Improve your emotional awareness to keep your feelings out of the arena. Article by Gilead Friedman, with Alexis Bennett
Courtesy of the NRHA Reiner Magazine - November 2022
It’s natural for your emotions to get involved when you’re riding; you invest a great deal of time and energy into it. To prevent these emotions from inhibiting your performance, you must give yourself the space to process them.
You invest a great deal of energy into your horse. Aside from the emotional and mental investment you make each time you ride or think about riding, you also spend time and money to care for your horse, ride, take lessons, show, get to and from the show or barn, and on all the other activities involved in showing and horse ownership.
When you pour so much into something, it’s natural that your emotions get involved. You have a stake in what you’re doing. However, your emotions can negatively impact
your performance if they are left unacknowledged, as you’ve learned in other articles. You can’t just ignore your feelings or shut them out. Whether you like it or not, those emotions will come back up and affect you. So, what is there to do about it? The answer is to make room for them. Here, I explain the link between emotions and actions to provide understanding for why dealing with your emotions matters, and then provide some tactical strategies you can use before and after your next show or ride.
From Brain to Body
Cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) explains the link between our thoughts, feelings and actions. These three are inextricably connected, meaning that negative or unrealistic thoughts can cause anxiety or distress, and those feelings of anxiety and distress cause an undesired action or reaction. The same is true for positive thoughts, feelings and actions. Your thoughts and emotions may not always be visible, but your actions show up. This is especially true in already high-stress or unfamiliar scenarios, such as the show pen.
An example of this happening is when you go into paid warmups and instead of executing your practice plan, you succumb to your thought-emotion-action pattern. You might enter the arena and become anxious about the people in the stands watching you. You may think they’re judging you, and then get emotional and react, likely ignoring your practice game plan to show
In this example, emotions took over and impacted your riding. This isn’t isolated to warmups either; it can appear in any aspect of your performance. The more emotions you have, the bigger the gap between your thoughts and your actions. You may want to perform in a particular way, but your thoughts and emotions disrupt your execution and cause you to do something differently than planned. Your emotions dominate, which results in you feeling that you’re out of control, unfocused and not on your game. This might further feed the emotion.
The emotional connection and this scenario don’t discriminate. Everyone experiences this; it’s how you handle the emotions that matters and impacts your actions and riding. So, what can you do about it?
Give It Time
Think about a successful ride or show you’ve had. How long did you allow yourself to feel happy, proud or accomplished? How long did you ride the high? Now, think about a challenging ride or terrible show. How long did you let that stay with you?
If you’re like most people, you’ll realize the negative experience stayed with you longer. There’s an emotional imbalance in how we experience success or failure. We hold onto failure for much longer than success. The truth is, you can and should feel both positive and negative emotions. It’s normal.
The trick is to manage the time you spend ruminating on them. Here’s a good way to leave space for your emotions. Before you ride, and especially before you show, determine the amount of time you’ll spend dealing with the results of the event. Is that one day? Three days? A week? It’s probably not healthy to force yourself to dwell on and hyper-analyze a performance for a month, but several days is completely reasonable. Then, whatever that allotted time is, allow yourself to take that time. If you’re successful, force yourself to be grateful and experience pride in the fact that your hard work resulted in success. Do this for the entire given time. If you experience failure, allow yourself to grieve for that same period.
Let It Go
By giving yourself time and space to experience your emotions — good
or bad — you can acknowledge them. It’s not about pushing your emotions aside; emotions are a part of competition. You have committed time, energy and passion into preparation. It’s normal to have a range of feelings about the outcome.
This approach allows you to practice awareness without processing too long, so you don’t become overwhelmed and let your emotions impact your actions and future riding. You’ll also find that it’s easier to let go of the actions and associated feelings. When you leave room for your emotions, you keep them from taking over. Keep in mind that this is a process. You might think that once you’ve become aware of this approach, you will automatically get better at processing and be able to move on faster.
You might think you’ll never again let your emotions affect your riding. That’s not true. It’s all about progress. Progress looks more like a puzzle than a ladder, with each piece fitting together until you present the ideal picture, versus taking direct steps to your destination.
The practice of becoming aware of and leaving space for emotions is one tool that allows you to piece together that picture. Together these skills compound and allow you to feel confident and find joy in the process of pursuing your competitive goals, whatever those may be.
Tactics to Celebrate or Grieve
Are you the type of person who finds it challenging to sit with your emotions? The following suggestions can help you talk about and express your emotions so you can be more aware and accepting of them. With each of these approaches, try to notice your thoughts and feelings as you reflect on your experience rather than focusing only on your actions or what you did right or wrong.
• Journal about your thoughts and how you feel.
• Sit quietly, allowing yourself to experience and notice self-talk.
• Allow your mind to wander uninterrupted as you think through and replay your ride.
• Go for a walk without distractions.
• Ride, preferably outside of the arena or on the trail where there’s no pressure of a practice plan.
• Talk with a trusted friend, family member or significant other who will listen and not give advice.
If you have trouble sitting with your emotions after a show, consider talking with a trusted friend or family member who will listen without offering advice.
Gilead “Gil” Friedman of Mental Athletics specializes in the mental game that accompanies competition.
The NRHA Professional, who grew up riding performance horses, worked with NRHA Professionals Dan Huss and Bob LaPorta in the United States. Now based out of the KPH Performance Horses facility in Kfar Netter, Israel, he works in person and virtually with trainers, non pros and amateurs worldwide, sharing his fi rsthand knowledge of performance psychology to help riders step up their mental strength in a competitive environment. Learn more at mental-athletics.com.