So, my friends, you discovered in last week’s post that you’re not the only returning rider who is struggling to bridge the gap between your happy memories of riding when you were a kid and the occasionally scary and painful reality of riding now. And you might not like what I say next, but stick with me – it gets better after the next piece of advice!
Step one in becoming a comfortable, confident midlife horsewoman is to… manage your expectations. I know, I know, I can hear your outraged/despondent/indignant voices now – you thought I was going to help you live the dream and now I’m telling you to manage expectations?? Really?
OK, now that you’ve had a chance to register your complaints – take a deep breath and read on.
Managing your expectations is not the same as giving up. Let me say this again, managing your expectations is NOT the same as giving up. Here’s the deal – by being realistic, even cautious, at the beginning of your journey as a recycled rider, you’re a lot more likely to ride better and longer and have more fun doing it.
Managing your expectations is NOT the same as giving up.
Here’s my 4-step process to make getting back on the horse (literally and figuratively) one of the best decisions you’ve made in 2020 (not a high bar, I agree, but at least you’ll have one good memory of this dumpster-fire of a year).
First, what do you want from riding?
Are you planning on trying out for the Olympics or is going on a Sunday afternoon trail ride more your thing? Are you hoping to own your own horse, take lessons, borrow a friend’s horse? Get clear on this – take some time and really think about your ideal horsey life. There are no right or wrong answers, this is your vision of your life, not your friend’s, spouse’s, or instructor’s.
Next, where are you now?
Take inventory of where you are on your journey now. Are you a returning rider who rode a lot when you were in your teens and are comfortable with the idea of getting to the same level again, or are you happy with the idea of trail riding to relax on the weekends?
Do you have excited butterflies in your stomach when you think about riding or is it more a queasy feeling and sense of dread?
Notice where you feel anxiety or avoidance – that’s often a clue that we don’t feel like we can really achieve our goals or that they’re more difficult than we’re comfortable with (yet). Give yourself the time and the space (and the grace) to let these feelings percolate for a while.
That discomfort may also be a clue our goals are not actually ours, but rather something we’ve held over from a younger version of ourselves, or something society has decided is “appropriate” for someone in their midlife.
Third Question – What are you willing to do to get from here to there?
This is often where the dream goes a bit soft-focus. We dearly want it to be easy and smooth and perfect. What we get is often frustrating and bumpy and borderline awful. The dream seems so far away sometimes.
Are you willing to put in extra hours, extra money, extra exercise, and learning, and humility, and vulnerability to get there? Are you willing to keep smiling at the doubters (it’s perfectly OK to call them every name in the book under your breath and behind your mask)?
Are you really able to do/give/be whatever it takes to reach that dream or maybe, just maybe, is it time to adjust your sights a bit closer to your current situation and create an interim goal to help you reach your bigger goal? As I said earlier, managing your expectations does not mean you are giving up!
And now, the one question to rule them all (sorry, Tolkein) – what is your why?
Why are you willing to spend an hour in an Epsom salts bath every evening? Why are you willing to slog around in the mud and the dark and the cold to feed your horse or adjust his blanket? Why do you keep getting up at 5, keep getting up into the saddle when every part of you aches and that duvet looks so inviting? Why?
Many people would argue that this question should come first, but putting it after the other questions means you can go back and look at your answers through the lens of knowing your why. It can change your perspective and offer you a way to think about your goals and dreams in a way you hadn’t before.
Did you find that some of your answers changed? Are you able to see a bit more clearly where you are, where you want to go, how you’ll get there knowing the overarching question of Why?
If your answers have changed, and you’ve decided that you really don’t want to go on hunter paces after all, or you don’t want to trail ride, or you don’t even really want to ride at all, preferring to groom and hang out and bond with your horse – that’s fine! It’s better than fine – it’s your truth. You haven’t given up or given in – you’ve managed your expectations.
Until next time, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself.
Get Your Copy of the 10-Minute Toolkit!
Powerful, portable exercises to help reduce anxiety and increase joy, in the barn & beyond.
If you have a chance to hang around with other midlife horsewomen, you may hear them moaning about this somewhat frequently, (which is comforting in a “Misery Loves Company” kind of way); but, if you don’t spend a lot of time with other prime-time riders, various aches and pains can be disconcerting… and embarrassing.
Let me jump in right here and say that none of this is intended to be medical advice or to suggest treatment or diagnosis for any discomfort you may be experiencing. Always check with your health care professional before starting new forms of exercise.
OK, now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at some of the issues we face as returning horsewomen.
Well, this never hurt before…
I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever being sore after a ride when I was a kid. Well, there was that one time I got kicked in the crotch the night before a show… that definitely made for a pretty uncomfortable day in the saddle… but I digress.
When we’re young, we’re more likely to be flexible, to have a greater degree of cardiovascular stamina, to have better balance, and to lead a generally more active life. Obviously, this is one of those sweeping generalities that everyone advises against, but you get my point.
So the realization that riding can hurt can be sobering; however, pain isn’t the only physical issue we experience when we return to riding as midlifers. (Oh yay, there’s more?!?) Loss of flexibility, especially in our backs, hips, and knees can seriously impact our comfort level when we start riding again. And if pain and stiffness weren’t enough to send you in search of the nearest bottle of wine, let’s not forget about balance.
According to Healthinaging.org, nearly 8 million adults of all ages in the United States report balance disorders each year. About one-third of the older population reports difficulty with balance or walking; the numbers increase significantly after age 75. All in all, almost 40% of older adults are affected.
In case you haven’t noticed, good balance is key – for you and your horse to enjoy comfortable rides. A balanced rider is easier for a horse to carry in a balanced way. The rider’s balance can even have more of an impact than her weight on a horse’s ability to safely and comfortably lug a human around its back. This is not to say that you get a free pass if you’re seriously obese but can stand on one leg for a count of 10 without toppling over, but that’s a discussion for you to have with your doctor (and your vet.)
Funny, I don’t remember feeling (fill in the blank)…
After a break of several years, (or decades), getting back into the saddle can bring great joy, immediately followed by the shocking realization that this feels nothing like it did when you were younger. What happened to that old adage about riding a bicycle – you never forget? Isn’t that supposed to apply to riding horses, too? Evidently, one of the times you fell on your head when you were 10 caused just enough of a concussion to erase all memories of the downsides of riding; and you’re now discovering:
The distance between the ground and the saddle has doubled since you were last on a horse
Sitting trot is an exercise developed by the devil himself
Any attempt to perform the above-mentioned sitting trot makes you feel you’re about to get a black eye and/or a concussion from your breasts bouncing around and smacking you in the face
The speed of canter has increased exponentially since you last rode
It stinks to have to face the fact that we didn’t retain all the skills (and fitness) we had when we were kids; but, there is a way forward!
And I’ll share that with you next Monday. Until then, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself.
Get the 10-Minute Toolkit
6 Portable, Powerful Exercises to help you reduce anxiety and increase joy in the barn and beyond!
I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I coach horsewomen on managing fear (among other things), I am not a fearless woman, and I’m most certainly not a fearless rider. And honestly? I’m OK with that. As far as I’m concerned, being fearless around your horse (or almost anywhere else, for that matter), is actually one of the most dangerous, and yes, stupidest, things you can do.
Far from being the bad guy here, fear acts kind of like an internal smoke detector. The horrible loud beeping is startling and jarring and usually only means you need to change the battery (or order takeout because you just turned dinner into a smokey, inedible mess) but that one occasion there is a real danger it can literally save your life.
Just like the smoke detector, sometimes there are false alarms with your fear, so it’s helpful to know your horse’s “battery-needs-changing” signal from the “we’re-about-to-have-complete-meltdown signal. With exercises like correct breathing, being mindful, and Tapping, you can learn to respond to his cues appropriately, which helps you navigate that often gray area between fearful and dead. But here’s an important point – the appropriate response to fear is not fearlessness, it’s courage.
Think of having courage as being willing to take a calculated risk – like visiting family at 10 p.m. Christmas Eve – the most common day of the year for heart attacks. Are you going to miss out on seeing Aunt Bertha unwrap the DDD cup bra that makes the rounds of your family every year? Of course not – and you’re not likely to give up horseback riding due to fear, either.
Hopefully, you’re going to create a plan before your horse’s next meltdown moment. Understand your responses to his actions (which are, in themselves, responses and/or reactions), and build a toolbox of useful exercises you can use to help you be courageous without being stupid, I mean fearless. (Make sure you grab a copy of the 10 – Minute Toolkit for some great tools.)
If you know he gets kind of cranky when you tack him up around feed time, plan ahead for how you’re going to manage his crankiness. (But, I have to admit, if you dragged me off to work when I thought I was going to get to eat, I’d be cranky, too!).
Can you ride him a bit earlier? A bit later? Can he have a few mouthfuls of his dinner before you ride? Those are all ways of helping manage the situation before it has a chance to get started, but what happens when none of those options are viable?
You were stuck late at work and now have an hour to groom, tack up, ride, cool down, untack, groom again, and he’s scheduled for dinner right about at the 35-minute mark. Do you normally become afraid that he’s going to dump you and try to go back to the barn? Or he’ll just plant his feet and refuse to move? This is where your responses to his cues become critical.
Giving in to your fear by jumping off, adopting a modified fetal position, and taking him back to his stall may not be your best choice – for your sake, his sake, and the sake of all the rides that may occur at 5 p.m. in the future. By the same token, if you know he has quite a buck when he’s cranky and you’re not that experienced or balanced a rider, it would be stupid (there’s that word again) to just damn the torpedoes and jump on to go for a trail ride in the woods by yourself. Fortunately for all, there is a middle way. Be courageous.
Take a couple of deep breaths.
Consciously relax your shoulders, jaw, and other favorite tension-holding places in your body
Evaluate the situation
Move to plan B.
Plan B could be lunging him instead of riding. It could be to ride in the outdoor ring where he’s less likely to fuss if other horses are being fed. It could be some in-hand work to clarify and confirm his respect for your personal space, or riding for just 10 minutes.
None of these choices are completely without risk, and quite possibly will create at least some fear, but just like you wouldn’t dream of missing Aunt Bertha and the Christmas Bra, you shouldn’t miss enjoying every possible moment with your horse. Arm yourself with tools and meet your ride with courage.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been a little anxious for the last… oh, 8 months or so. Coronavirus, political polarity, social justice issues, hurricanes – it seems like 2020 is pretty intent on keeping us on our toes.
While we can’t control the world around us, we do have the ability (and I would argue the responsibility) to control our response to the madness swirling around us. One great way to do that is to seek wisdom from a pro – i.e. your horse.
Now you might not consider your horse such an anti-anxiety expert – look at the airs above the ground he did when a leaf blew by him out on the trail the other day. What about the time she was terrified because the barn cat jumped at a fly? Surely we don’t want to be freaking out at every little disturbance in the Force, do we?
Here’s the thing. Horses are reacting to those stimuli at the appropriate level for their native understanding. Their first instinct is to get the hell outta Dodge at the first sign of a problem, but they can learn to respond rather than react – and so can you.
Here are a few ways your horse can shine a light on a better response to life.
Not across the country, not even in a different circle, just move your body. Get up and take a walk. Stretch. Flex your muscles, take a couple of deep breaths.
Horses often exhibit this by being calmer when they’re turned out, despite the fact that there’s probably more stimulus that could trigger a reaction in the pasture than in their stall. The secret? Because movement is their body’s default setting, when they’re moving, they feel less “trapped”. They have a certain level of comfort in just knowing they could get out of Dodge if the need arose.
2. Find strength in your herd.
There’s safety in numbers. Horses will be the first ones to tell you that. Their whole social structure is organized around being in a herd. It offers physical protection, social interaction, and opportunities for procreation.
Although we’re predators rather than prey animals, humans are also pack animals. We tend to live in groups for the same reasons as horses do. However, while a community can help us be strong and connected, it can also devolve into herd-mentality, which can lead to things like going to coronavirus parties or turning the Great Dome at MIT into a giant version of R2D2 . While the consequences of the former certainly outweigh those of the latter by about a gazillion percent, the rules of the jungle apply even if the jungle in question is a frat party – those at the shallow end of the gene pool are the weakest link. (If you’re not familiar with the Darwin Awards, you owe it to yourself to read their examples of extreme stupidity, lending credence to the expression, “Stupid kills, just not fast enough…” ) And as a side note, you don’t often see herds of horses out playing pranks, except learning to open gates, and doors, and…. oh, never mind… the point is that horses in a herd often make better decisions than people in a herd.
The bottom line? Have a community that supports you in making wise decisions, whether it’s your family, your friends, or people in a co-working session online with a service like Focusmate.
3. Take a nap in the sun.
What is it about horses sleeping in the sun that’s so endearing? Admit it, you got the warm fuzzies when you looked at the featured image for this post – who can resist a sleepy little foal, especially with its tongue stuck out?
The lesson in this for humans isn’t necessarily to go lie in the middle of a field for a half-hour or so in the afternoon, it’s more along the line of Joseph Campbells’, “Follow your bliss.”
Crazy about those adult coloring books that were all the rage a few years ago? Grab your colored pencils and get coloring! Does grooming your horse for a half-hour or so bring your blood pressure down 20 points? Grab your grooming kit and get to it! Do something that works for you! And if you really do want to grab a nap in the sun, I promise I won’t take any pictures of your tongue peeking out.
In my last post, I mentioned how Tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be an extremely useful tool to have in your toolkit. (And If you haven’t already grabbed your copy of The 10-Minute Toolkit, where I give several quick exercises to help you find peace of mind, you can do so HERE.)
I explained how it works to calm your body’s flight, fight, or freeze response when you are facing a perceived threat. (And perceived is an important part of this scenario. Just because your amygdala thinks you’re in danger doesn’t mean you actually are in danger.) This post covers the actual process of Tapping.
So, what is Tapping? Tapping is a practice of gently tapping on specific acupressure meridian points while you work through a challenge you’re facing. Tapping is a multi-situation resource. It works equally well for physical pain, anger, insomnia, and a host of other situations we find ourselves in on a daily basis.
The process of Tapping starts with identifying your problem and assigning it a number from 0 – 10 on the Subjective Units of Distress (SUD) scale. So if you’re just a little worried, you might rate your SUDs at a three. If you’re heading for complete melt-down, you might register a nine or ten.
Once you’ve assigned your situation a number, you will begin the Tapping sequence. I’ve included a video below of Nick Ortner, author of The Tapping Solution”, as he gives a brief overview of the Tapping process. (It’s much easier to understand via a video rather than in text).
After you’ve done a few rounds of Tapping, do a check-in regarding your level of anxiety. Are you registering above a two or three on the SUD scale? If so, do a few more rounds, noticing any decrease in your physical tension. When you start to notice a decrease in negative emotion, you can switch to more positive statements as you repeat the tapping sequence. “I am becoming more trusting of my instructor”, “I’m calmer and looking forward to my ride”.
After you’ve gone through your positive statements a few times, check your SUD level one more time. You should have a significant reduction in your stress level.
Here are a few examples of “Setup Statements” for anxiety around horse-related situations.
Even though I’m frustrated that I have a hard time doing posting trot, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though I’m scared of mounting, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though I’m feeling angry that I can’t catch my horse, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Once you go through the process a few times, you’ll find it easier to come up with your own Setup Statements and Tapping phrases. Tapping can bring about positive results in as little as five or ten minutes, and it’s completely portable, making it especially useful at the barn.
Have you tried Tapping? How did it go for you? Do you have other stress-busting techniques you’d like to share? If so, please leave a comment below.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written about mindfulness and self-awareness and given you some tools to explore. This week, I’m going one step further – possibly one step further into woo-woo land then you might be willing to go – but again, please give this a try before you just roll your eyes and give it a miss. The new tool? Tapping – also known as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
Tapping was “discovered” in 1980 by Roger Callahan. Callahan, a psychologist, had some knowledge of acupuncture meridians. He discovered that tapping your fingers on different points of the meridian could have some pretty amazing results. (If you’d like to read some research on meridians, check out this paper on the National Institute of Health (NIH) website). The NIH also provides substantial research findings on Tapping being successfully used for health issues such as anxiety and depression. I know – woopty doo. What does this have to do with your Horsey Life? A lot my friend, a lot.
In this post and this post, I discuss some exercises you can do to de-stress from a long day before you head out to hang out with your horse. (I’ve been told that wine is also an option.) But what if you’re dealing with more than the “It’s been a long and crappy week and it’s only Monday” kind of stress? What if you’re dealing with genuine fear or other emotional roadblocks? Number one – I’ve been there, heck, everyone I know who’s involved with horses has been there at one time or another, so no self-recriminations allowed. Denying an emotion or feeling does not make it go away.
The elephant in the room
Honestly, fear isn’t that socially acceptable. There are lots of peppy phrases like, “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, and, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself” and a favorite: “FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real”. Yay. I’m sure those quotes and phrases made you feel 100% ready to tackle whatever you fear and get on with your life… or not.
While these lofty quotes can be inspiring, they’re missing a critical element: the HOW. How do you “Face the fear and do it anyway”? How do we convince ourselves that the fear we’re experiencing is just… the fear itself. (Awfully chicken and egg, if you ask me). What about the fear that you’re going to fall off? The fear you’re going to do something wrong with your horse? The fear that the vet bills are 250% more than you budgeted? Those are only feared because… we’re just afraid of fear??? I think not!
Let’s back up a step and have a quick biology lesson. Our fear responses were developed to save our butts long, long ago… (I really want to add, “in a galaxy far, far away”, but I’ll resist.) Saber-toothed tiger entering from the right? Run like hell to the left. Survival of the fittest was the day-to-day reality.
Fast forward a few millennia. Last time I checked, the only Saber-Toothed Tigers around now are just various collections of bones. Not very threatening. But in an effort to keep us safe, our amygdala takes any perceived threat and prepares your body for the running-like-hell part of the situation.
Perceived threat. “I’m going to be 5 minutes late to work” and “That ambulance was heading in the general direction of my house.” are the only things your poor amygdala has to work with these days, so it makes the most of what it’s got. Seemingly insignificant incidents can kick our good old reptile brain into overdrive. But having muscles prepare for flight, in part, by taking oxygen away from our fore-brain, usually doesn’t help our modern-day situations. Critical thinking skills go out the window, fill up the tank with cortisol, and boom – you’re a wreck.
Now instead of being late for work, substitute going for a ride on a windy day when your horse is a bit spooky. Or your instructor mentioning doing some jumping or riding in the big, open field this week. To lower your flight response and significantly improve your chances of having a lovely ride, you need a way to break that connection between the trigger (it’s windy) and the fear (I’m gonna die!). And Tapping, or EFT, is just the tool to do the job.
Next week, we’ll get into the actual tapping, and I’ll have some tapping meditations you can try for various situations. In the meantime, if you’d like an overview of the actual tapping process, check out THIS page and THIS page.
Questions or comments? Drop them in the comment box below, I’d love to hear from you! Prefer email? You’ll find me at email@example.com.