Meditation, Mindfulness and Riding

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These are two words that will bring to mind misconceptions for many people. Something like an image of someone sitting cross legged in a forest with unrealistic calm and serenity (not the sort of thing you have time for when you have horses!)

More recently I have learned that the techniques of meditation can be used by ordinary people and especially sports people in order to feel more in control of their actions and emotions. Notice that I’m not saying your emotions will disappear completely… You will just have more headspace to act how you choose to and not give into frustration or bad habits.

What is it?

Put more simply, meditation is breathing exercises (and sometimes visualisation). The practice of it, in a constructive way, lead me to experience: a difference in my ability to handle negative emotions, increased quality of sleep and increased confidence). It’s not always easy or relaxing at the time of doing it, it’s about being consistent!  Then it will get easier. As I have learnt along the way, even a ‘bad’ meditation can be useful because you learn something. You learn that training your focus is like training a muscle. Persistence pays off.

Mindfulness is a particular practice that can include meditation, but it is so much more than that. It is centered around slowing down your brain to notice details in the environment and so anchoring you to the present moment. When I practiced it, I started to feel less worried about the future and less ‘stuck’ in the past.

Why are they important?

As for the science behind it, you are literally retraining your brain to have fewer ‘fight/flight’ responses.

If you are breathing deeply, your body will trigger the relaxation system. Whereas short breaths, occurring as a result of nerves/frustration, will trigger the fear system. The key point is that your body can’t do both at the same time. So the more you train your body in relaxation, the more this will become YOUR ‘normal’.

The ‘more’ part is something I can’t stress enough, you have to do it once or twice a day minimum to experience any difference, like brushing your teeth! Having good ’emotional hygiene’ habits is just as important as having good physical hygiene. They both start with the decision to look after yourself.

There is research which shows that those who have done meditation show actual changes in the structure of their brain. More importantly the changes are in the part of the brain that help you focus and overcome negative thoughts.

It is something that is hard to explain until you actually do it but I hope that this gives you a more informed view. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that it has been life changing for me and I do feel many other people would benefit from it. My confidence and enjoyment in riding has increased massively (we still have bad days from time to time but I find myself bouncing back from them much quicker).

I am by no means an expert but the book that really helped me get to grips with it was called ‘A practical guide to mindfulness: finding peace in a frantic world’.

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Imposter Syndrome in Equestrianism

Imposter syndrome is something that sounds very daunting and scary but is becoming more and more common place in everyday language in and in sport. If you haven’t yet come across this term, it describes a feeling that occurs when you don’t feel you deserve the situation you are in. Like your credentials look better on paper than you feel in reality and/or you are concerned that people will see you as a fraud at any moment. In the most basic sense, you feel that your are an imposter in your own life. It is a specific form of lower self esteem that occurs in a certain situation (especially those situations which seemed unattainable to you at one point of your life such as a dream job or getting your horse of a life time)

So why is this feeling worth talking about in the equestrian community? Firstly, because it is related to self esteem. We know from the recent grooms mental health campaign that horse riders and those in the industry suffer greatly in terms of mental struggles. It is an emotionally challenging sport with many factors,  beyond your control. If we can acknowledge that imposter syndrome is normal, we can begin to understand that any sort of feelings of worthless are also normal and valid no matter what your situation is (from professionals and Olympic medallists to grass roots and amateur riders).

Another key part of imposter syndrome is how it is related to personal identity that is, the person you want the world to see. This is especially relevant for those that compete because we are continually putting our identity on display and attempting to show the world the person or rider we wish to be. As soon as something conflicts with that perfect self you want to show off, such as your horse misbehaving, your identity will be threatened. Leaving you with feelings of worthlessness as your brain compares how you ‘should be’ and how things actually turn out.

As an amateur rider qualifying for the a Area Festival champs at Hartpury for the first time, I have been experiencing this a lot lately. In the sense that my identity as an average grass roots rider is being challenged by the thought I should be in perfect harmony with my horse at all times, like the other national riders seem to be. From this personal experience, I believe that we have to remember this ideal self or idea of how we ‘should be’ does not exist. It is something our mind has constructed by comparing how you are right now to how you perceive others and even the self you want to be in the future.

I felt this was very apt to talk about with mental health week occurring recently and I hope that it can contribute to helping others realise it’s okay not to feel okay, no matter how good your life or opportunities within your life appear on paper.

The surprising things about receiving an equestrian subscription box: there is more to them than you think

Do you ever feel like you need to top up on the essentials (e.g. horse shampoo, saddle soap etc) from the tack shop but you rarely have enough time to go? Do you ever feel like you miss the excitement of trying a new product but don’t fancy taking the risk and so get stuck in the cycle of buying what you know? Or do you even just fancy a surprise package in the post ever once in a while to brighten up your day? If so, then an equine subscription box such as barn box could be right up your street.

 

Following the receipt of my first ever ‘Barn Box’ I have decided to write a review of the barn box itself and in later reviews, I will review each item. There are many exciting aspects of receiving a barn box which I hadn’t fully experienced until I was sent one:

 

1) Firstly, they send you useful items that you know will come in handy. So, you never feel like they are just giving you strange things that wouldn’t sell ordinarily. Remember as a business they want to evolve to serve you as a customer and in doing so it is obvious that they have put a lot of thought and pride into selecting the items in the box.

 

2) The feeling of surprise and anticipation when opening the box takes you back to child hood. As a result of our internet driven culture, we are regularly buying from amazon or eBay and in doing so, we know exactly which parcels are coming each day. To truly not know the assortment of gifts waiting for in the box is a gift within itself

 

3) The price itself offers you a great saving because the price of the box is less than it would cost to buy each of the items individually

 

4) You get to try out products that you may have otherwise walked past in a shop. As some of the products are sourced internationally you may not even know some of the products even existed.

 

5) Finally, my favourite thing about the box is that if you really enjoyed using a certain product, you can purchase any of the items from the box again at a discounted price! You can also buy a single box for yourself or for someone else as a one-off payment, with no commitment to a subscription.

 

If you would like to dip your toe in the water, they offer 3 month, 6 month or 12 month subscriptions so you don’t have to commit to the whole year if you don’t want to. For more information go to http://www.barn-box.co.uk

 

 

Why low marks can be a good thing and dealing with a spooky 14 year old cob: Unaffiliated Novice 9/09/18

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This Sunday I took Lily to South Staffs College to compete in the Novice. She came 3rd with a score of 67.9% which I was pleased with considering she hadn’t been out in a while but there is definitely room for improvement in there. As hard as it is, I am trying to be excited about working on those challenges and not shying away from them. Getting a big score is fine but can often leave you complacent. On the other hand, getting a lower score can be embraced as it means your weaknesses are brought forward and you have something to drive your schooling instead of just wandering around aimlessly. If you reframe the lower marks in this way, you can be more resilient when things don’t go right and even get excited about it. Even though it is uncomfortable being told your weaknesses by a judge, you are now in a place to face up to the weaknesses and propel yourself into more success. 

 

Anyway, as for how the day went, we arrived a little too early as I like to allow loads of time. The difficulty on this occasion was that they were running late. I went in to warm up and started with the first half of my warm up but then did a lot of walking, halting and rein back to keep her listening to me. However, even as I was getting ready to do the second half of my warm up I put loads of walk breaks in because we had so much time. However, for Lily its not just about being physically tired, she also finds it hard mentally to focus on me for a long periods of time. Even still I was really pleased with the warm up because she was really soft and working from behind during my medium canter exercises and counter canter. The trot was going well in terms of suppleness but this competition highlighted that she needed to be more on my aids during transitions. 

 

When we went into the test arena she was very spooky and unsure. So, I gave her a little canter as this tends to relax her, then did my transitions within the pace at trot before we entered. The best thing about the test is that she felt very straight and even between the two reins which is something we have been working on all year really. The things I would like to improve would be: getting my leg on more from trot down to walk transitions and getting her a bit lighter in the rein. Putting these things into perspective I know they have both improved a lot over this year but I also think there is even more lightness and engagement to come in the future. 

 

My main learning from this show was the importance of focusing on the journey and not the destination. When you get too wrapped up in what you would like to qualify for and how much you want to be at a certain level, it’s easy to forget that horses aren’t machines. Success is not a straight line and it isn’t quick. Unexpected events will inevitably slow your progress. You just have to find ways to helps you manage the unexpected and bounce back from it. I also had to take a moment to realise how far she has come with me in the 9 years I have been riding her, she’s not built for it and has a tricky temperament but she has a heart of gold and an amazing engine. I cherish every ride I have on her because she is my super cob. 

Activating the inside hind leg and being more adaptable in the warm up: BD winter qualifiers with Terry

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When I sat down to start writing this more in-depth competition update I took some time to think what people would like to get from reading it. So, for those just wanting to get a jist of the day, here are the tests I did and my results…

P19Q Silver = 68.96% 1st in my section and 2nd overall

P17Q Silver = 69.5% 1st in my section and 3rd overall

Meaning we are now 2 points away from achieving our winter regional qualification

 

Then for those of you wanting more detail about what goes through my head when I ride, here are my thoughts from each test…

Whilst warming up for my first test he felt very tense and like he was not respecting my leg enough. He felt very on the forehand, so I wanted to do something about it. With my previous cob type horses doing loads of transitions was the main key to this. However, with Terry he is very short coupled which means he finds it hard to be supple and give at the rib cage. So, the only way to get him truly over his back is to achieve a good inside leg to outside rein connection. Then the energy that I produce with the hind legs can be channelled and improve the balance. Instead of letting the energy fall out through the outside shoulder. As I am learning the hard way, this is why respect of my inside leg is essential for getting a horse to take more weight onto the hind legs and lift the front end. With more rib cage bend, the inside hind leg can step relatively further forward the horses body and this is the basis of all lateral work (and has made a lot more sense to me since teaching my other horse shoulder in!). Try watching any advanced horse and see how much their inside hind leg steps under the middle of the horse. This is a progressive goal in dressage, meaning that it begins on 20m and 15m circles and gets more exaggerated on smaller circles and lateral work.

So, the goal for my warm up was more inside leg respect on 15m circles (one of the test movements) which I felt I had achieved. The thing that I wasn’t so pleased with is that I felt that I deviated too far from my warm up plan. That being said, I still did all of the movements I set out to do, just in a different order which threw me a little, so it is partly down to personal taste in the end. Too much improvising and thinking on my feet doesn’t focus me and set me up well mentally for a test (but being more adaptable is a skill I need to cultivate). My idea for next time, is to number the sections of my warm up and if I feel myself deviate too much from my plan, come back to walk an have a think about how I am changing my plan and why. All warm up exercises must have a goal in mind. So as long as all of my numbered sections have an individual goal in mind (e.g. different sized circles to achieve more suppleness), I can have more flexibility by doing them in a different order according to how the horse feels, instead of giving up on my plan completely.

In the test itself I felt he was a bit tense and on the forehand. However, I rode this test about a month ago and feel his way of going has vastly improved since then, so it is all about putting it into perspective. I know we need more suppleness and energy to do the Novice tests and I do have to catch myself when I feel the impatience and perfectionist tendencies creeping in.

After the first test as, usual I had a chat with mum. Mum advised me to keep the warm up very short, so we did 20 minutes including walking. I focused on getting him supple in canter (as he seems to go better after a canter). Finishing with some trot walk trot transitions and some leg yield in the trot to get him pushing from behind and supple. When we were in the test I was thrilled. I had to be quite firm with him to start with as he wanted to back off but once I did, he was very relaxed and swinging more over his back than in the first. I felt that he was letting me in. I had him forward but not rushing, that magic tempo where he feels like he is floating. Whilst there were moments where he wasn’t round enough, especially in the transitions my priority was that he was working from behind to the contact. Because of that, the roundness then solved itself by me riding forwards. However, to improve even further I need to get the roundness quicker so that he isn’t calling the shots quite so much. On the whole, it was one of our best tests and I was really proud of how he trusted me and proud of myself for choosing to be more confident in my knowledge rather than crumbling in self-doubt (another blog to come on this). Everything else was a bonus.

 

 

Blog 4: Competing on a British Dressage Team

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The Sheepgate National under 25’s championship is an event I have been competing at for many years now and was the first event to give me a taste of a team atmosphere. The first time I attended, I felt as many people would, incredibly nervous and not sure if I deserved to be there. However, after you have been going for many years you come to realise, no matter what stage you are at in your competitive journey, if you have qualified (and or been selected for a team) you deserve to be there. On reflection I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy worrying about it. There will always be people who look down on you and always be people who look up to you and think that you are doing an amazing job, there isn’t anything you can do about that. However, you can choose to enjoy yourself and chose to be around people who make you feel positive. That is something that urged myself to keep in mind during my most recent visit to Sheepgate, with a new horse, a soon to be broken down lorry and some amazing friends who got me there in spite of that.

 

For those of you who don’t know I took my Irish sport horse, Terry, to the Under 25’s national championship for the first-time last month. We were selected at Novice level, which I was slightly nervous about, as we had only just started to compete at this level. That being said, I was glad because I have set myself the goal of competing him at Novice and working at Elementary during the Autumn/Winter season. So, the more I can reach out of my comfort zone this summer, I thought, the better.

 

So, mum and I set off on our 3 and a half-hour journey across the country. We were optimistic and looking forward to the friendly team atmosphere that North West BD youth have always provided us with. The BD youth representative, Sue, goes out of her way to make sure that everyone gets to know one another and supports each other from the side lines. Our aim as a squad is that no one goes in the arena unsupported. There is always someone to talk to afterwards, whether it is cause for celebration or cause for support if you felt it didn’t go well (which we all feel from time to time, even when we do get a good score).

 

However, little did we know that we almost missed out on the team festivities altogether! Less than one hour into the journey, the horsebox started to make some strange sounds. Very clunky and like something had damaged our wheel. It was frightening not knowing what had gone wrong but luckily, we managed to slow down to a crawling pace, put our hazard lights on and get off the main road. If we hadn’t been so close to an exit, the police would have had to close the motorway. So, whilst we thanked our lucky stars that we were all relatively safe, I was still determined to get to Sheepgate to do my part for the team. As soon as we were off the main road, I sent a message to one of my team mates Rebecca about what happened, and she said she would be heading our way soon if we wanted a lift. I felt huge relief when I saw her horse box appear. Rebecca and her family were incredibly welcoming, and as we drove on, I clung onto the excitement of still being able to go the U25 championships.  

 

On arrival to the show, excitement washed over me. The journey was long, but so worth it. I was overwhelmed by the amount offers I had from the team, with many people asking me whether I had somewhere to stay and whether I had food, hay or bedding. That’s the sort of team experience that hits you in times of adversity. After a long journey I thought Terry might enjoy a hack with Rebecca’s horse Ebony, which was nice for them to get settled in their surroundings even if we did get a little lost! In the evening I was welcomed into another fellow North West horse box, by my friend Emily and her mum Jo. Waking up the next morning to feed Terry and get him ready for his first class was a bit alien as I am so used to mum and I working together. Although with my team mates around me, I didn’t feel on my own.

 

 My mum arrived safely in the morning and was there in time to help me finish getting Terry ready and warm up. First off was the Prelim 17 individual class. Terry warmed up well but when going into the arena I felt him lose engagement and drop behind my leg, which happens in a lot of our tests at the moment, some more than others. As a result, I felt it went really badly. Fortunately, mum was there straight away to support me, I don’t know what I would do without her sometimes. On reflection it wasn’t that bad, it was my expectations that made me upset because I know how well he can go. Which is quite similar to how I felt in both of my team tests (the first one, N23 on the Friday and the second one on Saturday, N38). However, we managed to get 66% and 6th place in the Prelim which I was thrilled with. The Novices were more challenging for us, we gave them our best shot, leaving us on just over 61% both days with my lovely team coming 5th. I knew in a championship environment that mistakes would be expensive, but I couldn’t help but feel a little deflated at the time. The thoughts I was having were ones I’m sure many people can relate to. “I’m not good enough for this horse” and “I am letting the horse down”. However, after having a chat with my mum I had an honest talk about what our strengths and weaknesses are (of which I am going to write another blog on). As a result, I feel super prepared and motivated for training over the winter season. For me, whatever my score is, it is the bigger shows that keep me motivated to work hard over the winter. Especially when bigger shows mean meeting up with such good friends, it truly is something to look forwards to.

 

The main take away from this years’ experience for me was to appreciate every ride and every show you have. The horse doesn’t know where he is, how much the class means to you or what personal things you have going on. It your responsibility give them the clearest riding you can without letting your emotions and expectations get in the way. In addition to that, I have felt the true meaning of team spirit, not just in how everyone was willing to help me out but also in watching everyone else helping each other out. “Good luck” and “Well done” were the most frequently uttered words from the North West team. This is what us riders work towards all year round and what our training sessions (ridden and non -ridden team building) prepare us for. Making us all stronger competitors (and stronger friends!) in the process. I feel proud to be a part of their competitions as I believe it plays a big role in making me a more ambitious rider. Whilst at the same time, inspiring me to be a supportive person through the good times and the bad.

Blog 3: Moving up a level

At my second ever riding club area competition, as a junior, I was asked to do a Novice test on Lily (as at least one team member was required to and no one else had come forward). This left me feeling sick to my stomach for the simple reason that I had never done a Novice test before. Thoughts circled around my head like ‘isn’t that what proper dressage riders do’ and ‘isn’t it a risk moving up a level when your team are counting on you’ but now I realise they were just limiting beliefs that were keeping me within my comfort zone.

 

I told myself to ride the prelim movements well, not to panic about the novice ones and I could get a respectable score (well that’s what my trainer told me to tell myself…) I was aware that I could well get 5’s for the medium trot because at that time medium strides of any sort were a complete mystery to me. To my surprise I did get a good score (65%) and 3rd place. I was thrilled. I just focused on myself and the best we could do, I really wasn’t thinking about getting placed anywhere. Taking the pressure off in that way was clearly the right thing to do, so I knew that I needed to keep that in mind for the future.

 

I didn’t do a championship at Novice level again until 4 years later because I truly thought that prelim was Lily’s limit, however after lots and lots of hard work on the basics, we mastered the medium trot and then we tried again (at the 2016 Sheepgate under 25’s championships). I had held this opinion about Lily’s prelim limit so strongly that the test I am writing about today had completely slipped from my memory up until the point I was racking my brain for blog ideas at the start of this week. My only regret, I wish had tried aiming for Novice competitions again sooner. I originally decided against it because I was too busy trying to find my next dressage horse. What I didn’t realise was that my best dressage horse was right under my nose the whole time! If you told me this time last year that Lily would be working elementary now, I would never have believed you!

 

Moral of the story: whilst realistic goals can be a good thing, don’t let them limit you. Keep working hard on the basics and push yourself to try new things. Only by getting out of your comfort zone can you grow, yes you might not win as often as before but you will improve as a rider. Not just in terms of knowledge but in that your focus will shift competing against other people to competing against yourself. Overall meaning that your focus is more on the factors you can control (you) than what you can’t (other people), which is vital for staying calm and confident during your test. Easier said than done I believe!

 

Thanks for reading

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