Q: Over the course of several years, I had some bad experiences with a horse who wasn’t a good match for me. I have since moved on from that horse, but it seems that I forgot how to enjoy riding. Horses are still a big piece of me, so I don’t want to give them up completely. How can I rediscover the joy of riding?
A: Where does the joy of riding come from? What are the elements that compose this magical feeling and experience? And when they seem lost, how do you rediscover them? These are the questions that, with some reflection, contemplation and searching, might help you find that feeling again. Maybe your initial love of horses was a gift you inherited from your parents or was sparked by a movie you saw or book you read as a child. Or maybe it’s just the way you are wired. But it doesn’t really matter where this wonderful love of horses comes from. What matters now is uncovering it from whatever has dampened it.
As always, there are several roads to Rome, so let’s look at a couple of them. You should choose your path based on how you think and work. You can also draw from how you have tackled some issues successfully in the past.
One way to tap into and flush out some of the roadblocks is to write. I hesitate to use the word “journaling” because it seems to elicit the all-too-famous eye roll these days. The thing is that journaling does actually work. When you write with paper and pen, it does something to the brain that typing on a device does not. It taps into and creates pathways in the brain better (see work by American psychologist James Pennebaker). Many people report being surprised by what falls out of their pen onto paper when doing writing exercises. It is a wonderful way to tap into thoughts or feelings hidden from view as well as to create new pathways.
If you feel like this might be a good method for you (and especially if you think it would not be), buy a journal (yes, I did just use that word) or a composition book and a pen you like to write with and pick a time each day to write. Ten minutes is a good time frame to start with. Write at the top of the page whatever topic you want to explore, set a timer on your phone and just write whatever comes to mind. The challenge is ignoring the mental editing we all do. You will hear your private voice say things like: It’s not good enough, it’s stupid or irrelevant or this isn’t working. Thank your private voice for sharing and then keep going. What you are looking for is insight. What has happened to your love of riding and how can you get it back? Like any other skill, it will take a little while to get good at this.
Another possible access point is to engage in a little narrative work or storytelling. Narrative therapy reaches into the human nature of storytelling. We love stories! We love to tell stories, read stories, watch stories. They have an emotional element, that is what makes them so powerful.
Losing the joy of riding can be connected to a story. Something or a series of somethings happened and you can weave those things together to form a story. Of course, this storyline was not intentional or even planned, but any series of events can easily turn into a story.
Next, you need to rewrite your story of riding in order to override this negative and destructive narrative that has taken hold of your relationship with your riding. How to do this is by identifying what your current story actually is and then replacing it.
You have to listen to the story you tell yourself and others about riding. Ask your horse friends to tell you their impression of your story. Listen to what falls out of your mouth as you talk to people close to you about riding. What do you complain about consistently?
All of this has become your story. Once the old story clears, you must write a new one. The new one might even be the story you had before it took a negative turn. But you need something to replace the negative narrative. Both methods will take 10 to 15 minutes a day and about a month to really take hold. But remember, a month will go by quicker than you think!
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.