Sports Psychologists Help Make Horses Fun Again

Jun 22, 2011 - 5:55 PM

I’m from the North, I’m over 50, and I’m Jewish. So it’s a safe bet that I’m more than a little familiar with therapy. Like Woody Allen, except I’m not as funny, not as rich and not married to my 35-year-younger stepchild.

Over the years, I’ve turned to therapy for a variety of issues. There was work. I wasn’t the easiest employee, and I needed guidance in how to deal with the occasional dunderhead editor. The therapist’s most useful tip, which he repeated frequently to my deaf ears, was to choose my battles carefully. It took a long time to realize that not every one of my perfect sentences was worth quitting over. But the ultimate therapy was going freelance where I could be my own dunderhead.

Then there was my first marriage. As my younger son, Sam, said, “Why did you and Dad ever get married? You couldn’t be more opposite.” I should have pondered that one before saying “I do.” I didn’t, and while opposites initially attract, they repel in the long run. No amount of therapy could rescue us. It was like trying to make a high-headed, hot jumper into a looped-rein, kick-quiet hunter. It could be done, I suppose, with the right drugs.

Most recently, a health crisis sent me back to a therapist. There’s only one greater hell than sitting in the ICU wondering if your child will live. He did, but I needed help to get me beyond those horrible memories. The best money I ever spent was learning a hyper-focus technique; a mental pulley rein that yanks my runaway mind out of anxious obsession.

I am a fan of therapy. I believe in it. I know it works on things that can be fixed. So it made sense to turn to the mental experts about getting to the next step in riding. Since I was dumped on my head last August and lost a day, I’ve come further than I expected. I spent the first month not riding, questioning whether I should get back in the saddle. I spent the next two months riding, but doubting my decision. Doubt undermines confidence, which undermines riding ability, which undermines safety. I had to fix it, if I wanted to continue to ride.

I went to a therapist/medicine man in Arizona who somehow rebooted my brain through a combination of acupuncture, chanting, affirmations, massage and hocus-pocus. Whatever he did, I left feeling carbonated, jubilant and as fearless as a 58-year-old female Woody Allen type can ever feel. I came home and started jumping again.

Now, after more than 15 years, I’m back in the show ring thanks to The Doctor of Confidence, aka Woody, Diane Wade’s superhorse. We debuted this spring in the pleasure division at 2 feet. Two feet for a horse who’s gone Indoors? Restoring confidence is about taking baby steps, we all know that. However, there comes a time to lengthen your stride, both metaphorically and literally. Not only was I insulting Woody with these glorified crossrails, but I was holding him for back the adds. A few weeks ago, I knew it was time to move up when I watched the ring crew raise the fences after my division for the next division: small ponies.

So at the next show we did the Special Adults at 2’6” with no adds. This is as high as I want to go. I’ve reached my goal in less than a year.

Danger! Danger! Danger!

You might be wondering why I’m still yammering about therapy. When I was three, I fell while drinking a bottle of Coke. The scar on my chin is as vivid to me as the limbic alert I get when I walk and drink: My heart starts beating fast and I tense up. That was 55 years ago, and my mind is still sending me hysterical Instant Messages to be careful. So what do you think happens when I take a horse out of the ring to the trail where I was hurt just 11 months ago? The part of our brain that controls fear and memory, the amygdala or as I call her, Miz Amy G. Dala, starts waving her arm around like that obnoxious kid in class who always knew the answer.  

I leave the ring and Miz Amy starts flailing her arms, shouting, “Danger! Danger! Danger!” This sends me into high alert: clamped muscles, shallow breathing. You know what that does to the horse. I could stay in the ring for the rest of my life. Or I could figure out a way to get over it. I used to love trail riding. I want to love it again. That involves placating Miz Amy.

The Chronicle Forums often have threads about sports psychologists/therapists. That’s where I started. Two names came up in the most recent thread: Margie Sugarman, whose practice is on Long Island, and Tonya Johnston, whose practice is in Berkley, Calif. Both therapists specialize in riders, and both ride themselves. Fear is fear, so probably anyone skilled in the right techniques could help. But their riding backgrounds eliminate the need to translate, as in, “It’s hard for me to move up for the distances.”

Each offered specific exercises that I found helpful. Tonya, who grew up riding hunter/jumpers and now rides mostly in equitation classes, talked about a checkpoint trigger method. Say your reins always end up too long. Do this: “If you’re flatting on your own,” Tonya said, “you would make markers in the ring for yourself and say a cue word that is a short reminder of the goal. Every time you go past that oxer, you’d say the cue word ‘hand,’ to remind you to shorten your reins.”

The key is repetition to make it habit. “Goals,” she said, “are only as useful as the strategies you have to succeed. You have to put them into action day in and day out.”

I got off the phone with her, saddled Cassie, my OTTB mare, who gets quick when I lean forward. The goal was to keep my shoulders back. I said “shoulders” every time I passed the panel jump. It worked. Now I have to remember to do it every time I ride.

The Power Of Visualization

Most sports psychologists and therapists use visualization. Margie and Tonya consider it to be one of an athlete’s most important tools. Margie developed her visualization techniques more than 20 years ago for a personal reason. She’d been a psychotherapist for terminally ill cancer patients. Riding was her relaxation, and her goal was to get to Madison Square Garden on her mare, Ladybug. But the horse lived in the Carolinas; she lived on Long Island. She’d meet her trainer at shows on the weekend.

“I needed to find a way to practice on her,” Margie said. “In my work, I’d come across articles about research with basketball players to see who performed better, the half of the players who practiced the moves on court or the other half who did visualization imagery. They found that people who practiced in their heads had the opportunity to develop another muscle, the brain. They outperformed the players who practiced on the court. I started developing visualizations, imageries I would do in my head. I’d take the rounds I’d done on Ladybug and I’d perfect them. I would correct any mistake I made by riding it properly in my head.”

Margie not only made it to the Garden on Ladybug, she won an ammy-owner class. She started working with other riders to the point where that is now her speciality. I visualized jumping Woody (easy to do, given his metronomic canter) while waiting patiently to the fence, instead of throwing my body forward. It helped.  

Given how many people post on the Chronicle Forums about being afraid to ride after an accident, I was surprised when Tonya and Margie told me most of their clients come for performance enhancement, not fear.

So while I found their techniques interesting and helpful in the ring, I still had the trail boogeyman to deal with. That’s when I remembered David Yauch, a natural horsemanship trainer out of Culpeper, Va., who has a loyal following on the Virginia Horses list serv. Last year he needed a demo horse to show how he teaches water and tarp crossing. I offered Cassie, who’d recently come from the track. By the end of the demo, this would-be racehorse was calmly kicking a large Yoga ball across the ring, and walking across a blue tarp and a trappy, wide stream. He’d also taught her to swing her butt to the fence (or mounting block) when I raised my hand.

We hunter people can be sniffy about the natural horsemanship types. Some of it’s understandable. I watched one of the big ones perform and sell his wares he when came to the Virginia Horse Center. I felt like I was at a cult rally. As an uninitiated, I couldn’t understand what was going on because they had their own language and level system. People in the crowd were just about saying “Amen,” after every one of his unintelligible sentences. And the marketing was oppressive and ridiculous. Twenty-five bucks for a stick? Really? I have some rocks I want to sell.

Dave speaks English and doesn’t sell training devices. He just trains horses, and as I discovered after two days with him, people. Therapy, I discovered yet again, comes in all forms: Medicine men, psychologists, horse trainers.

Next column: Outsmarting Miz Amy with natural horsemanship techniques.

Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, “Thief of Words,” and “Shenandoah Summer.” She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.

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