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  • Sharon Cabana, MA, LMFT

Extending Unintentionally: Learning to Stretch and Embrace the Ride

As Spring comes to life around the barn, we are busily preparing for our next schooling show. Since the last show six months ago, my teacher has wanted me to ride our barn goddess, Epona, a 17.1 Hanoverian/Thoroughbred who knows she’s the boss, but is always eager to show. She is, in fact, amazing under saddle. Epona and I have a complicated relationship. I call her my “therapy horse” because, in order to work effectively with her, I have to be relaxed in the saddle. Unfortunately, I’m uh...a little high strung, so there’s only a 50/50 shot I can do that. Needless to say, the closer to the show we get, the more anxious I’ve become. In the meantime, I’ve been asking my teacher to ride a gentle giant, another Thoroughbred named Calvin. He’s forward, but a cuddle bug, and I enjoy him immensely. My teacher, much to my relief, agreed to let me ride Calvin for the show in a couple of weeks.

And then she gave me a lesson worthy of one of the greatest teachers of our age: Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid.

During my most recent lesson, after we worked through the warm-up and practiced my test, she asked me, “So, do you want to ride this test one more time...or, just for fun, do you want to ride your Level One test?”

Feeling (mostly) comfortable, I replied, “Let’s do the Level One test, just for giggles.”

We agreed to ixnay the extended canter, for both Calvin and my sakes. The first half of the test went relatively well for a blind run-through. His long-side canter was controlled and on his haunches and he handled the 15 meter circle like a champ. When we entered the second half of the test, however, Calvin showed me what he was made of. Bursting forth, Calvin summoned from the depths of his hooves his inner Secretariat, obliging me to both hold on and center my body in order to reconnect with my Derby stallion-wannabe. I ended the test laughing at his hijinks and relieved to have it over (to be honest).

My teacher looked at me and laughed. “Still think he’s easier to ride than Epona?” she asked.

And that’s when it hit me. It doesn’t matter the horse; it takes the same muscles to make them stop. It takes the same grounding and centering to ride well and the same willingness to communicate gently and consistently with our horses to have a successful ride. So, why was I so scared to ride Epona?

In our brains, anxiety and excitement are processed the same neurologically. In fact, neurologically, your brain doesn’t really distinguish between these two states. What then, makes the difference?

It’s not the feeling that makes the difference; it’s how we feel about that feeling. It’s how we think and interpret that feeling that can make the difference between embracing a new adventure and throwing up on the pit orchestra. Ultimately, feelings are messages from our bodies to tell us that something important is happening right at this moment. When we disengage from our bodies, and those messages, we can start to spin into cycles of anxiety. We start to fear the anxiety itself and start to catastrophize all the could-be’s and what if’s that feed anxiety. It can be exhausting. When we start to think of anxiety with a sense of curiosity, and maybe gratitude for what it’s trying to say, we can change how we feel about anxiety, and how we respond to the situations when we feel it.

To be honest, just changing how you think about anxiety won’t make it go away, per se. Which is okay. Anxiety is important and carries an important message for us all. The next time you feel anxiety, and we all do, stop for a moment to connect with your body. Take a deep cleansing breath for 4 seconds, hold it for 2, and exhale slowly for 6 seconds (a technique called breath plus two). Then, ask your body what’s going on and what it needs to feel safe again. It might be that you need a minute alone, or that you need to talk with someone, or maybe just need a hug. Whatever it is, remember one essential lesson from my own Mr. Miyagi:

It’s not the horse that matters; it’s how you embrace the ride.

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