t despair! First take a few deep breaths. When we are anxious we breath more shallowly and take in less oxygen, our brains interpret this a stress and then we become more anxious. So breathe – I know its hard but it really does help, you can do it anywhere, you can do it discretely, its free and you can do it by yourself.

Once you have breathed, tell yourself it is okay to have a bad day. You are not a robot you don’t function the same from day to day, we are affected by the world around us, and our triggers. We are constantly in motion, and evolving.

Remind yourself how far you have come, don’t focus on today, imagine a graph, steadily rising, this is simply a blip, not a trend.

Reduce your expectations for today. So, you had planned with your new found confidence to go on a longer hack by yourself today, but that was going to be a challenge so today is not a good day to do that. Why not lead your horse round that hack instead? Or do some groundwork or give them a massage? This is not failure, it is adjusting to the circumstances, it is sensible.

Be kind, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t say things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else. Look after yourself, chocolate, hot bath, early night, good book, whatever you need.

And then tomorrow, you will wake up and the world will look different, feel different and you will wonder why yesterday seemed so tricky, and then you will carry on with your day…