Friday, February 8, 2013

Controlling anxiety for a better ride

V., the girl I nanny for, is starting to lease Panama with the intention of riding him twice a week: once in a lesson, and one other day of practice each week.  She had her first official "lease" lesson yesterday afternoon -- she's had a couple of lessons on him before, and has ridden him before too, but now it's more serious because if this works out, she'll be riding him from here on out, and doing a couple of shows on him too.

My trainer has been a bit opposed to the idea -- she doesn't think he can handle it, whereas I do.  As the schooling shows last summer, the trail course in the fall, and my trailer-in lesson on him yesterday all show, he has matured a lot, and is less reactive about things than he used to be.

V.'s lesson on him yesterday was not a great start, though.  V. is anxious about riding him outside, because she knows he has more trouble maintaining a constant pace in the bigger arena, especially when going down the long side of the arena toward "home."  He used to give me a lot of problems with that, and was very resistant to half-halts to slow his pace.  You might remember that a few months ago I did a lot of work with him to make him more responsive to half-halts -- that was because of this very problem.  We've also been riding outside a little more often when we can manage it -- difficult in the winter, not necessarily because of the cold (it's been very nice lately) but because I so often go out to the barn now during the evening, when it's dark.   But the extra work has paid off, and he's actually been pretty good outside lately.

But V. hasn't had a chance yet to experience that, so she was very anxious about her lesson yesterday, and also I think our trainer makes her work so hard that there is probably a little anxiety for that reason as well.  From early on in the lesson, Panama was speeding up down the long sides of the arena heading toward home, and V. was having a hard time controlling his speed.  She was also doing things she doesn't normally do when she rides, such as sitting (instead of posting) and hanging on the reins at the same time to try to slow him down, which only (between bouncing on his back, which he hates, and bouncing on his mouth) made things worse.

Our trainer had her doing flat work at first, and then had her working through a gymnastic (three cavaletti spaced so that the horse has to land and immediately take off again).  Once they started working on that the problems got worse, and he was rushing a lot through the cavaletti heading toward home.  Once they changed direction, he wasn't rushing through them anymore, but then he'd pick up his canter and she wouldn't be able to slow him once he turned the corner and started coming down the other side of the arena -- toward home again.

The worst time was once when he was cantering probably a little faster than he should have been, and not responding to V.'s half-halts.  Our trainer was telling her to slow him down, and getting impatient with her for not "getting it done" as she puts it, and she said, "You're going to get bucked off!"  Within a few strides Panama went into a much faster, mildly panicked canter.  It was almost instantaneous -- what my trainer said really scared V. (I asked her about it later, and she said, "Of course it scared me!"), and Panama immediately picked up on her fear and "ran away."  I almost said something to our trainer about how that wasn't the best thing to say, but before I could she said, "See, this is why I don't think this will work."

I was irritated by that whole thing, and actually spent quite a bit of time last night thinking about it instead of sleeping (and those who know me know how rare it is that anything keeps me awake when I want to be sleeping!).  The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that all of the problems V. was having with Panama during her lesson were due to him picking up on her anxiety.  The more our trainer got on her case, the more anxious she got; and the more anxious she got, the more resistant he was to listening to her cues.  And of course, the more resistant he got, the more our trainer got on V.'s case, and it just worsened from there.

So today when we went out to the barn for her practice ride (they are leasing him for two rides a week), I explained to her my thinking: that I wanted her to practice riding confidently, because I think that is what Panama needs from his rider.  I had her ride outside so that she could get more comfortable with what worries her (equally as important for him).  I showed her what I do to prevent him from rushing toward home -- I generally ask for a little collection or give a very, very small half-halt right as we turn down the long side of the arena toward home, just something to serve as a reminder and to keep his attention on me.  Then I turned her loose on him.

And what a difference it made!  She didn't canter him because she had on slippery pants from school, but he was an angel for her at the trot.  In fact, he was being so good that I had to ask her to deliberately speed him up so she could practice slowing him down again (though I told her to make sure to praise him when he did what she asked, so that he knew he wasn't actually in trouble).  She was happy, relaxed, and communicated more with him verbally (something he responds well to), and he was happier, too.  Such a difference it makes for him when his rider isn't anxious!

Now we just have to overcome her tendency to get tense and anxious during lessons -- I think it will help for her to practice breathing as she rides, as that will settle both Panama's and her nerves.  But I know very well how hard it is to remember to breathe when you are doing a lesson and your trainer is firing off instructions!  That is a skill that takes time, and I know that, so for now I just hope that today's positive ride will make a difference -- in Panama's mind as well as hers -- next time she has a lesson.



At February 9, 2013 at 7:41 AM, Blogger Nuzzling Muzzles said...

It is hard for a person to just act more confident or be more confident. Because of my tremor that I have all the time, the tiniest scare causes my entire body to shake, and obviously the horses feel that. I think that is a big part of why I have to keep retraining them and myself to make them safe.

I also have these things that are like a combination of motion sickness, panic attacks, and seizures, and I had one of those while trail riding the other day. Because I lose control of my muscles, I had to concentrate extra hard on staying upright. Bombay surely sensed that something wasn't right with me, and he actually slowed way down and made an effort to stay under me. I was so proud of him for taking care of me.

I think as far as confidence goes, you just have to let someone experience the scary stuff, talk them through it, so that they know they can come out the other side of it successfully and have a new skill set to handle future problems. Teaching what works for you was good. Teach the skills ahead of time, have her practice them in a non-threatening situation, and then when things get out of control, remind her of them, since it's kind of hard to teach someone what to do while they are terrified.

I hope you have a liability release signed any time you have someone else ride your horse. A lot of people just don't understand that it is a dangerous activity and might be inclined to blame you or your horse should they get hurt.

At February 10, 2013 at 11:38 AM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

In some respects I agree with you, but not all. Yes, it's hard to "just be more confident," but I also think in some circumstances you can "fake it until you make it." When I took Panama to that show in September, I was terrified as I went into the ring, mounted, to wait for my first class to start. I was afraid my anxiety was going to rub off on him, so while I waited -- and then while we started riding -- I deliberately controlled my breathing, taking deep slow breaths. It took a few minutes, but it did settle my nerves, and prevented my anxiety from getting to Panama. If, instead, I had ridden very tense and balled-up, I have no doubt that it would have made him start looking for what was scaring me, and severely affected my ability to get him past his "scary spot," a.k.a. the bleachers, without incident.

Obviously I don't know enough about your medical condition to know whether something like this would work for you, but it has certainly worked for me, and I believe it can work for V., too.

The other thing is that during this lesson, V. was riding Panama much differently than she would have ridden the other horse she had been taking lessons on, and even differently than she would have ridden Panama inside. So I know she can ride with confidence, she was just letting her fears (of how he might act in the outdoor arena) get to her. I think learning techniques to control your fears when you are on horseback, and striving to ride the same way whether you are scared or not, is actually very important for riders -- and the best riders I know are the ones who never appear to let anything get to them.


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