MAY 2021 THE RIDER /43

Fitness for Riders: Using Fitness

to Overcome Fear

By Dr. Heather Sansom This month’s rider fit-

ness tip is based on a sug- gestion from a reader who asked ‘what can I do about fear after a fall’? Some of you know that in addition to being a fitness trainer, riding coach, and biomechanics specialist, I am also a psy- chotherapist. Actually, I be- came one because of my Equifitt clients when I real- ized the strong tie between our head, our body, and our ride. This month’s newslet- ter is a discussion about how you can use fitness time to help your mindset, especially regarding fear. A small percentage of

riders are truly fearless. The rest of us remember, usually with a wince, what it felt like to hit the dirt from the height of a horse the last time it happened. The old- school approach has always been to ‘get back in the sad- dle’, to the point where the phrase has become a com- mon idiom in the non-horse world…long past equestrian sport adopting more sensi- ble concussion safety proto- cols. We know now that getting right back on imme- diately after a fall is contra- indicated due to the risk of concussion, whether you ac- tually hit your head or not. Concussion codes


equestrian sport are similar to those for other sports known for high concussion rates, such as American football. You can see an ex- ample here. However, there is a different level of wis- dom to the ‘get back on’ ap- proach that comes from psychology. Research in trauma re-

covery shows that avoiding reminders of a traumatic in- cident actually increases the fear and anxiety responses (post-traumatic stress). The research also shows that early intervention is impor- tant in preventing a bad in- cident from becoming a long-standing fear or trau- matic response. In other words, while exiting the scene of an accident safely and staying off a horse after a fall for a period of time may be the physically re- sponsible and wise thing to do, avoiding the activity you were hurt in can increase your fear. So, as a smart rider who wants to heal from or prevent concussion, yet not develop fear of rid- ing, what do you do? First, fear and anxiety

are in an inverse relation- ship to problem-solving and clear thinking. When the parts of your brain that most process and remember fear are activated, the parts of

your brain for clear thinking dial down. I think of it a little like a teeter- totter: if one is up, the other is down. You can help con- trol fear by engag-

ing your thinking brain. Assuming you’ve dusted yourself off, your horse is snug in his barn or paddock, and you are safe enough to be reading this article, you are in a state for thinking. It’s important to start with some basic problem solving by asking about the factors for your fall, ranging from random spooking, to your own balance skills or lack of attention, or a task you were trying to do with the horse that one or both of you were not ready for. Some factors have

easy solutions. You can do physical training to improve balance and reaction times, and you can break down your horse’s training into progressive steps in smaller increments so that you are challenged without exceed- ing technical competence, or use different equipment (e.g. wear corks in mud). However, another factor to consider is the fact that a fearful experience gets quickly ‘memorized’ by your amygdala, which is one of the most primitive parts of your brain. Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score” is one of the best known de- scriptions of the way your body creates a visceral memory of fear.

If you

work with horses, you know the same thing happens to them if they have ever had a big scare, such as an acci- dent in a horse trailer result- ing in difficulty loading. When you set

yourself the goal to get back in the sad- dle,


doing the same ac- tivity or riding the same horse that was involved in your ac- cident,


that only part of your brain is open to ‘self talk’ and reasoning at first. The part of your brain that encoded the fear is not. Soothing self-talk early on such as ‘it’s going to be fine’ is quickly recognized by your fear alert system as an unsub- stantiated platitude (BS alert). What your brain wants and needs is con- crete,

ing and emotional experi- encing brain. For example, you were supposed to be safe when the accident hap- pened, and it still happened. Think of it as your fear-alert brain (amygdala) hijacking the bus because the driver (thinking brain that got you on a horse doing that thing that day) has not kept you safe.

Tame it or train it like

you would a horse: with pa- tient, encouraging, reward- ing, gradual exposure and tasks. Otherwise, going too quickly could actually rein- force the fear because your brain still feels unsafe and out of control, and now it is not even safe from you be- cause you are forcing it into a panic situation. In addi- tion to logical thinking to calm the anxious brain, and gradual mounted exposure that provides many opportu- nities for safety and success, you can also help your brain heal from its fear by using exercise and virtual expo- sure. Too bad we can’t train horses to load on trailers after a trauma by playing trailer-loading videos for them! Interestingly, physical

confidence is a ‘transferable skill’. You can build up your physical confidence for handling riding again by building your physical con- fidence generally. This is ac- complished by physical activity that challenges you, but you can still succeed at. Physical training that helps you be more in tune with your body (proprioception) helps you feel more in con- trol. It also helps actually BE more in control by im- proving balance, co-ordina- tion, stamina, and reaction times.

The type of physical

training that works best for each rider is also dependent on your personality. Some riders get a lot of energy from doing slower, more meditative or concentrated exercise like yoga or pilates. Others need to experience a lot of kinetic discharge of energy, such as running, HIIT, or bootcamp type workout. Assuming you do whatever moves you best, make sure that you take the stretching and breathing cool-down time seriously. From the point of view of rider fear, taking time to no- tice physical relaxation, ap- preciate that you can dial down your own stress phys- ically, become aware of your body, and practice deep breathing all contribute to physiological down-regu- lation of the fear response. The connection be-

tween physical and mental confidence happens two ways. Partly, it happens when you are intentional about making the connec- tion. Think of the stretching and breathing portion as the bridge from your physical workout, to your mental bal- ance. Secondly, exercise ac- tually


neurological changes that promote mental wellbeing. John Ratey’s book “Spark” is one of the most readable presentations of the ways this works. Briefly, exercise has an impact on neuro- transmitters and even brain cell connection and growth. When you are combining exercise with gradual expo- sure work, think of it as put- ting fertilizer on a growing plant: you get a more robust, more

resilient plant

(stronger cell connections for the new mental links you

are making between safety, competence, and riding). In simple terms, you make it easier for your brain to un- learn the dominant fear re- sponse, and relearn to feel safe again. Finally, as you start to

feel more physically compe- tent and confident, you can use your exercise time for rider-specific muscle and mental ‘memory’ training to prepare you for the mounted work you want to return to. One very simple exercise is using squats, especially if on a balance or wobble board, while visualizing a complete mounted sequence. For ex- ample, if you fell off jump- ing that ditch on your bay gelding Sam, visualize doing it successfully with him play by play in vivid detail as you do your squat exercise. You can even mod- ify the squat to ‘act out’ your own posting or canter mo- tion. Using a balance chal- lenge such as balance board, BOSU, wobble board, or just perching with the balls of your feed on a broom handle or 2x4 will create enough instability to trigger the loss of balance memory. By

practicing ‘riding

through’ that balance-chal- lenge body input success- fully, you prepare to stay focused when it comes time to do it in the saddle. Also, you are increasing your leg and back stamina so that you are fitter for the task. If you start to feel anxious as you do a visualization exer- cise, stop, breathe deeply, and do something to ground yourself and regain your confidence. You don’t have the luxury of doing that as easily in the saddle, but you can do it on the ground. Exposing yourself to

the feared situation in tiny slices like that is called ‘titrating’ your exposure. It is exactly what is happening when we allow a trailer- spooked horse to step on, then off, or walk on, then off again before he is at the stage of actually loading up and getting locked in. Tak-

ing time to down-dial your fear response teaches your amygdala that it does not have to mount a panic alarm since everything is under control. The more you do it, the stronger the neural con- nections, and the better the training. Don’t be afraid that you seem to be taking ‘for- ever’, or making your expo- sure-slices super thin. Remember to take into

account the limits of your horse, your skill, and other practical considerations, and to approach mounted work after a fall with a trained rid- ing instructor. When you are afraid, or frustrated with yourself for being afraid, you may under or over read the horse’s and your own readiness. This article does not replace having a trainer present to help you with your specific horse and situ- ation. Also, if you have de- veloped significant panic or anxiety symptoms, please see a mental health profes- sional or a sport psycholo- gist about it. Horses do not actually read our minds. They do read our affective (emotional) states based on mirror neurons, that allow them to pick up on the emo- tions common to all mam- mals such as fear. Working on yourself is one of the most important ways you can impact your horse’s confidence or fear.

Your horse has given you a lifetime of love and it is hard to walk away when the time has come to say goodbye

Honouring the life of your horse.


Let the staff at Ontario Equine Cremation Services provide you with individual equine cremation.

-------------------- physical

‘proof’ to relearn safety expectations somatically (con- necting your mind and body). It has also had a major disruption to the neural connections between your think-

Servicing all of Ontario Government Licensed

Craig Hunter and Family and Staff

1.888.668.2989 519.268.2989

Safe and Happy Training! Heather Sansom, is a

leader in equestrian fitness and biomechanics, offering personalized coaching and workshops, mounted and unmounted since 2007. She has specialized in training you can do with little equip- ment in small spaces, and integrate into your ‘real’ life whether you have gym ac- cess or not. Heather has offered

distance coaching for over 12 years, with clients all over the world. Clients in- clude serious equestrian ath- letes, adult amateurs, and riders working with physical or mental rehabilitation to achieve their riding goals. Order one of Heather’s

leading workout and train- ing books, or contact her for more personalized support for your riding, fitness or mindset needs.

© Heather R. Sansom, PhD.

Leading Equestrian Fitness since 2007. Fitness & Biomechanics Specialist. Personal fitness. Riding in- struction. Clinics. Mindset coaching. Books Online Coaching Available online almost anywhere

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