And off we go with Part II with psychologist Jeanne Lambrecht and her insight into fear…and what to do about it. Plus, her moving story of how she got where she is today and the inside scoop on her own herd of happy horses. We’ll end with resources to take us on our merry way.
Q. How do you approach a specific issue with a rider?
A. When I look at an issue, any issue between horse and rider, several domains get lots of info. That horse and that horse’s history, their training, the history of the issue, is there a history of doing it with other riders? Then go to rider: their training, background, how do they describe their relationship with their horse? Where do they ride? What is the culture like where they ride? If they have a coach what is their relationship like? Is there an actual problem? Do they have it in other places in life? Most of the time they transcend.
The challenge when being objective about ourselves is that no one is objective of themselves. It’s impossible; we’re too close to the subject. When you’re so close there’s things you’re gonna miss. It’s helpful if you have someone outside of yourself who can understand and relate but that is still able to be objective and is able to give you feedback in terms of helping you solve problems.
If you’re really talking about fear we know natural things are fight or flight. People like to avoid. That’s why dealing with fear is not a great do-it-yourself project. The natural thing to want to do is to avoid. But the thing is everything you avoid reinforces the fear. It’s not neutral; it strengthens the fear. That’s pretty damaging. Another mistake when try to do it on your own is that we throw ourselves into the deep end of the pool or others encourage that. When you’re trying to desensitize yourself it’s much better to take baby steps to help you be successful than to take major strides which often fail and leave you feeling more helpless. What do you do when you realize you’re doing this? You can think what’s my deal? Why am I afraid of this? Sometimes in breaking it down it’s not such a big issue but something you’ve been reacting to. On the other hand there are tons of strategies to teach people, before they even get into the situation and feed this stuff to their horse, about preparing mentally with strategies to bring themselves back to their comfort zone and ease so therefore they’re not communicating information that they’re not intending to communicate to their horse or that’s not helpful.
Q. So sometimes we all get nervous. A herd of hourses comes galloping across a field and my mare starts snorting and backing up. That might make me a little nervous. Is there a difference in that kind of fear and something more extreme?
Jeanne’s own thundering herd.
A. There’s a point I like to make and that is that fear is signal. We understand that to some degree. If we’re going to be harmed it’s a signal for that but it’s also signal of growth. When you’re doing something that is pushing your boundaries or about to, in a good way, you experience fear. A lot of us know that first time we tried something new, the first job interview. A job interview is not life threatening and you’re not currently being injured but people experience fear because it’s a signal that it’s new, that we’re stepping out of our comfort zone. Whenever I try something new or am putting myself out there I’ll experience fear but what I learn to recognize is that there’s difference between those fears. I recognize when fear is about harm and threat and when it’s about growth. And what’s helpful is to be able to go, okay I’m experiencing fear but this is a badge of honor because this means I’m doing something that is making me grow. I love trying new sports but when I’m learning it I feel anxiety. But then I recognize it’s because I’m trying something new and I don’t know what I’m doing and that’s great. Stop and think. What is this a signal of?
Q. How did you get into this field?
A. Well I’ve been riding since I was a little girl. Horses have always been a major passion for me and they’ve always brought something out in me that nothing else did. And so the horses have always been this consistent thread in my life and always part of my life to different degrees. That said from the time I was a teenager I knew I wanted to be a psychologist. Even before then I think I knew where my strengths were to some extent and that that was what I was meant to be and that would be my role in life. So I had these two twin passions and I don’t think I ever realized they would ever integrate. It was always important I would have both: the ability to understand and connect to other human beings and also have the presence of horses in my life. It’s not about riding at all; it’s about being with them. Riding is such a small part of it. When I’m having a hard time and no mater how stressed or sad or frustrated I could always go and spend time with a horse and those feelings evaporate. That’s partly because they require you to be so present because their nature is so present and with you in the moment that I think they pull me out of myself and ask me to be. That’s a very good message and an important one for someone who is so about doing. They bring me this sense of peace and so I think I was always interested in the dynamic of connection, especially because it’s a challenge to understand your horse and how horses experience the word.
I understood humans very well so had to work to expand my understanding so I could understand my horses. That was a difficult journey for me. But then a few years ago I was injured in non-horse accident and as result I had to have time way from horses and riding to recover and in part of my recovery I started to experience fear. I had a better connection to my own vulnerability and was very much afraid it would take riding away from me because I was very much afraid of falling. I was committed to not losing horses as part of my life. So I looked at the resources available for people like me and there were some but they weren’t terribly helpful. So I had to work together with some people that cared about me that were wise to the dynamic of riding but then also of me and fear and how I worked. We worked together to be able to transcend that. I should say that with asterisk. It doesn’t mean I don’t experience fear with horses because I do but I think what’s different is I know I can do with it takes to make those experiences fewer and far between and not debilitating.
It was out of that experience that helped me to see a marriage between two parts of my life: interest in people and a love of horses and understanding a connection between horse and rider. It brought those things together in a very different way.
One of Jeanne’s pooches, Rocky.
Q. Can you tell me about your horses?
A. I can! Valentine was the first horse ever that was mine on my own. Given the course of my life I got him way later than I would have wanted him. I pretty much wanted him at four but I didn’t get him until I was in my early thirties. Valentine is an off-the-track thoroughbred. He raced for quite some time, seven or eight years until he was eight, which is pretty old for a racehorse. He liked his job as a racehorse; he has a legitimate love of his own power. He loves the feeling of galloping; I can tell that it brings him joy and that makes me happy to know that he liked that part of his life.
He’s 16 hands and bay. A blood bay, real red. He’s got a beautiful face and soft eyes. His face looks like Man O War’s face. Which I found out when I went to Lexington and saw statue and went oh my gosh he looks just like Valentine! And in fact he’s a descendent of Man O’ War’s.
Above: Man O’ War. (Image via Standing in The Gap)
Valentine stretched me as a rider because he does require an advanced rider and I definitely wasn’t when I got him. He has things he needs to feel comfortable: Balance, very clear, gentle signals, and needs to know you are his leader and you are a confident leader. Those were all major areas that I had to work on! I can pretty much guarantee you that I wouldn’t be nearly as good as rider if I hadn’t gotten Valentine. He forced my education. He would tell me I was riding poorly. He’s tough to understand because he’s very dominant but very friendly. It’s important for him to connect but needs you to be in charge, but a calm in charge not loud, bossy in charge. If he doesn’t get confidence from me then he feels need to be in charge. But he’ not comfortable with that. He made me grow in so many ways. I’m grateful for the education as hard won as it was.
Then I have Hopscotch a five year old, red roan paint horse who’s 15.3 hands. As much as it took me reach to understand Valentine and figure out, Hopscotch and I fit like a glove. That relationship is so easy since he’s such a counter part. I can be as high strung and energetic and hot as I want to be and he’s so low-key and cool headed and solid that I will never have fear of over response from him. He’s very friendly and lovely, almost like golden retriever. If he could I’m sure he would come into the living room and curl up on the couch and watch TV with me. He’s a super duper western horse who made me further refine my western riding and made me understand it more deeply and look into western culture. He was bred to be a show horse and I probably will show him just for fun. The one thing I value most about him is his calmness. He’s not dull, just sort of serene.
Then I have Phoenix and he is a twenty-three year-old polo pony. He knows the game incredibly well. He loves polo and so likes it when we practice. You can tell, I swear, that he’s a fan of the game. Cause that’s when he’s the happiest. He’ll tell us when we do well and make it very clear when we have not done such a good job. He’s like, “Oh brother, that was kind of lame” because he’s so uninspired. But when we hit it well he gets so happy and chases that ball! He’s a genius. He likes to untie things, open gates, and we pay extra attention to where his stall is and what’s around it since he can break out and go get hay or whatever. We actually create toys for him and will ties knots on lead lines on the fence line to untie because it makes him happy. So he’s brilliant. There’s no question he can outfox us. The fact that he cooperates with you is out of his sheer goodwill-it’s not because he has to.
Guinness is a 16 hand bay thoroughbred retired racehorse. He’s a grandson of Secretariat but didn’t race much. He’s ridiculously talented and would be the most amazing dressage horse. Its not that I don’t do my version of dressage with him! He would also be a stellar eventer. It takes so very little asking to have him to do movements and he does them flawlessly. He’s very contemplative and likes to think a lot and so the more complicated the question the happier he is. He’s very confident and almost arrogant! He’s really curious, which I love, and if we’re taking photos and they’re out in the pasture at liberty he’ll always get in on the photos because he wants to. I have more pictures with him because he always wants into it. Guinness has challenged me in that he’s very dominant and requires me to be leader but a very serious leader. With Valentine I’m the calm leader. I show him much more leadership on ground than with other horses. You give him an inch and he takes a mile. The irony is that even though he’s such an issue on ground when you’re on his back he practically goes, “Well, how can I help you?”
Q. Is it different to work with an upper level professional than an amateur rider?
A. Fist of all I do think people’s issues go beyond fear. Sometimes there’s focus. Being able to have the optimal mindset for competition and training. I would say one thing that is different for amateurs versus professionals, and one thing that has impressed me about event riders in particular, is their understanding and connection to their mindset and dynamic, how they function and how it impacts them. They have this awareness of themselves and they know how to ground themselves and focus and orient themselves where need to be. They have much more psychological awareness than the amateur. They understand how their mindset impacts their work with their horses much more. Whereas amateurs tend to be much less connected and self-aware. These are broad strokes.
I see sublimation, pretending something isn’t an issue, more at the lower levels. There’s a fear of injury in both groups; much less concern about other people at higher levels. Much, much, much less. There’s much more focus on how am I performing and am I going to perform my best. More concentration on the optimal mindset for performance and training and working on that and almost trying to fine-tune it to some degree. Those are, again, painting with a broad-brush stroke but it’s almost like overall they understand the importance of it because they’ve been doing it and it’s so central in their lives. Because the stakes are higher they’re not given the luxury of pretending it’s not an issue. As opposed to the recreational eventer who doesn’t have sponsors or everyone breathing down your neck.
Q. And if we want a little more help where can we go to get more information?
A. You can go to my website and I also contribute to different magazines like Horse South magazine. I will be posting more general resources in the coming months and am working on projects to release more information.
Q. Anything you want to add?
A. I’m looking at the optimal mindset and stuff not just about fear. There are other sports in which you can get by with fear and still be able to perform okay. With horses you can’t because they know you’re deal and you can’t get away with it.
Thanks for reading, Team. I’m glad we could bring up such an important, and little discussed topic. Let us all know what you thought of Jeanne’s perspective of fear and peak performance and your own experiences with both. Chime on in! Thanks again to Jeanne for talking with all of us about this little-discussed issue and for all of the photos throughout both interviews. Remember, you can also find her on Barn Mice!