Mental Health

Riders as a whole seem to be pretty conscious of their health: physically, mentally, and emotionally. We all want to be in sync with our horses and know that in order to do that, we have to be fit in all of those ways. I don’t mean having the body of an Olympic track athlete and achieving a state of nirvana with every ride, but achieving balance in whatever way works for each of us.

Getting physically fit has always been the easy part for me. Thanks to genetics and *mostly*ย  healthy habits, I can maintain a decent muscle mass without too many lifestyle changes. Where I struggle, and have always struggled, is the mental game.

I’ve mentioned in many posts how timid a rider I was when I was younger- crying in almost every lesson because I was scared to jump, refusal to move up a division even though my horse could do it in his sleep, and general terror at everything my trainer asked me to do besides trotting. But not trotting too fast because that was scary too.

And I’ve also mentioned in many posts that I’m much more confident now! I still have my “oh crap” moments, but I’m much more willing to try new things and trust my mount. I’ve done so many things that scared me as a kid and had so much fun with all of it.

So I’ve conquered one of my mental blocks (for the most part….I still get a little tense when the jumps go up. At least now I’ll still give it a try despite the nerves!). But I have another mental block that wanders its way into my life every fall. SAD. No, I’m not saying that this mental block is a sad thing. I’m saying that my mental block is Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Some of you likely have dealt with this too- it’s surprisingly common among women. For those of you who haven’t, it’s basically the winter blues on steroids. Symptoms vary from person to person- personally, I get lethargic, tired, stop sleeping well, lose interest in EVERYTHING, get super anxious for no reason, and am basically miserable from October to March. Not to say that every day is a bad day or that I take no pleasure in anything, but the balance of good-to-bad days gets thrown waaaay off.

This has come back around at me for ten years now, and I’ve handled it with varying degrees of success over the years. It’s no coincidence that I’ve changed jobs/moved/picked up hobbies almost exclusively in the fall and winter- changing things up and staying busy seems to help. Being around the horses helps for obvious reasons- it keeps me active and getting fresh air. I take vitamin D and walk outside and have a light box in my office and eat super clean and cut out caffeine and do all of the things I’m supposed to do.

And that’s all certainly helped. But I still had days where getting out of bed was TOO much, and even the thought of doing something routine like taking a shower or brushing my teeth was overwhelming. And that was not ok with me. I have too many goals to accomplish and too many fun things to do for me to be fine with lying in bed with bad breath.

So I’m really happy to say that I finally talked to my doctor about it last year and we came up with a game plan. I’m not planning on sharing my medical history (any more that I already have…lawlz), but I will say that ten years in, I finally DID something about it instead of sitting here dreading the colder weather. I got to love the changing leaves and snow like I did when I was younger.

I didn’t hate winter last year for any reason besides how STUPIDLY COLD IT IS OMG. I guess I can’t blame it all on the SAD.

The takeaway? I’d like to urge any of you who deal with the “winter blues” to talk to your doctor if it starts to get too much. And always feel free to reach out to me if you just need someone to talk to or bounce ideas off. My crazy would love to hang out with your crazy.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And What We’re Doing About It.

I know most of you must be familiar with the concept of your horse knowing your emotions before you do. Most people attribute it to horses being prey animals- they must be hyper-aware of their surroundings. I attribute it to voodoo magic. But whatever you attribute this to, horses always seem to be the mirror that shows us what’s actually going on.

For example: Addy has been refusing jumps in our last two lessons. Most are not dirty stops (though some absolutely are), but my jumping machine seems to have lost some of her hops. We can have a beautiful flowing course, and then she will come to a screeching halt at a simple 2’3″ vertical she’s jumped 2-3x a week for the last year.

I’ve never been the type to get overly worked up about a stop- I’ll give her a good thump in the sides as a big fat NOPE YOU DON’T GET TO ENJOY THIS, but I’m fine with making a circle and re-approaching. I’m not the rider who gets crazy frustrated and starts to cry about how my horse hates me. Instead, I’m more thinking “WTF is going on and what am I doing wrong.”

Key: what am *I* doing wrong. Not what darling pony is doing wrong. Me. Myself. I. Because even if I’m getting dirty stops, that’s something that I need to address. That’s a training opportunity.

So after ending our lesson on a decent note (I actually have lots of videos that I’ll be posting on Insta over the next couple days, shoutout to Manfriend for braving his allergies to get me more media!) I took a step back. I’ve been sick for a couple weeks. I’ve been out of town for several weekends. My riding routine has been disrupted and I’ve almost definitely lost some muscle mass from said disruption. Is it any wonder if my riding has suffered? My job has picked up a LOT lately. Is it any wonder that I’m coming to my lessons with a measure of stress and tension that wasn’t there before?

Addy is a horse that will work with me all day long and give me her whole heart, but she is not the type of horse to work for me. As frustrating as it is, she’s giving me the ride I need right now- reminding me that it’s OK to throw out the pretty equitation and get gutsy when need be.

But I also need to take a step back and realize what I’ve been asking her to do: even though I’ve been riding less so you’re not getting worked as consistently, and I’m tense and nervous and riding weakly, please cart my butt over that 3’3″ oxer. All my aids are screaming “I’m not sure about this,” but please go for it anyway.

Of course she’s not going to do it. Like I said last week, Precious Pony is not getting canonized any time soon, and it would certainly take some saintlike behavior to put up with that garbage.

But identifying this as a problem has actually made me feel tons better! Because now I have a trainer-approved plan to address it: build up our confidence. Her confidence in me, my confidence in her, and both of our confidence that we actually know what we’re doing.

So this involves building lots of positive experiences for both of us. Asking for things that she enjoys and excels at so that she gets tons of praise for succeeding. Taking the pressure off and enjoying each other’s company. Spending extra time grooming and bonding. Dropping my stirrups to get that muscle tone back. Basically psychological boot camp (with a little bit of physical boot camp too).

So when I rode Friday, she got to go on the buckle. I held a very light contact the entire time and just asked her to move freely without me hanging on her mouth. I didn’t ask her to collect or package or do anything too strenuous. Just stretch out and play together. Lo and behold, I got a gorgeous stretchy trot and a quiet, balanced canter. Bonus: I got a great lower body workout since I had basically thrown away the reins and was riding based on seat and leg.

Then just yesterday we went out on a long trail ride with friends. Even though she’s been on maybe 3 trail rides ever, she crossed bridges and trotted up steep hills and went through the woods and walked down neighborhood streets like she does this every day. It was just the reminder I needed that this horse is absolutely trustworthy. She wants to take care of me and she wants to do a good job.

It’s like Nicole explained in her post about the Trust Bank (which I legit refer to all the time because I love it so much)- if I want Addy to save my butt in tough situations, I need to make sure she knows that I will always always always do the same for her. Let her know that we get to have fun together including but not limited to jumping over colorful sticks. That I’m on board and leading and will set both of us up for success.

After all, two steps forward and one step back still counts as progress. I’m really excited about reaching a new level of understanding and communication with my Beastly Creature! I’ll keep you all updated on how it goes.

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What have you done when you needed to take a step back to build the trust back up? Any ideas for fun activities we can do together?

Things that Don’t Scare Me

I very sadly missed my lesson last night due to stupid sniffles/sore throat/general ickiness, so no lesson review today. Instead, I’d like to focus on some positives in my riding by talking about stuff that doesn’t scare me anymore!

I’m a bit of a weenie ammy- when things get hard I get nervous. Luckily I’ve got the DragonMare watching my back and she takes this job very seriously, so I’ve been brave lately. Even when she stopped at those fences at our show, she popped her head up so I wouldn’t go flying off the front. At least, that’s the reasoning I’m ascribing to her (it couldn’t just be that it made stopping easier, could it?).

There are plenty of things that make me nervous, and I think they might be a little different than some people’s “scare list.” But there are plenty of things that seem to make a lot of scare-lists that don’t bother me, and I’m going to keep my focus on being brave!

Without further ado, here’s a list of stuff that doesn’t give me a sinking feeling of dread in my stomach:

  1. Oxers. I dunno, I just don’t ride these differently. Sure, the horse is going to jump a little harder to clear the spread, but whateva. DragonMare usually overjumps by a foot anyways, so these don’t feel that different. Maybe once the spreads start getting wider and wider I’ll start to get a little leery, but for now they don’t even register other than as a mental note on my course.
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Wuteva oxer we don’t care
  1. Combos. Why do people hate combos?? They automatically set you up for the out! Even if you come in messy, sitting up and adding leg will almost always get you out decently. And if you come in nicely, it’s the best feeling in the world to flow out. One-stride, two-stride, three, whatever. Moar combos pls. Then again, I’m lucky enough to have a horse with the power to recover in the middle, so that absolutely helps.
  2. Higher fences. Now, I’m not talking about 4′ brick walls. I’m talking within reason here. I know that Addy easily has the scope for 4′, so 3′ doesn’t feel like a big deal any more. Sometimes I’ll look at a jump and think that it looks big, but I just point Addy at it and suddenly it doesn’t feel that bad. This ties into the Dragon overjumping everything- my trainer and I joked that moving up to 3’6″ wouldn’t feel any different since she usually clears that height anyways. Why be scared of a height we’re already unofficially jumping?
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Yeah, Addy, the jump isn’t that high.
  1. Pace. This is a new addition to the list. Forward used to freak me out, HARD. I was the Queen of Collection and adding strides. But I can’t be scared of pace and ride a horse like Addy, because I would spend the whole time grabbing mane and screaming to slow down. It was SUPER weird in the jumpers to just roll with the galloping step, but it was so so so much fun! Addy has so much power and to feel her beasting around that course was incredible.
  2. Stopping at jumps. Don’t get me wrong, I HATE this. Hate with a capital H. I want that pony to get to the other side of the jump- over, under, or through. But it doesn’t freak me out to get a stop. It used to make me very nervous, but I’m apparently sticky enough to keep my seat (another new development), so I’m less likely to fall off the front or side. Now it just makes me mad. Especially when it’s a simple vertical. How is that scary to DragonMare?!
  3. Random distractions around the farm/showgrounds. Pretty Girl only gets bothered by this stuff if I do. Our last show was the first time I warmed her up myself and we went all over the place, and she didn’t blink. Sane pony means I can stop spooking at the water truck.
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DragonMare don’t care.

There you have it! I’m really happy to have such a trustworthy partner as the DragonMare that lets me focus on the joy of riding instead of my nerves.

PS- Please forgive my re-use of photos. I just love them. She’s so cute!

Positively Therapeutic

I’m starting to feel human again, and it comes down to two things that happened this weekend:

  1. I painted my fingers and toes a happy bright color
  2. I rode for the first time in a week and a half

It was amazing. Instead of a bulky lump of a dry-skinned icicle, I’m a happy human! I even put mascara on this morning and that’s a rarity. This return of myself was so necessary.

I’ve dealt with SAD (seasonal affective disorder) for quite a few years, and I’ve learned a lot about how to handle it. But this year something changed, and instead of being gloomy and tired all the time as I usually am in the winter, it’s been more about the anxiety. As in, hyperventilating while brushing my teeth because everything is overwhelming and can I please just never get out of bed? Anyways. This isn’t a post about that (though I’m thinking I’ll write that soon), just a little background on my mental state these days.

Last week was super tough and I don’t think my pulse slowed below 100 bpm. I was so keyed up about everything- I thought I was doing really poorly at work, finding a parking spot at the grocery store was impossible, doing household chores seemed exhausting and pointless, I felt really sick (though it wasn’t the flu, strep, or mono. I’m thinking it was all in my head), and I didn’t get to ride at all.

I made a decision: I’m not going to let the cold get me down. I want to feel like myself again. I told manfriend, and he was enthusiastically on board.

So Saturday morning, I went to work on myself: I used a face mask, I actually shaved my legs, I used body lotion, I painted my toes and I painted my fingers, and generally pampered myself. All while manfriend made us bacon-chocolate chip waffles with bourbon maple syrup (yes, I know I’m totally spoiled, and yes, I promise to share the recipe very soon. They were ridiculously good).

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They’re so bright and happy!

Never underestimate the good feelings that can come from a little bit of paint on your extremities. Every time I look down I get that sweet pop of color and it instantly boosts my mood, and I just feel more put together. I’m not obsessive about having my nails done at all times but I can’t deny that it adds a certain polish (pun intended)! If you remember, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to stop biting my nails, so that was another boost- I’m sticking to that way better than I thought I would!

Moving on.

I got to ride. Thank you Lord, I got to ride.

I’ve said before that riding is my therapy and this has never been more true than it was yesterday.

It was like I walked into the barn and a switch flipped in my brain. I had been nervous about hopping on because Addy has had a break from riding and very little turnout lately. But I walked in there, breathed deep, patted some soft noses, and instantly relaxed. I like to think Addy was happy to see me because I was absolutely thrilled to see her.

I decided to lunge her for a bit just to see how she was feeling- I wanted to warm her up in case she was stiff from stall rest, and I wanted to let her get out excess energy if she had that going on. She humored me for a few circles in each direction before coming in to me and telling me to hop on.

I know, terrible groundwork manners, but you try resisting that sweet face!

She was a rockstar. Not even a hint of sass, responsive to my aids, not caring about the snow falling off the roof. Have I mentioned how much I adore this mare? She walks out of her stall after a week of nothing and goes around perfectly.

It wasn’t a long ride since we’re both a little out of shape but it did the trick. She was happy to be working again and I was ecstatic to be back on her.

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I swear she was happy too, just disappointed that the phone wasn’t a carrot.

The combo of feeling pretty again and spending time with my girl had a ripple effect across my whole weekend. I met up with friends at a super cool bar near my house, I did a tasting at a local winery with other friends, and I got coffee with Owner Lady (a.k.a. we had a meeting of Addy’s Fan Club). Just last weekend all of this would have overwhelmed me, but my change in attitude made it more than just manageable, it made it incredible.

This weekend, painting my nails and getting horse time was my therapy.

How do you pep yourself up when the cold and dark has you down? What’s your “unconventional” therapy?