Friday, May. 24, 2024

Recognizing Riding-Related Anxiety (And How To Fix It)

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We ride and show our horses because we love them. We love the sport, riding and being part of the horse community. However, anxiety can take away much of this joy and limit the pursuit of our passions and goals. I can’t tell you how many equestrians I know who want to show but never do because of their discomfort riding in front of others and fears of being judged negatively by peers.

Similarly, many riders hold themselves to unrealistically high standards and compare themselves negatively with others, leading them to feel inferior. As a result, they’re reluctant to put in the many hours it takes to improve in this sport. Others avoid riding their horses entirely due to concerns about getting injured. Many riders with such concerns settle for watching their trainers ride and develop their beloved mounts, even though they desperately want to feel comfortable enough to ride themselves.

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Some degree of anxiety is normal. It becomes a problem when it causes significant distress or interferes with your ability to engage activities you need or enjoy doing—like riding or showing your horse. Mollie Bailey Photo

I’ve been riding since childhood and engaged in serious training and competition in dressage for 20 years. I’ve been a practicing clinical psychologist for 30 years, specializing in anxiety problems for most of that time. I assess and treat individuals—including equestrians and athletes, professional and amateur—whose anxiety is severe enough to have a negative impact on their lives and/or create unmanageable distress.

In this first part of a two-part series, I discuss what anxiety is, the kinds of thinking errors that can cause anxiety, and the role of avoidance and safety behaviors in equestrian-related anxiety. Part 2 will cover treatment for equestrian-related anxiety.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response when we find ourselves in situations that truly threaten our safety. Your anxiety keeps you safe; it allows you to flee a dangerous situation, without taking the time to think, and helps you respond quickly to emergencies. A low level of anxiety can even enhance performance on certain tasks and motivate you to get stuff done.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it causes significant distress or interferes with your ability to engage in desired or necessary activities. An estimated 30% of people worldwide suffer from some form of anxiety in their lifetime. It is widely known that anxiety problems run in families.

Anxiety problems are often missed or misunderstood by clinicians. Sometimes they are obvious, but often they’re not. For example, perfectionism is common among elite athletes, A-plus students and the like. You have to hold yourself to high standards to reach the top level of competition or academic achievement; however, that can turn into perfectionism if you start to fear making mistakes, not meeting your potential or losing your standing. Individuals can’t meet the unrealistic standards to which they hold themselves, and therefore they feel chronically inadequate.

In equestrian sports, you’ve got to deal with two beings—horse and rider—which multiplies the possibility of missteps and mistakes. It’s easy to get stuck in the fear of making errors, but this invariably has a negative effect on performance.

Thinking Errors

What is actually going on when you experience anxiety, even when nothing bad has happened?

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In simple terms, anxiety tends to result when you overestimate the likelihood of a negative feared outcome. Thoughts exert tremendous power, and we humans make many thinking errors without realizing it. Predicting the future is one such error. No one can accurately predict a future outcome, but individuals with anxiety issues think they can do just that. Other common thinking errors associated with anxiety include believing you can know what others think about you, and completely ignoring the likelihood that a positive outcome is just as possible as feared negative ones.

When you predict an extreme negative outcome, your brain believes what you tell it and reacts accordingly. It signals appropriate brain structures (specifically, the amygdala) to prepare you to cope with the negative outcomes. The amygdala is part of your limbic system and is responsible for processing fear and other emotions. When you call it to attention, you will feel varying degrees of physiological (e.g., rapid heart rate, shaking, light headedness, nausea, sweating) and cognitive (e.g., feelings of impending doom, loss of control, of anxiety, discomfort) symptoms of anxiety. You’re not trying to activate your amygdala, but this is what happens.

When your amygdala quiets down again, you can more easily see that your fears are either irrational or exaggerated relative to the situation. Knowing this, however, doesn’t prevent you from repeating this scenario over and over again. I’m quite sure you, your coach, or others have tried to help you reason away your anxiety. You probably do see reason, but just can’t stop the cycle. This is the nature of anxiety.

Here is an example you may relate to: Say a rider is warming up at a show, feeling a bit anxious. Their thoughts may automatically go to extremely negative scenarios: “I’m anxious. It’s getting worse. What if it gets so bad I can’t handle it?”

In a situation like this, an anxious dressage rider may think, “I’ll make a mistake during my test, and the judge will ring the bell. I’ll have to stop, while everyone watches the judge tell me where I went wrong and how to proceed. I’ll be so flustered, I won’t be able to remember what comes next and will make more mistakes. It will get so bad that I’ll have to excuse myself.”

A hunter/jumper rider may think, “I’ll be so nervous, I’ll make a wrong turn in my jump course. I’ll know I’m lost, and then I’ll hear ‘Thank you, rider, you are excused’ over the loudspeaker.”

In both cases, the riders may think, “I’ll feel so embarrassed; everyone will see and even hear it. They’ll think I’m a headcase and bad rider who should not be in the show ring. People will come up to me after and ask what happened, and I won’t know what to say. I’ll feel so humiliated and like such a loser.”

Thinking errors like these strongly influence your emotional state. They activate your brain, which can “take off” with you, like a bolting horse. And all of that happens within you before any negative outcomes can even occur!

Avoidance And Safety Behaviors

Because anxiety can be a powerful and unpleasant emotional state, people tend to want to perform behaviors they think will make them feel less anxious and avoid the feared outcome. Cognitive behavioral therapy calls these avoidance and safety behaviors. Avoidance behaviors refer to ways you try to avoid being in or thinking about a situation that triggers worry or fear. Safety behaviors refer to things you do to make the feared consequence of being in a situation less likely. These can be physical or mental; either way, they are designed to cope with an imagined threat and to reduce anxiety. Ironically, and counterintuitively, these very behaviors keep us stuck in the cycle of anxiety.

Here is a detailed example of how this might occur:

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You’re getting ready for your dressage lesson at the barn. The weather has been cold and windy. The last time you rode in such conditions, your horse was a bit more energic than usual and spooked a little at a flying leaf. Nothing bad happened, but you worried your horse would react more extremely the next time.

Now, as you prepare for your lesson, you check the weather for wind and see little breeze icons. Your anxiety increases. You really want to see your horse and friends, and you know you should not be so scared. You drive to the barn, scanning for wind in the trees, and notice movement. Your anxiety surges. You imagine your horse bolting and spooking, and more anxiety comes. You decide you won’t ride if it is windy, you’ll just watch your trainer school your horse.

You arrive at the barn feeling very anxious but notice there is no wind. You groom and tack up your horse and mount, still scanning for signs of wind. You warm up your horse at a very slow walk, testing his tension and energy level, still looking for swaying branches or blowing leaves. You notice a few small branches on the ground and think, “It seems like this is just a short lull. I’m sure it will get windy again any minute.”

There is still no wind. But your horse stumbles a bit, and you misinterpret that as a spook and jerk the reins. You realize that your horse, in fact, did not spook, but you feel more anxious nevertheless. You decide you’d rather watch your horse be ridden. You justify this to yourself, even though, deep down, you know it is not the case. As you hand your horse over to your trainer, you feel relieved and happy that you can enjoy your friends and horse with less anxiety. Problem solved?

Can you spot the avoidance and safety behaviors in this example? Here are some:

• Checked weather on phone app excessively
• Rode in overly cautious manner
• Scanned trees and ground for signs of wind
• Thought about avoiding riding
• Jerked reins
• Avoided riding

Avoidance and safety behaviors do offer temporary relief from anxiety. If you avoid or escape being in a situation that triggers anxiety, your anxiety will immediately diminish. The rider we just discussed probably felt great after she decided not to continue her ride. That is a powerful relief from very unpleasant feelings. Our brains experience this type of relief as a reward—much as you give your horse kind words, a pat, or a long rein after he does what you ask. You want him to associate a job well done with a reward, which makes it more likely that he repeats this behavior. And it works! This kind of reward is precisely why avoidance and safety behaviors become habitual—and why your anxiety will get worse over the long run if you rely on those behaviors. Once this cycle of anxiety starts, it can grow and spread, like a brush fire.

Anxiety Can Be Conquered

Fortunately, there are effective ways to conquer anxiety. As a psychologist, I use CBT to treat individuals with anxiety problems. Extensive research has shown that CBT has the best track record of any type of therapy for anxiety. The good news is that CBT can readily be applied to the anxiety experienced by equestrians.

CBT holds that it is important for anyone dealing with anxiety to understand what creates anxiety, what feeds and maintains it, and how to alleviate it. In Part 2 of this series on equestrian-related anxiety, I describe how you can use CBT to conquer your anxiety.


Licensed clinical psychologist Bridget F. Walker, PhD, is a lifelong rider, avid dressage competitor and anxiety disorder expert who lives in Santa Barbara, California. She is the author of “Anxiety Relief For Kids: On-The-Spot Strategies To Help Your Child Overcome Worry, Panic & Avoidance” (New Harbinger, 2017) and “Social Anxiety Relief For Teens: A Step-By-Step CBT Guide To Feel Confident And Comfortable In Any Situation” (New Harbinger, 2021). She owns three Baroque dressage horses and has ridden and competed up the levels to Intermediaire I. She enjoys the physical and mental challenges of training and competing, and above all, the peace, joy and balance horses bring to her life.

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