Fear is a funny emotion. It is meant to save us from harm right? In my experience I have found that fear in itself can be quite destructive. You are afraid, you overthink, you are not relaxed in your body and then your worries become a self fulfilling prophecy. I have seen it a lot with people riding sharp horses, they are scared, they tighten their body, the horse spooks, they fall off. They become more afraid. I’ve seen it with parents of toddlers, the toddler climbs something, they ‘helicopter parent’, the child believes there is something to be afraid of, tightens up, falls off. These are two examples where something that should protect us from harm causes harm. There are lots of occasions obviously that fear is lifesaving, and even in my two examples, a level to which this fear is entirely legitimate. The counter productive fear cycle is the one that we as riders constantly work to diminish. My mum (god rest her soul) would say ‘fortune favours the brave’, I try to live by this even at times when I really struggle to believe it.
As a child and young adult I had an interesting relationship with fear – in that when I sat on a horse, I didn’t really have any – and in fact the adrenaline or cortisol that I had from doing anything a bit risky I actually enjoyed. I was a bit hooked on the come down mix of the endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. The downside of this is that I now have virtually constant low level pain from the injuries I accumulated during this time.
I now generally don’t do things that cause me actual fear. I simply opt out. The reality is that I do suffer with a certain degree of anxiety in my life. Not that many people would know this because my anxiety seems to be quite selective. I spent a large proportion of my early years performing in front of people when competing my horses in a situation that I am entirely in control of. Public speaking, competing horses in public etc are all things that you wouldn’t associate with someone who suffers with a degree of anxiety – however I thrive on it. The sort of anxiety that I have is at its worst when having to make small talk with strangers. I hate it. I find it stressful and generally avoid it. However, I do it all of the time in my professional capacity with absolutely no problem. You see ‘teacher Nicola’ is a persona, a bit of an act, one that I have done for nearly 20 years. Every so often I have a bout of ‘imposter syndrome’ over it, but the role generally generates very little anxiety. I have learnt to moderate my anxiety at work by trying hard to be good at my job, by building good relationships with the people around me, and with the exception of one case where this wasn’t possible, this has served me well. Socially, I overcompensate for my anxiety by completely dominating conversations. People who meet me would say that I am a loud, gregarious attention seeker and I fully understand why but at home I’m actually really quite a quiet person.
I avoided confronting the demons in my head about eventing through total avoidance. I thought I had lost my nerve, which in hindsight makes no sense because it wasn’t a riding related accident that had seen my competitive riding come to an end. It was the aftermath of a road accident on the way back from an event, that over 3 years, and the subsequent birth of 2 of my 4 children that had led me to give up competing. My intention was that I would never do it again, and for 12+ years, I believed I was happy and comfortable with this. I now know that I wasn’t happy. I’m now fairly confident that I had PTSD for over 14 years. I only found this out in September when I woke up one day and was better. In one of my previous blogs I have talked about this, but in short it wasn’t fear of riding that had stopped me.
So on Saturday I had my first outing of the year on Beau. There was genuine fear around this outing, but I had broken it down in my head to being able to define what I was afraid of, and this helped considerably. I was afraid of the journey. 15 years ago I went to an event with a beautiful 9 year old horse in a new mode of transport and he never came home. He was shot lying in a pool of his own blood on the side of a road in a heap of mangled metal. Saturday I went out with a beautiful 9 year old horse in a new mode of transport…… you can see why my brain was concerned. Ironically, Beau would never have existed without that accident in 2004. He is the grandson of Harvey my horse that died. Beau is called Harves Legacy. Harvey was called Beau up to the age of 2, my son has Harvey as his middle name…. Yes that accident was significant, changed my life but I never dealt with it internally. It wasn’t my fault, and I knew that, but knowing and understanding are different.
Anyway, Saturday went fine, my concerns were nothing but a waste of emotional energy. It was just a fun-ride but it couldn’t have gone better. The journey was fine, my fear was unfounded, Beau was perfect (other than constantly kicking the tack locker in the trailer with his front legs!). I was cautious at the start on the ride and took a while to jump much, but we haven’t left the floor since September and the jumps were mainly hunt jumps (a little agricultural). The journey home was fine and I am now floating on air, once again slightly addicted to the feeling you get when you have pushed yourself out of your comfort zone and everything went well. This is called progress, it’s a learning curve.
It is only right that we feel some sense of emotion when we do things. Riding is a risk sport. Horses and riders get injured, horses and riders from time to time die (rider fatalities these days are far more rare than they were 20 years ago thank goodness). The sport has moved forward in leaps and bounds in terms of safety but you cannot eliminate all risk. A healthy respect and an awareness of your own and your horses capabilities is vital.
It is true that most of the things that we are the most afraid of and worried about, never hurt us, and that it is the unexpected things that do the most damage. Be a little braver, don’t listen to that little voice saying you’re not good enough, don’t take ridiculous risks – I hold the MER to compete at BE Nov but won’t be starting at this point because that would be a recipe for disaster. My mother also used to say ‘what’s in the brain goes down the rein’. This is so true. If you think you will have a run out at a skinny coming out of the water, then guess what happens. Use positive visualisation to help qualm your concerns.
The feeling you get before you do something is easily misinterpreted. I guess this is particularly so if you have previously had a bad experience or memory. Anxiety and excitement feel the same. The context and how you make use of the emotion is key.
My anxiety is now pure excitement about the rest of the season. I will now be excited to go out and not anxious. I promise myself not to overthink and to remember that everything that happened, had to happen for me to be here, with this horse now. I will feel the fear and do it anyway 😊.