Address Mental Stress in Horse and Rider

Sport Psychologist Jenny Susser shares her tips to minimize stress for you and your equine partner.

Last month we talked about stress and I promised to provide some answers. But first, how did your observations go on how often and to what degree you and your horse experience stress? Unfortunately, the common answer is that we are all stressed too much of the time, horses included. Dressage seems to attract people of a certain mentality and it is not one of the easy-going surfer dude who leisurely hangs out and is relaxed all the time! Many of us are the “get things done now and perfectly” personality type. This has great benefit but also great cost for our horses and ourselves. Although I can only elaborate so much in a short column, I can offer you a simple cure for stress. You must create intermittent bouts of relief. Remember when we talked about homeostasis last month? You have to feel good as many times as you feel stress to achieve that true state of balance. 

Let’s use exercise, or physical stress, as an example. Say you are taking a trip to Peru and want to climb Machu Picchu. In order to climb the 3,000 steps, you have to physically train for it. Scenario No. 1: As you exercise, you get tired and need to rest but you don’t. Instead you just keep going. You eventually become injured and can’t exercise until you heal. Time is lost and the trip is planned so your climb of the ancient site is relegated to sitting on the bottom step watching your loved ones scale to the top. What happened? This is an example of there being too much stress and not enough feeling good. The problem with mental and emotional stress is that we can take too much of it and somehow become accustomed to it without realizing we are injured. 

Scenario No. 2: You are exercising your heart out but you become tired and decide to lower the incline or pace for a few minutes to catch your breath. After a short while of feeling better, you increase the incline again, feeling proud of your ability to rest and then go again. You do this for several months and notice that you can go longer and longer between rest stops. What happened? You balanced stress with feeling good and the craziest thing occurred: You developed a greater ability to handle stress.

We all want to feel good. The key to feeling good in our hyper-drive stressful lives is being intentional about it. Feeling good is not a luxury. It is a necessity and the body, mind and spirit need to feel good every day in order to flourish. Do not let this become negotiable. Sadly, many people do not view positive feelings, whether they are emotional or physical, as absolutely necessary. I have experienced this and I have seen this in other people over and over. Do not let these positive feelings become negotiable for your horse, either. He needs to feel good during training or he will never reach true potential. 

The good news is that feeling good only takes a moment. You can endure hours of stress if you have moments of feeling good or relief peppered in. Olympic athletes suffer almost endless hours of training and stress but have moments where they rest and experience relief. Find ways to feel good, even if only for moments at a time. Take a few deep breaths, listen to a favorite song, look at a picture or video of the horse you love. Talk to someone who makes you feel good. Make these rest stops a priority and see how your life begins to feel. When we make feeling good a priority, we realize that we have great power to control this. Sometimes successfully managing stress is just a matter of remembering that.

Thank you for spending the year with me. I hope it was full of insights and growth combined with action for change that you will continue to use every day. Most importantly, remember to be good to yourself.

Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages—collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with Human Performance. 

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