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Andrea Waldo


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It’s Okay, It’s Not a Saber-Toothed Tiger

In this excerpt from her book Brain Training for Riders, eventer and former psychotherapist Andrea Waldo tells us two things we need in order to successfully deal with a thing we fear.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Monsarrat Waldo.

The brain’s number one concern is survival, and that fear developed to facilitate that survival. In order to get out of your way, your fear needs to know that you’re going to survive whatever is happening; it needs reassurance.

“But I’ve tried that,” most people tell me. “I try to tell myself not to worry, that everything’s going to be fine, but it doesn’t help.”

That’s because those phrases aren’t actually reassurance—they’re more like dismissal. They carry the underlying message, “You shouldn’t feel this way and there’s something wrong with you if you do.”

Meanwhile, your Lizard Brain (the area that includes the brain stem and the amygdala, and where our survival instinct comes from) is shouting, “LIAR! It’s dangerous out there! You don’t know that everything’s going to be fine!” And your Lizard is right: you can’t predict the future, and there is some element of risk every time you get on a horse. While your Lizard Brain does need to accept this element, you can reassure it that in all likelihood you will survive the situation it fears. When it knows you will survive, it can quiet down.

Using an example of my own fear of falling and losing face with other riders and trainers, here’s how to reassure your Lizard Brain.

Fear: If I fall off at that jump again, everyone will think I’m a terrible rider.

Me: Is that thought true?

Fear: Yup. I’m sure of it. (Fear is always sure of everything it believes.)

Me: When we’ve fallen off before, how did other people react?

Fear: They asked if I was okay. Some people told me they’d fallen at that same fence. Pretty much everyone was really sympathetic. BUT maybe they were just being nice, and they secretly thought I was a terrible rider.

Me: Maybe. But when other people fall, do you think they’re terrible riders?

Fear: Not unless I’ve seen them do something really wrong that caused the fall, and even then I usually think that everyone makes mistakes. I’d only think they were terrible if I’d seen them have the same kind of fall over and over a whole bunch of times, without trying to fix the problem.

Me: So chances are, if you did fall, people would be sympathetic rather than critical.

Fear: Yeah, I guess. BUT some people might still think I’m an idiot to make the same mistake twice.

Me: They might. Could you live with that?

Fear: No, that would be AWFUL! It would be the worst thing ever! I hate it when people think bad things about me. I would just die!

Me: Okay, it would feel terrible. But no one has ever died of embarrassment. So could you live with it?

Fear: (sulking) Yes, it would feel terrible, but I could live with it. I guess it wouldn’t kill me.

The brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one—it sees a dressage judge and a saber-toothed tiger as equally threatening. This is why the above conversation is so important. Your fear needs to be reassured that even though something might be difficult, painful or unpleasant, it probably won’t be fatal. Reassurance isn’t telling yourself that you don’t care or that it won’t hurt, because that’s not always true. It’s reminding yourself that even if it feels awful, you can live with it.

That’s all your fear needs to know in order to feel reassured.

A Plan: Escaping from Tigers

Fears, worries, and anxieties are essentially “what if?” questions. The problem is that we either don’t answer the question or we answer it with a worst-case scenario, so we can’t imagine a positive outcome. The only outcome we can see when we’re afraid of being attacked by a tiger is being eaten by the tiger. Coming up with a plan to solve the “what if” lets the Lizard know that you have a strategy for escaping when the tiger comes out of the woods. When your Lizard Brain needs a plan, ask the following questions:

  1. What skills, abilities, or knowledge do I have that will make that worst-case outcome unlikely?
  2. What will I do to prevent the situation from happening?
  3. If the problem starts to occur, what will I do to solve it?

In the case of my fear of falling at the cross-country jump, the answers look like this:

  1. I now know to think about how the time of day will affect the light around the jump (a shadow created the problem that led to the original fall). I’ve practiced this type of jump repeatedly, so my horse and I are familiar with it.
  2. I’ll approach the jump with the right pace and balance. I’ll set up a few strides earlier than usual to really make sure we get it right.
  3. If I feel like I’m going to get to the wrong take-off spot, I’ll half-halt to add a stride. If I’m really not sure, I can circle away from the jump and re-approach—it would mean 20 penalties, but 20 points is better than falling. I can also take the option fence if there is one.

Reviewing in detail how to solve the problem will ease your fears and remind you that you have some control over the problem. Now your fear can step back out of the way so you can get on with your ride.

Image courtesy of Horse & Rider Books.

This excerpt from Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

The Beauty of Big, Huge, Awkward Mistakes

Advanced Level eventer and psychotherapist Andrea Waldo tells us why we need to screw up (a lot!) if we want to be better riders.

Everyone has heard the old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” Then, somewhere along the way, someone upped the ante on us and said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” The theory goes that if you keep making mistakes in your practice, your performance never gets any better. This seems to make perfect sense—except for the minor detail that according to the latest research in neuroscience, it turns out to be completely wrong.

Let me clarify: it’s true that sloppy, careless practice produces sloppy results. It’s a waste of time to ride endless 20-meter circles if you ignore the quality of those circles, and repeating the same mistake over and over makes you really good at that mistake. However, endless “perfect” 20-meter circles don’t necessarily make you a better rider, either. There is a time and place for perfection, but there is also a time and place for big, huge, awkward mistakes.

“Perfect practice makes perfect” is true when you are working to maintain or fine-tune a skill you have already mastered. If your goal for the day is to polish your horse’s shoulder-in, and it’s already solid to begin with, then your aim should be perfect practice. Perfect practice is also an appropriate goal right before a show: you aren’t trying to learn or teach your horse something new, you just want to review the skills you’ll need on the weekend to make them as strong and sparkling as possible.

When it comes to learning new skills or taking your current ones to a higher level, however, perfect practice is both unattainable and undesirable. If you’ve never done a flying change before, when you first start to learn how, you’re going to miss—a lot. You might hit a streak of beginner’s luck, and that’s great, but it’s not the same thing as mastery. In order to truly master a skill, you have to make lots and lots of mistakes, and then correct those mistakes, getting closer and closer to performing the skill correctly.

This process can be maddeningly slow and incredibly frustrating. The good news is that the more you make mistakes and correct them, the more your brain is learning and integrating the parts of the skill into its neurological memory. (What we usually call “muscle memory” is actually neurological memory: we develop neural pathways that command our muscles to perform the tasks that we want.)

If you normally post at the trot, think back to when you first learned this skill. At first, you probably bounced all over the place. You might have come up out of the saddle on every third or fourth stride, then banged roughly down on the saddle, where you bounced around some more. Your leg slipped forward, it slipped back, you fell forward, you got left behind.

Eventually, you found the right rhythm, let the horse’s movement toss you out of the saddle, sat back down without thumping, and voila! Up, down, up, down—you could post! This process might have taken hours or months, but you eventually mastered the skill.

During that process, the neurons in your brain were busily developing the network that would eventually become your “posting trot neural network.” With each repetition, the neurons fired to make your seat go up and down. The more those neurons fired, the thicker they became. As you exerted effort to correct your mistakes and refine your movements, those neural pathways got stronger, and they developed more connections to other related neural pathways.

For example, your “stand-up” neurons developed connections to your “hands-still” neurons. Eventually, you acquired a strong, integrated “posting trot” neural network that now functions more or less automatically.

For reasons we don’t yet fully understand, it appears that effort, error, and correction of error are all essential in the process of this neural pathway development. In other words, you can’t get better without screwing up a lot and working hard to fix it. Yes, some things come more easily than others, but in general, the acquisition of new and better skills is achieved in six steps:

  1. Try.
  2. Fail.
  3. Figure out what went wrong.
  4. Try again.
  5. Fail better.
  6. Repeat until mastery is achieved.

It’s vital in this process to operate on the very top edge of your current ability. If the task isn’t hard enough, the brain won’t have to work to strengthen the neural network for that skill. On the other hand, if it’s too far beyond your current capabilities, you won’t be able to improve either, because you are over-faced and don’t have a good foundation to build on.

If I ask you to try flying changes before you have even learned to canter, you’re guaranteed to fail. It’s like lifting weights: if you don’t have to expend any effort to lift the weight, your muscles won’t develop, but if you try to lift way too much, you’ll fail completely. You need to lift an amount that’s hard, but not impossible, in order to get stronger.

This excerpt from Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (