Q: I have a moody mare whom I love but struggle with. She is temperamental and when she gets upset, I get upset. But once I get upset, it’s all a downward spiral. What are some tips to help stop this from happening and turn a bad ride around?
A: This is a great question regardless of whether you have a mare, gelding, pony or stallion. All of us have, at one time or another, gotten upset because of something happening with our horses. The emotional connection we feel toward horses and riding is often the reason we do it in the first place, so it always rattles the little girl or boy deep within us when a ride doesn’t go like we think it should. When our horses are temperamental or difficult for us, we feel disappointment and become upset.
My mom used to always tell me that disappointment is a direct result of expectation and upset is usually what we feel as a reaction to disappointment. As a kid, I would just make a face at her when she said this because it didn’t make sense to me at the time. Now as an adult, I chuckle when I notice the deep and unmistakable connection between expectation and disappointment.
The “downward spiral” part of the question is the key here and it’s the place to make an impact. Begin by working backward from your bad ride to identify what happens in your mind from start to finish. Chances are the cycle is very similar each time.
When you examine your rides, start long before you put a foot in the stirrup. See if you can identify your expectations of your ride before you even leave the house. Some of your expectations will be realistic and others will be based more in fantasy. And don’t forget about all the negative expectations you might have of your ride because, yes, we have those, too. Beware: It’s those last two different kinds of expectations (the fantasies and the negative expectations) that are the troublemakers.
If you have followed my column at all, you know I love to make lists, write things down and say that preparation is the key to the kingdom. So make lists of how you want your ride to go, what you and your horse are currently doing well and what things are next to work on. You have to become more analytical than theoretical and you must work to develop expectations that are grounded in reality—on both the positive and negative sides. This is difficult, I know.
We all want to look and feel like (insert famous rider’s name here) on their Grand Prix horse, but unfortunately, most of us just don’t. You have to work hard to find what is good in your partnership with your horse and what you can currently execute well.
Once you know that, you can grow from there because your expectations will be in line with reality and the disappointment you feel will lessen because you will be able to separate reality from fantasy.
Horses, like people, only become temperamental when there is a reason. With this in mind, see if you can unravel the mystery of her temperament, but from a future-focused mindset. When we look for things that are wrong, they take us backward. When we look for things that are right, they take us forward.
Creating new patterns takes practice and tenacity but the upward spiral becomes worth it. Relationships, whether with people or horses, can be tricky and challenging, but when those moments of true connection happen, there’s nothing better! Stay focused, stay committed and most of all, be kind to yourself.
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.