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Training your brain to ride with compartmentalization.

I was talking to a friend about launching a course based on teaching riders to feel and be more intuitive, rather than always racking their brains and having anxieties about doing it all right, while they are riding. She said, “I’m not sure it can be taught, but if it can be, it can only be taught to someone in the right frame of mind.” Frame of mind is definitely a part of it. Learning to “feel” your way through a ride instead of thinking your way through it means that your brain and your other muscles have to be able to accept input and adjust to that input. Your exteroceptors have to be ready and waiting. There are so many distractions that can get in the way of high functioning exteroceptors. Tension, in any form is detrimental to the process and it’s not just tension about your riding. Like, is your horse going to spook? Are you sitting correctly? Are your heels down? Is your inside shoulder back? It could be something as small as sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Just that little bit of tension, creates a chain reaction from the brain to the toes.

Horse Pictures
What do you have on your mind?

So, how do you overcome these obstacles? Self-awareness is a big part of it. In the beginning, it’s really helpful if you can video yourself and have someone watching who has a good eye for spotting tension. Then, you can see what they were seeing and make the visual connection with your brain. This is one of the things I enjoy doing. Watching horses and riders to see if I can figure out where that one place (or more) is that you are holding tension. Humans and horses are very visual animals, so it’s important to SEE what is happening so you can make the connection in your brain that will allow you to FEEL what is happening. Next, notice where you hold tension in normal everyday life. A good friend, spouse, or bodyworker can help you here, if you have never thought about it before. When I worked in the therapeutic gym of chiropractor’s years ago, I had a client that noticed I tended to hold tension in my mouth. I clench my jaw and often set my tongue on the roof of my mouth. She would gently remind me of this and ask how life was going. It was a difficult period in my life, but the awareness she brought to me made me think about how my German riding instructor would also remind me not to bite on my lip (that was something I had done since childhood). I stopped that, but just took that bit of tension further inside. It’s always something I do when I’m concentrating or just stressed about life. I had a massage therapist who used to work (abuse) my jaw muscles because they were so tight. It was bloody painful, but it helped! Those coincidences made me realize what I was doing and how to be aware of it. I still have a tendency to do the jaw clenching, but I can feel my muscles getting fatigued now, pain in my teeth, or soreness in my jaw and I know to quit. I’m also acutely aware of it while I’m riding and often move my jaw around and check if I’m breathing.

You might be thinking, well that’s fabulous, but I can barely stay on the horse, let alone think about whether or not I’m clenching my teeth! I get it, and I have been there. Now, I want to give you some tools to help break the tension/overthinking cycle. By the way, tension, will cause you to overthink. Just like anxiety, it all feeds off the same part of the brain and you have to train your brain to cooperate with you and stop the snowballing or vicious cycle effect! One way to do this is to compartmentalize. This is something that I’ve mostly had a good handle on all my life, but when I became a 911 dispatcher, I really learned the value of it. I’ve been riding since I was 8 years old, competing all that time and then I worked with athletes and their injuries in high school and college, so I had a knack for remaining calm in adrenaline charged situations. Then, a set of life circumstances led me to working for 911. Mostly because the pay and hours allowed me to keep riding and competing. Since then, I’ve taken a lot of difficult phone calls, been on the radio while a firefighter was trapped under a collapsed burning house and navigated all types of bad guy pursuits on the radio with law enforcement officers. It’s a great help when you can turn a part of your brain off and focus on what needs to get done. Years ago, I didn’t think training the brain like this was possible. I thought my dad and all of his pilot buddies were probably “just born with it”, as I assumed, I was. Years later I learned a lot about PTSD and military training. The military trains compartmentalization, especially to its specialty populations. It’s that important! I’ve also seen compartmentalization used in public safety coping strategies. All of this got me thinking more about how riders could use the technique every day and especially after traumatic incidents. Whether those incidents are falls or just traumatic people and situations in dealing with our horses.

When you think about our lives, humans are trained in some form of compartmentalization from an early age. We have school time, play time, nap time, etc. As we age, we have to show up to work and be available for our children, regardless of what else is happening in our lives. So, what holds us back? Our own mind! Training your brain isn’t the hardest part, not judging yourself is the hardest part. As humans learn to compartmentalize, they also learn how to expect perfection and how to evaluate everything. Whether it needs evaluating or not. Being able to compartmentalize means you can acknowledge something but put it off to the side. This means you need to start with non-judgmental self-awareness because if you are judging your emotions and how they are mixed up with everything else in life, you can’t compartmentalize. For example, if you want to learn about feel on the horse, admit that you are not relaxed and acknowledge the emotion or thought that is causing you to be tense. Maybe it’s something about your horse, maybe it isn’t. This is totally ok and it’s normal! Just take a mental note of those tension areas of the body and what causes your brain to go into overdrive or overthink mode.

This is step number one and sometimes it’s a long step. Don’t get discouraged, just ask for help from someone you trust and someone who has YOUR best interests in mind. Once you’ve identified an area of tension, play with it. What allows that area to relax? Do you feel your brain relax a little when it does? Yes! Now, put that area and the thoughts that make it tense up in a box and push it to the side of your brain. Like, really visualize this. You’re not hiding it, you’re not ignoring it, you’re just pushing it off to the side to allow new information to come in, front and center. Every time you feel that box spilling open, think about what released that tension before, breathe into it and then refill the box and push it back to the side. Now, concentrate on what feelings are coming into that space left by the box. Just acknowledge them. If you’re feeling confident enough, you can play with those feelings, but always be aware of that tension rearing its ugly head.

BTW, some of how you train your horse is about compartmentalization (at least it should be). If you are riding or even just working with your horse on the ground, you are expecting them to focus on you and not to focus on the safety of their herd. This is totally against a horse’s instinct. I believe you can train your horse to trust you and believe that you will not lead him into danger, but you should acknowledge that it isn’t something that horses know from birth. Also, your words mean little to them. Sure, we can train them to follow voice commands, but your intent, and your innermost thoughts are connected to the horse via their other senses. It’s important to know how to use those senses to communicate and build trust with your horse.

These brain training exercises can really jump start your ability to feel and ride intuitively. Sometimes these changes happen quickly and sometimes they don’t. Either way, don’t be discouraged. Just keep searching for the good feelings, relax, and trust your instincts. Remember to get help from people who support you and your goals. Feel free to join my Facebook Group, Powerful Equestrian Partnerships and like my business page Equus Enlightened for more tips and support! Oh, and listen to your horse. They are the best teachers!

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