Emotional Fitness for the Dressage Rider

Jenny Susser, PhD, explores the capacity to tolerate and manage emotional stress in the context of dressage.
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The last two columns have looked at physical fitness and mental fitness: how your physical and mental capacities help or hinder your goals in your riding. This month we are going to look at emotional fitness, or our capacity to tolerate emotional stress and how we manage it. 

Let’s just face it, horses make us emotional! We are rational, thoughtful, competent human beings in many areas of our lives and for some of us, the minute we walk in the barn, we turn to mushy, sensitive and reactive people driven by emotion. I hear people call their horses “therapy” over and over, and as a psychologist, I find that sentiment can be a little ironic since a lot of the time, I see people become incredibly emotionally unseated by their horse, pun intended. 

The greater our ability to tolerate emotional events both positive and negative, the greater our ability to affect change and create growth. Throughout my column this year, I hope I have convinced you that it is worth the effort to grow your emotional fitness. The convincing becomes necessary because this process and journey are not easy and are full of obstacles and discomfort. The great part is the success that lives on the other side of this work, and when you feel it, no matter how small, it makes an incredible difference for you and your horse.

A very big ingredient in your emotional fitness is how you handle stress. How do you personally handle stress? What are your typical responses when you feel stress and how do you resolve the issue? Do you even know? Stress is a word that tends to create an immediate negative response, yet its origins are actually quite positive. 

“Stress” is originally an engineering term meant to describe the capacity of an element to withstand pressure and still perform the job it is designed for. For example, how much stress can that steel girder withstand and still hold the bridge up? This is an extremely important question to be able to answer successfully and must be tested accurately for safety. The most interesting element of this example is that in order to make a steel girder stronger, you have to add fire or heat. What an incredible metaphor for our own emotional growth. We need pressure in order to grow! Instead of associating stress and pressure with negativity, what if we viewed them as growth factors? This concept might seem idealistic and unrealistic at a glance, but unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—it is true. 

Here’s the conundrum: You need to be emotionally fit to be able to handle more stress. But the way to become emotionally fit is by exposing yourself to stress and pressure. Where do we begin? 

There are many elements of handling stress and pressure—too many to cover in this column. But I’d like to talk about one that should come first: preparation. I talk about preparation a lot, but don’t let that dull your response to it. 

Part of what unseats us is our lack of preparation for emotional stress or pressure and the intensity of our innate responses. We tend to go into situations without fully considering all the outcomes, leaving us unprepared for certain results. In the world of emotions, a common strategy is avoidance or denial; that’s part of the human condition. But we have the ability to override that tendency and think our way to preparation. 

If you expect it to happen and preparethat you will have an emotional response, then you have a greater ability to recover from it. The faster you can recover and process your emotions (because you are going to have emotions), the faster you can return to a positive mental state, the more ability you have to make proper and powerful decisions, and, thus, the more likely you are to experience a successful outcome. 

Each time you go into a situation that you know creates an emotional response from you, stop to think about it for a minute first. Sometimes, just knowing you will have an emotional response is enough to decrease the impact it can have on you. Then you can prepare responses that help you remain on track to your goal, whatever it might be. Trainers become emotionally unseated less often because of the arsenal of tools (preparation) they have. It’s not that they are less emotional, it’s just that they are better prepared so the emotions don’t surprise them and take away power. Spend some time away from the barn to think about the things that make you emotional about your riding. Make a list of possible triggers and pair each one with a preparation strategy. Then begin working on it. You will feel better and be more successful, and your horse will thank you for it!

Next month’s column: Pre-Show Routine: How To Show Like A Pro!

Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages— collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with Human Performance. 

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