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Overthinking Under Saddle

Posted on: June 15, 2021 by Ellen Brunelle

Riding Should Be Fun! Part Three:

How SmartPaker Ellen conquers overthinking in clinics.

Riding is hands-down, my absolute favorite activity. I love how there is always more to learn, more to improve upon, and a consistent opportunity to have new experiences.  Most importantly, I truly love building a bond and trust between horse and rider.  I think we would all agree that, with riding, it is as much a mental as a physical sport. Afterall, we are riding a flight animal 10 times our size and trusting them to put their trust in us.  On that note, I will be the first to admit that, while I am not a timid rider by any means, I do tend to get in my head and overthink things, particularly when show jumping or going cross country.  I have recently been able to really take some time to delve into this and apply some techniques to help overcome nerves when doing Eventing clinics that I enjoy so much.

To start, I wanted to share a little background about myself as a rider, and my horse Nemo.  I grew up riding hunter jumpers and found my horse Nemo just shy of 10 years ago.  He was a green 7-year-old, and I could not wait to work with him as a project and build a connection.  I quickly realized that, while he can be a little quirky (spooking at the mounting block and jump blocks that he will later jump is a regular occurrence), he has so much heart, and truly just wants to be a good pony and have a friend.  We dabbled in local open shows, hunter paces, trail riding, beach riding, and after just not quite finding his niche, I brought him to a wonderful local barn and tried Eventing.  My plan was to really work on Dressage, something we can always improve upon, and see what he could do for jumping, with the overarching plan in mind that whatever we ended up doing, we were doing it because we both loved it.

Fast forward a few years, and Nemo loves Eventing, loves jumping, and particularly is extra happy going cross-country.  We ride at the Beginner Novice level and have so much fun. There are also so many opportunities at my farm to lesson, clinic, and even do weekend long Eventing clinics. As I participated in these more and more, I noticed that I was starting to get some nerves before them, mostly excitement, but a little bit of nervousness as well.  After doing some research, reflection, and being open about them with my riding friends and trainer, I have come up with some great techniques to help curb these nerves, and instead, channel them into excitement and enjoyment for the sport. 

My first technique is to be honest with my riding trainers and mention that, at times, I find myself getting nervous or anxious before a jump or cross-country lesson. It is not fear, it is more just having so much energy I do not know where to put it.  When I mentioned that, I was totally surprised that many other riders have the exact same experience and that it is more about how you channel it. If I know Nemo is ready, I am doing the homework, and making sure to break things down, such as jump courses, I will be set up for success. I also try to jump in a lesson as much as possible to avoid Nemo and I creating bad habits and have found that watching how others in the group handle a course and listening to all the feedback my trainer provides to everyone is so helpful.

Next, I have been spending a lot of time being self-aware of the way I hold any tension in my body when a little nervous, and how that is translated to Nemo. For me, I tend to lock my elbows when he is cantering or galloping.  This, in turn, translates tenseness on Nemo’s mouth, and causes him to have the opposite effect of what I would like. He moves faster, and shortens his neck, which makes it tough to get the right balanced canter to present him to a cross-country jump.  It is not perfect yet, but I have been making a strong effort to loosen my elbows, let him have full use of his neck, and realize he’s not going to go anywhere too quickly, and that I can always take a quick check of the reins to rebalance him.

Finally, I make sure to check in with myself and Nemo to be sure we are having fun.  A great example of this was this past weekend at the Eventing camp clinic I participated in.  We were mid-cross-country lesson, and Nemo was out on a course. As we galloped up the hill, for a moment, I found myself bracing and tensing up. I then did a check-in with myself, looked around at the gorgeous scenery, looked down at Nemo’s mane flying every which way as we galloped up the hill, and smiled, cheering him on as he cantered through the water jump. (He used to be afraid of puddles).  I think it is very important to have this check-in here and there, take a step back, and say “I’m galloping through this beautiful field and jumping exciting things with my best friend Nemo, and he is enjoying it just as much as I am.”

I have found these techniques to be incredibly helpful, and plan to keep working on them as a rider myself in future Eventing clinics, as I feel the improvement process is never ending. I cannot wait to see what future Eventing adventures Nemo and I have, and most importantly, how I can keep improving our trust and connection in each other.