Horse Nation contributor, equestrian and certified life coach Julie Saillant understands the dark downward spiral that can mentally hobble an equestrian after injury. She shares four positive steps to take toward mentally strengthening oneself to get back in the saddle.
In the past, athlete injury rehab has focused on getting the physical injury healed so the athlete can go back to riding their horse. Today, an equally important component to healing is incorporating psychological factors to connect the mind and body as one.
When you realize that you are seriously injured, you know it will take some time for your body to get back to normal, which will keep you out of the saddle.
This is when you may start to think “What am I going to do now?” An even worse fear can raise its ugly head and you think “What if I can’t ride at all? My life won’t be the same!” At this point, you may immediately shut down those thoughts, because not riding is too traumatic to even discuss.
This is a dark downward spiral that very few understand unless they have been hurt and have had a significant time off their horse.
What Fear Does to The Mind
Most of the time, it’s taboo to discuss your “feelings” in equestrian culture. Any vulnerability indicates a weakness that no one wants to be associated with. You will get the “Hope your feeling better! Atta girl!” type of thing. But that does NOT help with the feelings you are experiencing which may sound like this:
You: What on earth am I going to do? Why am I getting sweaty palms and shaky hands as I put on his bridle?
And your friends may say: “Hey, do you want to go for a quick ride with us?
You: “Umm, no, I can’t I have to get off and do some stuff.”
Which is code for: “I am TOO SCARED TO TAKE MYSELF AND MY HORSE OUT OF THIS RING! I am still traumatized and I don’t trust him or myself right now!”
This is a terrible feeling to have and it can stick with you for months, even years, if you don’t handle it correctly.
Good athletes master burying their feelings. They push fear and any outside negative stimulus out of their mind. In this case, what serves you right as an able-bodied athlete does NOT serve you as an injured athlete. Pushing away your negative feelings and not dealing with them properly, only makes you more nervous.
We all experience feelings of fear at certain times on our journey with our horse. If you’re at the point where you are afraid and are riding in a diminished capacity, this is the point you might want to rethink how you are handling this trauma.
When Your Body Heals but You’re Not Healed
Your mind heals, but your body remembers trauma and going back to the place where you were hurt only magnifies the PTSD.
So how do we get though it and back to the happy rider you used to be?
Before I give you some tips, there are two important factors to consider.
1. Many riders have their whole identity wrapped up in their sport. It is who they are. When they are injured and cannot participate at all or at the level they were at, they feel like they have lost their identity.
2. Many equestrians think of riding and spending time with their horse as their “zen” place. It’s your happy place to escape to and when you are injured, that is taken away. Now you have the one-two-three punch of being unsure where you fit in, scared that you may not get back to the level of riding you were at and you have lost the one place in the world where you love to be.
The Four Steps for Psychological Healing to Get You Back in the Saddle
#1: SET YOUR GOALS
SETTING GOALS FOR MENTAL TRAINING IS PARAMOUNT WHEN YOU ARE INJURED. It gives you a focus, allows you take an active part in the healing process and puts you in control of your goals, offering you confidence in the process.
Studies have shown that injured athletes using goal setting as a healing tool, exhibit greater performance improvement than those who don’t. Goals can also be measured and allows you to course correct and change direction at any time, so you can do what’s best for you and your horse.
Comparison is a large pitfall many of us experience after an injury. It keeps you stuck and small, causing a greater gap in where you want to be.
Here is an example of comparison and negative self-talk. “You used to be able to do this easily and now you are scared at every turn.” “What is wrong with you?! A ten- year-old can out ride you at this point! You are never going to excel, let alone get back to the level you were at before the injury!”
The quote by Theodore Roosevelt, “comparison is the thief of joy,” gives us incredible insight into how gut-wrenching comparison can be. You may be beating yourself up over small technical skills, when you should focus on the positives of where you are right now.
“Comparison dishonors your progress, severs your identity which was encompassed in the sport and stops you from moving forwards.” — Julie Saillant
When you compare yourself from where you WERE, to where you ARE now and how FAR you need to go to get back to where you WERE, it keeps your attention on the negative, not the positive.
Instead, change your viewpoint to one of acceptance. There is no shame in where you are. Start a positive thinking framework that sounds like this: “I am where I am. I will start with what I have right now and move forward.”
Once you have accepted where you are, there is only one place to go and that’s up. No longer will you focus on where you are broken, not in shape and not performing up to par. Doing this allows you to be grateful to ride and bring forward momentum to both you and your horse.
#3: POSITIVE GUIDED SELF-IMAGERY
Mental imagery is the process of using the imagination to rehearse and imagine a positive outcome to your riding goals.
Positive sports performance self-imagery has been shown to correlate to faster recovery times. You are seeing both you and your horse in a positive light, striving and accomplishing your goals which sets both your mind and body up for success.
I believe positive self-imagery can be transferred to your horse. Whatever you see in your mind’s eye is the picture that is sent directly to your horse. This is how top riders communicate with their horses and they seem to have a certain “flow” or knowingness pass between them.
To get the best results, practice positive self-imagery as much as possible, starting with small tasks and building from there.
#4: POSITIVE SELF-TALK
Positive self-talk is a process where you take negative thoughts and redirect them into positive images and thoughts in your mind. Following an injury, many equestrians dwell on the accident or injury and how far back they are in their training vs where they want to be.
Positive self-talk will produce confidence in you and your horse when you set the expectation that this ride/event/hacking session will be an extremely positive experience for both you and your horse. It sets the stage that this is a strong foundation from where your training begins anew.
As you know, positive self-talk relates to your mindset which can truly make or break your riding. What you focus on – expands. If you are only focused on expecting another fall, you will tense up and your horse will feel this. If you can breathe calmly and put an extremely positive picture in your mind, it will help you to focus on a positive outcome
#4: YOU 2.0
How you see yourself is critical in your progress coming back from an injury. If you picture yourself as small, unqualified and truly unable to ride your horse, the experience will follow your thoughts.
If you see yourself as competent, qualified and even enjoying your ride, your training session should be greatly improved.
You have the potential to see yourself in any light you choose. Why not choose the best possible outcome and picture for you so that you can thrive on your journey?
Top athletes have added another layer and viewed their progression as pre and post injury, seeing the post injury picture being vastly improved from the pre-injury. Instead of looking backwards to how they were, they look to their future with their highest, strongest self in the mind.
Change your thinking and look at your injury as a way to rebuild you to a stronger, faster and better version of who you were pre-injury. Think of yourself as a continually evolving person, like the $6 Million Dollar Woman!
Your body and mind will need time to recover before they improve, and by looking at how strong and capable you can be, allows you the room to actually step into that positive picture.
And It Takes Time
All of the tips above will work as I have road tested them myself as recently as yesterday. Injuries happen to many riders and it is usually the exceptional few that don’t have accidents. The most important thing to remember is that this is a process that takes time and due diligence to make it work. It is not a one and done deal. It is critical that you have a path that involves caring for yourself (physically and mentally), changing your thinking from negative to positive, and begin to trust yourself and your horse again.
Look at this as a positive opportunity to get stronger, improving both your communication and riding skills with your horse. The more time you spend in the saddle, the better. Please feel free to reach out to me, a friend, a trainer or therapist if you need more support.
Julie Saillant is a Certified Life Coach, Empath, Equine Communicator and Lifestyle Influencer. Her goal is to empower you to awaken your intuition and motivate you to take inspired action to live your best life. She is the bridge between horses and people and is here to give you the knowledge and tools to interact with your horse on a deeper level. Using her empathic intuition, Julie will guide you towards a stronger understanding of what you want your life to look like, while giving you the means to manifest your biggest dreams and make them a reality. Learn more at www.motivation-addict.com.
Photo by Kristin Lee Photography.