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Stress and how it effects your horse riding in ways you didn't realise

Horses are creatures of great sensitivity, they can know all our emotions just by sensing our body language, heart rate and breathing rate. As humans we can hold our emotions in our body, but most of us have become incapable at being able to read them.

One of the biggest emotions in society these days is stress. Most of us live stressful lives in one way or another, whether in our workplace or home lives, related to time management, relationships or other things – we can all probably recognise moments when we feel particularly stressed. However, some of us spend so much time feeling stressed we get stuck in that rhythm, our bodies start to think that being stressed is normal and forget how to relax.

This is a huge problem when it comes to horse riding because stress does amazing things to our bodies.

The origins of stress are connected to survival, and can be traced back to ancient times when we were creatures of prey. When our body sensed danger it went into the mode that we recognise as ‘stress’, in order to survive we needed our brains to be uber alert, as this was our main weapon against predators. In this mode, our body released certain hormones but also changed certain patterns in our body, our breathing got shorter and quicker to get more oxygen to the brain, our jaw clenched to keep blood in the brain, inflammation happened in our body to make sure if we were hurt we wouldn’t bleed to death, feelings stayed locked up in our head and our body became disconnected from our thoughts and feelings. This is why when we run on adrenalin in a stressful situation, we can do things like running with broken legs, it’s all about survival.

That’s all great when we really need that to happen, but it can happen whenever we are stressed – it may just be because we’re late for our riding lesson or riding a horse we’re a bit nervous of. When this is the case it’s not so helpful, to ride we need our whole body to be with us, we need to feel everything and be as sensitive as possible, the last thing we want it to switch off our body senses.

So you think you aren’t stressed? Lots of people don’t even realise they go into a state of stress, it’s so normal to them to be like that. Here are some signs of stress:

– short breaths, breathing in the top half of the body (chest), cutting off the exhale before it’s fully finished

– tight jaw, frowning, headaches

– inability to sit still, always needing to be busy

– when you close your eyes (not to sleep) you feel them darting around behind your eyelids

– keeping eyes closed is difficult

– hyper awareness, noticing everything around you all of the time, reacting to loud noises, feeling ‘jumpy’, senses working in overdrive

– clenched hands or clenched toes (ready to run)

Plus many more…

Why is it important for horse riders to recognise the signs of stress?

As mentioned earlier, horses are highly sensitive creatures, but they are also prey animals, so if your body is giving off signals that you feel there is danger just around the corner your horse is going to be picking this up. He then has to choose what to do with this information, if he listens he will become jumping and nervy, clingy to the other horses and generally lose confidence. If after a while he realises that what your body is giving off isn’t coming true, that nothing does come and kill him, he will start to ignore you, thinking that you’re just crying wolf. Once he starts to ignore you at that level, he’ll ignore the rest of you as well, leaving you battling to get him to listen to your aids.

Also as mentioned earlier, stress leaves the rider with very little awareness of their body, it leaves humans all ‘up in the brain’ – thinking rather than feeling. This means when you try to feel something you might not be able to, or the feeling may be dulled, it means your movements may be bigger than they need to be as you’re not aware of your body. Subtleties are lost in big clumsy movements because you can’t feel or aren’t aware of the smaller movements. Have you ever been asked “can you feel the difference?” and you couldn’t? This is probably why, you’re not tuned into your body.

So how do we de-stress?

The best way to tell our body that we are not ‘in danger’ is by using our breath, it’s the easiest thing to control and the thing that has the most effect. You know the saying ‘take a deep breath’, well this is what we need to do more of. If we slow our breathing and lengthen the breaths, especially the exhale, this sends our brain the message we are no longer in danger, we start to come back to our body and remove ourselves from only working with our minds. Even better, if we focus our breaths all the way to our belly then we start to focus the mind to our body, taking it away from the top half of the body and using the whole of our mass. The final thing we can do is breath through our nose, when we are stressed we gasp with our mouth to get more oxygen in at a time, so to tell our body to relax using nasal breathing can really help the brain to realise there is no danger.

How to incorporate this into your riding…

Last night we stood still on our ponies for 5 minutes and focused on the breath, bringing ourselves out of head mode and back to our bodies. We tuned into ourselves and it made a huge difference. From the moment we moved off, the riders were more aware, the movements of aids were smaller and their bodies were more relaxed. With this, the horses were different too, reacting to small changes rather than big. When they sensed tension develop in the riders, the horses mirrored them and responded with tension, as soon as the riders came back to their breath the horses relaxed. It was amazing to watch and the riders were so happy by the end.

Recognising what emotions we are giving off is the start of creating a proper relationship with our horses, not giving them tons of baggage to have to sort out but giving them our true selves. This then allows the true connection to begin.

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