31 May 2010

Eventers are Fearless. Or are We?

As eventers we take pride in being brave and fearless. It’s what we demand of ourselves as well as of our equine counterparts.  But are we always fearless? Do we need to be? What happens when anxiety creeps in?  Our guest today is Jeanne Lambrecht, a psychologist, who works with equestrians to not only achieve peak performance at home and at competitions, but also to deal with fear and anxiety.  Let’s call it the big, bad wolf, of eventing. No one’s talking about it: but we are at Three Days Three Ways!  We begin today with the prevalence of fear, the shape it takes, and how it effects us as eventers. Dig in.

Q. I want to start with fear.  How much do you think it happens in riding versus how much it’s talked about? How prevalent is it?

A. I think it’s a huge issue. It’s part of a lot of rider’s lives.  I’d go so far as to say part of the majority of rider’s lives. The big reason it doesn’t get talked about is there’s a lot of shame that’s associated with experiencing fear of a horse whether it’s cantering, jumping, falling, other people thinking you’re a terrible rider. All of those things come into play. Shame because depending on what discipline there’s a culture that you’re supposed to pull your bootstraps up and get back on the horse that threw you. Cowgirl up! Shove it down and not feel it.  That doesn’t work of course. And because that doesn’t work people think they’re deficient. But they’re not. Culturally that was never gonna work as a strategy, to pretend the fear doesn’t happen.  There’s not a lot of great information about overcoming concerns and I know a lot of it is experienced and felt but not talked about.

Q. Is it particular challenge in eventing?

A. There are different cultures depending on the discipline.  I’ve noticed different personality profiles associated with different disciples and different levels of disciplines.  I wouldn’t say it’s a particular thing for eventers but I definitely do think that there is a lot of almost this gung-ho, adventurous, almost Indiana Jones mentality that goes with eventers. They’re a courageous, adventurous, and high-energy bunch and. A group of risk-takers. Certainly the culture of eventing would encourage risk-taking and adventuring and taking chances and testing your limits.  So I would say that there’s this idea of being courageous being promoted but wouldn’t say I’ve observed that within this culture that it would support shame as I would see in other disciplines.  I don’t see that quite as much. It’s not as bad among eventers for whatever reason.  But it’s still there and I still know coaches who yell at people for being afraid.

Q. What kinds of fears do you hear about with your work?

A. I would say most of the time it’s the same set of concerns that I hear over and over. Although when people first come to me they fall into general categories but when I look into their own history with a horse and the culture within the barn I can fine-tune it. For example—some common ones are fear of falling, jumping, getting injured, fear of the horse doing something unexpected (rearing, bucking refusing), fear of embarrassment that others will think you’re not a good rider or considering you cowardly. That’s a big concern. Fear of never being good enough for their horse, or to do the sport they want. Fear of ever being able to ride comfortably.

But then when you look deeper that’s when you find more refined questions like the fear of a horse doing something when they mount because they had an accident when they mounted once. Or it’s specific to a horse or behavior.  Barn culture and a person’s history with issues comes into play quite a lot much more than people realize.

Q. Are their fears that are specific to eventers?

A.  The most common fear with eventers is the fear of falling because there’s so much business of jumping. Part of the two days of the three things you guys do. Fear of falling a big one for eventers. Fear of the horse doing something unexpected because again so many thing eventers do leave room for a horse to do something potentially scary or injure them.  The third biggest one (though a lot occur at the same time) is the fear of other people not thinking they’re good enough.  The fear of embarrassment I guess I should say.  There is a lot of self-consciousness among eventers and peers, which is really unfortunate because it impacts the enjoyment with you horse and your ability to perform with your horse.  It becomes preoccupying to some degree and creates anxiety, which feeds back to the horse, and then you do have legitimate problems.

Q. How does this effect riding?

A. Well, first of all every single person and every partnership is individualized so I don’t love globalizing. Particularly with self-consciousness.  It impacts a lot but impacts each person differently. Even in training since most riders train around other riders. Your horse picks up everything you feel and experience whether you’re aware of it or connected to it they’re aware of it and read it.  Depending on the partnership you have you’re gonna get different kinds of reactions as a result. If you have anxiety for whatever reason it’s going to interfere with your ability to communicate and get the best performance out of your horse. For example, if you have a relationship where your horse looks to you as leader and your horse experiences tension from you it’s going to become distracted and have difficulty receiving your signals and relaxing and do what’s it’s capable of doing athletically and mentally because you’re telling it to be anxious because its leader anxious.  Your horse is not going to be able to hear you as clearly if you’re not relaxed and you’re giving it a reason to be concerned. They’re especially aware of signals of threat. So it’s not good for anybody.  It’s not just competition it’s in training as well. Even building up to getting to where you need to go before you even get to competition can impact it negatively.

Say you have, hypothetically, a person with a fear of the horse spooking, particularly on trail riders. The horse had one time jumped to the side unexpectedly.  After that the person thought the horse was spooky so put the horse in that category.  The fear about trail riding and the fear of horse then rearing and spooking (even though it didn’t rear) might come on. And then feeling guilty that they let the horse down since they weren’t paying attention, which is why they came off.  Now the relationship isn’t the same with all this stuff that’s out there.

The thing is in all likelihood that moment was that moment for that horse. But that moment wasn’t just that moment for that rider so the rider changed their way of engaging with the horse and had negative feelings and when they would go on trail rides were anxious and communicated it.  So the horse became more reactive when on trail rides because their rider is acting strangely and they don’t like it when we act strangely. They‘re very aware of us. As much as we pay attention to their behavior they pay way more attention to us so when we act weird they know it. My horses could write the book on me, they know everything and not all of it’s good and some of it embarrassing!  But they spend lots of energy observing us because we’re the major feature in their life. We have to recognize that and become self-aware. Whether you’re aware of it or not they’re picking up what you’re communicating.

Thanks for exploring this topic with me. It’s something that’s little discussed but occurs often.  Check back for part II and more on how to handle fear, finding resources, and Jeanne’s own equine (and canine) family.  If you just can’t wait for part II to hear more from Jeanne you can find more from her up on her website, her blog, Barn Mice or The Equine Journal. Thanks to Jeanne for all the photos in this interview!

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2 Comments on “Eventers are Fearless. Or are We?”

  1. Courtney, great post! This is an interesting topic that I think everyone in eventing faces at some point or other. I am just coming off a 10 year hiatus from eventing and have a new 5 year old OTTB I’m bringing along…and am so excited to get back into it!

    By the way, I love your blog – you do a great job with it, and I love the diverse interviews. Keep up the great work!


  2. Thank you for delving into this often unspoken topic. In my past eventing days, I started getting afraid before cross-country when I moved up to Training – the whole time I was walking the course, I would be busy trying not to think about what might go wrong. But because I was a teenager and one of the most advanced students at my barn, I don’t think any of my friends ever imagined how freaked out I was – nor would I ever have told them.

    I’ve been pretty grateful to Linda Parelli for making fear and confidence such an open topic. Lots of people give Parelli grief for their discussions on fear, but I’ve met a lot of people in all different disciplines that are afraid – whether they admit it or not. I’ve never been “afraid of my horse,” but learning to think about fear and confidence as part of my horsemanship has helped me reach a much higher level of confidence.

    ~Sarah from Parelli


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