Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting to Editor Kate about coaching and performance psychology. We touched on some issues that Kate and Archie faced and looked at different approaches and strategies that are helpful to all equestrians.
What is Coaching?
Coaching is a non-directive process where the coach recognises each individual as an expert in their own lives and helps them take a helicopter view of their situation. Coaching is the facilitation of learning and development with the purpose of improving performance and effectiveness (Pelham, 2016).
This is particularly useful to equestrians when we work with a sentient creature such as the horse, who communicates in a way that is distinctly to our own communication style so that we can naturally encounter challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome.
What do we need to be successful?
In developing any skill, we need to focus on both skillset and mindset development. When it comes to equestrianism, when we develop our skillset and mindset simultaneously, we are engaging the ultimate success strategy. With horses, we have to feel safe in order to have fun, and a feeling of safety requires both the correct skillset and mindset.
Engaging with horses is high risk, and as equestrians, we always attempt to minimise risk. So many of us have experienced bumps along the road, and we can be left with traumatic residue that can undermine our sense of safety and capacity for enjoyment. Old methods of blowing through our feelings are outdated and unhelpful.
We need to be open and honest about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs, but we need a supportive team around us to be able to do this. Support is a huge key to success. I was so lucky in my own horsemanship journey to have had the support of my partner, my mother (who, fortunately for me, happens to be a psychotherapist) and two amazing instructors, Chris and Sarah Brady - three-star Parelli Professionals, as well as a host of amazing horsey friends that were always cheering me on.
Furthermore, Kate identified her own support systems and how she uses them to best affect with Archie. One such strategy included going hacking with a supportive and knowledgeable friend. It can be a very useful and helpful activity to note and acknowledge the supports that we have available to us.
We need a supportive team for both ourselves and our horses. It is also our duty to our horses to support them by not putting them in dangerous situations and assist them when they are challenged by an environment or situation. This positive psychology approach of focusing on our strengths reduces our feelings of hopelessness and gives us a greater sense of optimism (Seligman, 2013).
The Brain Element
The aim of the human brain is to keep us alive, to ensure we survive. This understanding alone helps us to view the brain as a protective device, not something that is attempting to sabotage our goals, hopes and dreams.
A narrative I regularly hear from my fellow equestrians is that when they were a child, they were so free and natural with their horses and ponies and would desperately love to return to that time. Two issues exist with such a narrative; firstly, due to the passage of time, we are often fantastical about the past and how wonderful it was, and often the facts of the situation can be skewed or altered. Many wonderful times were had with the horses and ponies of our youth, but I certainly know in my own case that there were bumps, bruises and many a tear shed along the way too. Secondly, our brain is rapidly changing and developing from childhood into late adolescence, extending up to the late twenties. Brain integration ceases in the mid to late twenties, but our brains continue to change and develop throughout life.
Prior to full brain integration, the pre-frontal cortex is not fully operational. The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for executive function, which incorporates skills such as forecasting, observing cause and effect and, most importantly, risk assessment (Jensen & Ellis Nutt, 2015). This lack of integration is often responsible for the poor decision-making we observe in children and adolescents. In our fully integrated adult brain, we can see danger more acutely, and due to our inbuilt negativity bias, as humans, this can create feelings of caution and trepidation when it comes to engaging with our equine partners. I have found in my own practice that when people understand this, it has the ability to remove deficit thinking - we cannot go back to our childhood with horses, but it also means we are often more safety conscious and make better decisions.
Furthermore, when we are children, our limbic system (the emotional centre) is very easily activated, and the feelings we experience are very intense. Therefore, when we felt joy as a child, it was of euphoric proportions, further contributing to our fantastical narrative of our childhood pursuits (Jensen & Ellis Nutt, 2015).
Our brain's amygdala is also constantly scanning for threats and environmental changes that may jeopardise our safety, much like what Kate described in the interview about her experience meeting some geese on her trail ride (Foran, 2017). Our brain does a wonderful job of supporting our safety; we then need to either reason with our brain and inform it that the situation is not an actual threat or pay heed to the warning and re-establish our safety by pausing or retreating. It is also worth noting that speed and anxiety go together, so when in doubt, slow down (Seligman, 2013).
Our brain chemistry also has the ability to distance us from our goals. When cortisol (a stress hormone) rises in the body, our brain actively seeks to take us away from that which is causing us stress. This can mean that even when we think of certain goals we want to achieve with our horses, we can instantly find ourselves drawn away from them.
This point was demonstrated through Kate's post-cross-country course session, where Kate made her goals smaller and more attainable. Kate decided to work with Archie in the school and re-establish confidence and connection before proceeding with her goal to return to the cross-country course. Reducing our goal temporarily can lessen our brain's perceived threat level and allow us to re-engage with our goals in a fragmented but progressive way.
Our brain believes what we repeatedly tell it, regardless of whether it is correct or incorrect. From an NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) perspective, our brains are like computers that are constantly being updated with software via our thoughts and beliefs. If we think or say something enough, it becomes a part of our belief system. Imagining your brain as a computer and you as the programmer is a helpful way to demonstrate that you need to be incredibly mindful of what you tell your brain.
In an equestrian context, this happens regularly when we have had a bad ride or session with our horses; we replay each component over and over; in contrast, we do this a lot less with our positive equestrian experiences. A good or bad session can be multiplied very quickly by the times we replay these scenarios in our heads. This multiplier effect is worth considering as a strategy in both positive and negative terms.
Self-Talk and Disputation
When we tune into our self-talk, we are often surprised by the amount of negative self-talk we participate in. Negative self-talk can erode our confidence and dash our chances of achieving our goals. When we catch these thoughts in motion, we need to acknowledge them and dispute their validity. Thoughts such as 'I am useless with my horses; this will never work out’ need to be framed with thoughts such as 'I am doing my best in a challenging situation, and I am learning'. We need to become our own bouncer and not allow such thought to infiltrate our impressionable brain.
It is also worth remembering that all thoughts and feelings are only temporary and will pass in time; this can be deeply reassuring when you are struggling with a horsemanship challenge (Brach, 2019).
For deep-rooted traumas and more complex trauma, I often refer clients to my mother, Eilish, for EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) therapy, a therapy for post-traumatic stress that assists participants in remembering trauma but not being reactivated by it. Having had EMDR therapy, I would highly recommend it and feel it is a really underused therapy in the equestrian sphere.
Our success with horses is so dependent on our self-awareness and compassion for ourselves; so much can be achieved based on those two pillars of personal development. Understanding the physiological and biological systems within the body helps us to understand and normalise our experiences as equestrians. Horsepower is both alluring and daunting all in the one, and we must be compassionate to ourselves as we navigate our equestrian experiences.
Brach, T. (2019) ‘Radical Compassion’, Ebury Publishing. London.
Foran, C., (2017) ‘Owning It’, Hachette Books. Dublin.
Jensen, F.E., & Ellis, Nutt, A., (2015) ‘The Teenage Brain’, Harper Thorsons. London.
Pelham, G. (2016) ‘The Coaching Relationship in Practice’, Sage. London.
Seligman, M., (2013) ‘Flourish’, Atria. New York.