Overcoming Negative Experiences – Get Back on the Horse
Overcoming negative experiences is something that challenges anyone – from the boardroom, to the athletic arena, the classroom/recess field (or even the bedroom!).
The saying “once bitten, twice shy” is as true as true could be if you encounter a testing situation. Maybe you flubbed a big meeting or presentation, and wonder if your boss thinks you are newly incompetent. Or you asked out the girl of your dreams only to be rejected – or forcefully put in the “friend zone.” These types of negative or testing situations are a common thread that we can consider throughout our lives. For me, one example of struggling to “get back on the horse” is quite literally finding the courage to get back on an actual horse after the ultimate of negative experiences. Perhaps you’ll relate the psychological effects with a situation that may be blocking or worrying you, too.
Late last year, I was riding in a jump clinic at my stables – on one of my darling favourites, Parker (a rather cantankerous Appaloosa). Parker and I had a solid relationship – we knew quirks and preferences, communicated with sideways glances, and could strike off like nobody’s business. Except, on a fateful day right before Christmas, we approached a jump and I ended up sailing off him mid-air…and crashing to the ground.
All I remember was seeing black. I slowly started to realize that I had landed on my side, completely winded, and deep in the dirt. I could see my instructor standing above me, but it took some time before I could register hearing her voice. Parker did a lap around the arena and made his way over to me before getting led out. I think he knew something was wrong even if he is a cranky beast (and it was absolutely not his fault – accidents happen when you’re not paying attention). I don’t know how long I was down, but it was honest to goodness an eerie feeling of numbness.
After heading to the hospital for a scan of my spine, it was determined that it was sprained and the muscles had gone berserk. Although my first question to the ER doctor was “When will I be clear to ride again?” – I wasn’t buying my bravado. Physiotherapy, Chiropractic, Massage Therapy…those care providers got a lot of my dollars during the healing phase. I would never have imagined that once the physical pain had subsided, the hardest thing to overcome would actually be the fear of being near Parker again.
When you connect with a horse, everything feels magical. Your canters are flawless, your jumps are smooth as silk – everything about your two entities seems to mesh and connect. It is the definition of “in sync.” But when I returned back to ride, even standing in front of Parker was utterly terrifying. I had lost that connection to know what he was thinking and feeling. He seemed like an unpredictable, irritable wildcard to me now, and my instructor wisely took me off his rotation and paired me with “auto” horses to help re-build my confidence.
But the same panic response was occurring with any and all of the horses in the barn. I could feel myself shaking when having to approach them in their stalls, which is setting yourself up for failure. Horses sense fear and a lack of confidence (much like business executives!), so imagine trying to command 1,200lb animal to do anything while you’re shaking in your riding boots. I had to rely on handlers to get them out so I could groom and tack up, yet my heart quivered in my chest with the fear that I would get kicked or bitten or body-checked. When I got in to the arena, doing the simplest of exercises (even with the safe “auto” horses) made me sweat profusely.
Logical Maya: You have to lower your heart rate and breathe so that you project confidence, or else they’re going to bulldoze you. You have done this before. Remember.
Fearful Maya: It’s not listening to me! What do I do if it freaks out?! What if I can’t steer and then I have an accident? Am I going to fall off? It’s really high up here! I just hope it doesn’t step on me if I fall, especially my ribs…
I could imagine this type of fearful inner dialogue might be like coming back from mat leave or something and having to dive back in to something that you KNOW you are good at, but feel disconnected from. Or having to re-approach a client where something has gone awry or contentious. Getting back to doing something that you have been away from or burned by stirs the insecurity within us all, even if you were a rockstar at some point.
As a horsey lady, life without equine love is something I cannot comprehend. What I ended up doing to combat the Fearful Maya dialogue was to take some private lessons so I could focus on myself, and not other riders/horses in the arena. In the wee morning hours, I worked with a couple of fabulous instructors to practise and build my confidence, and started wearing a Kevlar-looking protective vest for my still-busted spine. A gradual progression in overcoming potentially debilitating thoughts – sort of like laddering! But even seeing flat poles on the ground still made my body tense up with fear.
Logical Maya: The horse has no idea that you are terrified of those stripey poles. Just make your way to them and let it do its thing to trot over. They are not elevated for God’s sake. You’re not going airborne.
Fearful Maya: I don’t care that they’re on the ground – I can still see them! What if the horse trips and then I end up back on the ground? I don’t feel steady. I don’t trust those red striped ones. This doesn’t feel safe.
It took quite a few months to be able to regain the comfort level with basic tasks, and to be able to approach flat poles without clenching my body up. But it happened. And earlier this summer, I was able to work up to jumping poles again. I forged that pseudo-psychic bond with another horse, a very forgiving mare who helped me by landing jumps that I may not have been 100% confident in approaching. But working through the loss of control with an animal I trusted was what let me embrace the feeling of flying again.
It took six months, but I was able to inch my way back to Parker – starting with just flatwork, and only recently getting back to jumping. We have been able to overcome the negative experience, even though I occasionally still look like a Robaxacet doll.