Facing Fears: Clinic Focuses On 'Brain Training' For Horse And Rider

Sep 8, 2021 - 7:58 AM

“Ditto.”

That one word summed up why most of us were at a three-day clinic at TuckerBerry Farm in Radiant, Virginia.

It was the end of the first day, after we’d ridden and done ground work in punishing mid-August heat. Now we were sitting around clinic organizer Kate Rakowski’s living room, telling the clinicians—psychotherapist and riding instructor Andrea Waldo and eventing trainer/groundwork specialist Tik Maynard—why we’d come:

“I’m scared of my own shadow when I ride.”

“My confidence is at the bottom now.”

“I’m scared to death when I ride. My heart is my in my throat, and I can’t get past that.”

“I had a very bad accident with my OTTB; it knocked my confidence.”

“My horse spun me off, and I broke a spinous process. Even though he hasn’t spun since, I can’t get that out of my mind.”

There were many more stories like that. Then came the simple “ditto” from a clinic participant who’d come to, if not conquer her fear, at least amass the tools to help her deal with it in a productive manner. In fact, Kate, an eventing trainer, had designed the U.S. Eventing Association-sponsored clinic to address the fears and anxiety she sees in both her students and their horses.

“Looking at it from both sides was my idea,” Kate said. “Psychology for horse and human.”

Early AM session with Andrea
Author Jody Jaffe and Jules in a session with clinician Andrea Waldo that produced multiple “Aha Moments” about how to effectively manage fear. Photos Courtesy of Jody Jaffe

We were a group of 15, ranging in age from 11 to 81. I’m 68, and I’ve wondered whether I’m getting too old to ride. That question was answered by the skill, strength and determination 81-year-old Emily Graeser exhibited as she rode the most difficult horse at the clinic, a fractious Thoroughbred mare who went up as well as forward. The mare had been returned from adoption three times, just to give you an idea of Emily’s riding skills and tenacity.

So, I’m not too old to ride. But I won’t lie: I’m a double ditto, being nervous and being the only hunter rider in a group of eventers or hopeful eventers. There were several moments that weekend when I asked myself why a timid ring rider like myself—who is struggling to get back to the 2’6″ Special Adult division—ever signed up for an eventing clinic.

I have a young and sometimes reactive warmblood in a training program (or, as I like to call it, “juvvy”) with my trainer Heather Weaver of Troutville, Virginia. I ride him in the ring, mostly with other horses. He has never been on a cross-country course. So I was clearly out of my depth on Day Two, alone with my horse—who had grown to the size of the Bullwinkle float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—on an expansive cross-country course. More about that in a moment.

Understanding Fear To Help Diffuse It

That first night, after we’d introduced ourselves, our horses and our fears, clinician Andrea Waldo, whose book, “Brain Training For Riders,” is now my riding bible, gave a detailed and scientific presentation about fear, anxiety and how crazy we horse-addicted are.

“I wrote the book I needed to read,” she said. She’s a USEA-certified riding instructor, developer of the “Stressless Riding” program and a psychotherapist. “If you force positivity, it becomes toxic. If you shove down fear, it’s going to scream louder.”

Andrea’s approach to fear is multi-pronged and complex. If you struggle with fear, do yourself a favor and read her book. It’s a game-changer.

Here are a few of the salient points she made on opening night:

• Our reptilian brain (the amygdala) processes fear. It can’t differentiate between a real or imagined situation. The effect is always the same: a dam-breaking flood of cortisol and adrenaline crashes through your body. Your heart bangs, your breathing goes shallow, and your hearing diminishes.

“That’s why you can’t hear your trainer say, ‘Sit back, sit back, sit back,’ when your horse is bucking across the arena,” Andrea said.

• When scared or anxious, “soup breathe”: Breathe in deeply from the stomach, and exhale like you are blowing on soup.

• Externalize your fear. Give it a name. Andrea calls hers “Little Lizard”; clinic organizer Kate calls her “Tiffany,” after a couple of unpleasant high school acquaintances; I call mine “Amy” (for amygdala). Then tell your Amy or Tiffany that you have a plan to deal with the situation, and tell her what that plan is.

“Fear is a ‘what if?’ ” Andrea said. “We forget to answer that with a solution. So have duct-tape solutions. For me, that’s a lot of small circles and going sideways.”

• Tell your lizard brain there are just some things you can’t control, and you accept that. Repeat it a million times a day because brain training, like horse training, takes repetition.

“Acceptance is not liking it or surrendering,” Andrea said. “But it always starts with acceptance.”

• Learn to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, because that’s where you will learn and grow. “Tell your lizard brain it will suck, and we will be OK,” Andrea said. “That is my version of Suzy Sunshine.”

All great stuff. But my favorite part of the evening was hearing that I’m not the only scaredy cat when it comes to riding, especially since everyone had looked so confident on their horses earlier in the day. Plus, I was sitting in a roomful of eventers. “Eventer” and “fear” had always seemed an oxymoron to me.

Aha Moments: Finding Tools That Work

Day One far exceeded my expectations. Having ridden in several disappointing clinics, I’ve learned to have realistic expectations. I can’t expect a clinician who’s seen me and my horse together for 15 minutes to fix all the problems I’ve been working on for years. I figure if you get one “Aha Moment” from a clinic, it’s worth the price of admission. Anything more is gravy. And there was a lot of gravy at this clinic. I went home with these Aha Moments I’ll be using to improve my partnership with my horse, Jules:

  1. There are many steps in the path to a solution, and they are not always linear or forward.
  2. Horses learn from contrast.
  3. Soup breathe.
  4. Externalize fear. Give it a name and a plan.
  5. Get to feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable but don’t let it spill over into fright.
  6. If your horse goes above a 4 on the anxiety scale of 0-7 (5 being almost too dangerous to ride, 7 being “this horse will kill you”), remove him from the situation. I’m applying this to myself, as well.

Of course, many of these things my trainer Heather has said and re-said to me over the years. But the thing with Aha Moments (aka “epiphanies”) is they are transitory. When they leave, I revert back to my old ways that don’t work, and I forget both the epiphany and the success it had brought. So hearing it again, from different people in different ways, is always valuable.

Success As A Process, Not An End

The youngest participant in the clinic, and the only child, was 11-year-old Ryla Hall, who attended as an early 12th birthday present.

“She’s very committed to becoming an eventer, but she’s very nervous on cross-country,” said her mother, Erin. They had driven more than five hours from their home near Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the clinic.

“I’ve had a couple experiences that have shaken me,” Ryla said. “I was on cross-country, my horse heard a gunshot, and he took off.” Rylan stayed on for a while, but eventually got bucked off. “I don’t have the stickiest seat. And also, my horse gets mad when I get in his mouth when I get nervous, which is always on cross-country.”

Ryla’s goal for the clinic: “If I can let him go on cross-country and actually enjoy myself without getting paralyzed with fear.”

On the first day of the clinic, Ryla had a private session with Tik Maynard—trainer, eventer, ground work maestro, author and most of all, horse psychologist. He’s spent his life studying horse behavior.

“Yes, horses have to do what we ask,” Tik said.“But how can we make something we want to do, something they want to do?

Tik Ryla groundwork
Clinician Tik Maynard used groundwork to help Ryla Hall’s horse, Wizard, gain confidence in approaching unfamiliar obstacles.

”In the last few years, I have changed how I think about cross-country obstacles (and obstacles in general) by not thinking of the obstacle as something so black and white,” he explained. “It is so easy to think of getting over the ditch as success, and not getting over it as failure, which is how I used to think. But now when a horse is scared and won’t approach the ditch, I have a series of steps I go through, and if I don’t get through all the steps, but say half of them, on the first day, I will still leave the ditch feeling successful. Equally importantly, the horse feels good about it as well. We can come back the next day, or the next week, and continue on. With this mindset, I don’t get frustrated anymore when teaching a student with a horse that won’t go over the ditch or into the water. There is less pressure, and more understanding. Both the student and the horse and myself are much happier when we learn about obstacles this way.”

Ryla arrived at her session with Tik astride her horse, a 13-year-old Thoroughbred gelding named Wizard. She gave Tik a brief history of their new partnership, with an emphasis on her cross-country fear and her tendency to grab and pull the reins when she gets nervous. Tik asked Ryla to dismount, and they did groundwork.

“Almost every problem that we have when mounted can be fixed, or at least helped, by doing groundwork,” he said. “We can work on the horse’s ability to learn, rather than to just do. We can work on lowering a horse’s anxiety, which is something that almost always helps. We can work on getting their attention. We can really learn to observe and study the horse: their reactions, their movement, their attention, their expressions, their eye. And I don’t think I can overstate how much safer it usually is as well.”

Using Levels And Contrasts In Pressure

Tik taught Ryla to ask her horse to back up, using a numerical system delineating the pressure she asserted with a dressage whip. Zero was neutral, where she stood in front of her horse but turned to the side. Level 1 was a wave of the whip by the bottom of his rope halter; Level 2, a light tap on the bottom of the halter; Level 3, a not-so-light tap and Level 4, a whack. He had her practice on a trash can to get a feel for how much pressure to apply. Ideally, a horse will back up with pressure at a 1. If not, he said, go back to neutral, take four deep breaths, and try again, first at a Level 1, then at a Level 3. Horses, he said, learn from contrast.

“If you keep doing a 2, 2, 2,” he said, “they will tune you out.”

There were also group lessons with Tik on Day 1 of the clinic. I rode in the last group of five. I’d already had a ground-work lesson with Tik that morning, which proved to be invaluable for my later ride. My horse can be reactive in new situations or unexpected events, but even when a big storm blew by, along with a few chairs, Jules remained rideable.

For our riding session, we walked and trotted over a series of four poles, which lead to a cantering exercise of two sets of bounce poles with 60 feet, or five strides, between the sets. The second set was downhill, and Jules got a little strong, doing 4 1/2 strides. Tik told me to use stronger aids to slow him down to fit in the five. Again, horses learn from contrast. I’d been asking him to slow down with Level 2 pressure. Tik said to go from a 1 to a 3. That worked.

Tik Levels of pressure
In a backing-up exercise, Maynard first had Jaffe practice how to use the dressage whip on a garbage can lid, using a pressure scale from zero to 4.

Then Tik added a tight turn to the skinniest jump I’ve ever seen, something neither of us has done. It didn’t faze Jules, who couldn’t have been better throughout the lesson, which had started inauspiciously with the aforementioned flying chairs. He was in a strange ring, there was a lot of commotion with participants and auditors setting up chairs all around, cows in a nearby field, etc. He was not only Steady Eddie, but when he did give a hairy eye to a new set of onlookers in a previously empty corner, I used my legs to ask him to ask him to move forward and pay attention to me, which he did obligingly. I could feel my confidence growing. My clinic goal was much like Ryla’s: To not be scared when I ride Jules and actually have fun. Mission accomplished on Day 1.

Progress Isn’t Always Linear

There’s a harrowing scene in a William Goldman novel where a father rescues his child after a wave snatches her into the ocean. Just as the reader catches her breath, thinking the kid is OK, another wave comes crashing back and grabs the kid. Day 2: And then the wave came back at me.

But this time, I had new fear-management tools acquired from the night before. I could recognize what was happening with my body: pounding heart, shallow breath, diminished hearing. I was in full flight mode.

And that was before I even left the hotel.

I was imagining myself on Jules, anticipating our first time in a wide-open cross-country field with scary, boogeyman jumps all around us. And we were scheduled to ride that morning with a horse who had exploded the day before. This was an exquisite example of my lizard brain not being able to differentiate between a real or imagined event. “Amy” (remember her, my lizard brain, my amygdala?) sprung open my cortisol floodgates. So I used the tools I’d learned: Soup breathe. Externalize the fear. Give it a name and a plan.

“Amy,” I said to myself. “We won’t have to ride with that horse. In fact, we don’t have to ride at all if the situation doesn’t feel reasonably safe.” (That harkens to an Aha Moment I didn’t mention: Allow yourself an exit strategy without shame.) “My plan is to call Kate and express my concern. She will fix it.”

My breathing returned to normal, as did my heartbeat. Kate called back, said I would ride alone; the other horse would not be nearby. Amy sulked back to her room in my head. Until … I arrived at the cross-country course and led my horse down—alone—to a vast, open field with a gazillion scary jumps. Jules expanded like a dried sponge that had just been dipped in water.

Amy once again seized the reins in my head. Was Jules picking up on my fear, or was he scared himself? Irrelevant question at that point.

I soup breathed, told Amy my plan and allowed myself an exit strategy with no shame: I handed Jules to Tik. Win/win. My fear disappeared, and my horse got a superb training ride by a confident, kind and educated rider who showed my boy the ropes with something he’s never done, something that raised his anxiety level beyond my comfort level. I watched in awe as Tik rode him, reassured him and galloped him around the entire course, past all the scary jumps like he’d been doing it every day of his life. Yes, I was sad and disappointed that I didn’t get to ride him. But making smarter, safer horse decisions is something I’ve been working on. And this was a smarter, safer decision, as confirmed by Tik.

Using The Tools, Making The Plan

Thankfully, Day 3 brought me back to the success of Day 1. I had a private session with Andrea in the ring. This time, we were alone in a strange ring. I was preparing to employ Andrea’s favorite duct-tape fixes: small circles and going sideways. I didn’t need to. Jules was relaxed because I’d not only done some groundwork, but I knew I had tools and a plan. It also was affirming to hear Andrea compliment my riding. She said my arms were relaxed, which kept him relaxed, and I had a good leg position. As a teacher myself, I know a key component to instilling confidence is positive reinforcement from the educator. We did leg yields, spiraling circles at the walk, trot and canter and jumped a few small jumps.

And not one peep from loudmouth Amy. That said, I know she hasn’t retired and surely her smug little face will pop up again in my head. But now I have the tools to deal with her.

As for Ryla and her horse?

“It was the best clinic I’ve ever been to,” she told me over the phone the next day. “I worked a lot on anxiety, and I still have lot more to work on about how to get comfortable on cross-country. I learned how to prepare ahead of time for my horse, because I have to be my calmest self so he can be his calmest self. He bases his emotions on mine. So, I will be taking a lot of deep breaths. And I’ll do the things with him that make me bored before moving onto the next step. I learned to push myself a little out of my comfort zone, but no so far that I’m panicking, because then I can’t learn anything.”

Ryla and Wizard
Ryla learned tools to help her tackle cross-country more confidently with Wizard.

Ryla and I both suffered what her mother called “hiccups” on cross-country day. But for both of us, it ended on a positive note.

“I was pretty nervous (on the cross-country course), and he was expecting me to pull on his face, so he reacted. But I got to the point where I was comfortable trotting around the field and jumped a few jumps. Even though it didn’t go the exact way I wanted it to, it was better than any schooling than I’ve done before.”


Jody Jaffe is the author of Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and In Colt Blood,” featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. As a journalist, she was on the Charlotte Observer team that won the Pulitzer Prize, and her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Washingtonian. She lives on a farm south of Lexington, Virginia, with her husband, John Muncie, and too many horses.

 

 

 

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