Books and Film

8 Ways “Brain Training for Riders” Changed My Life

Andrea Waldo has written the book that I wish I’d had many years ago.

Fear and anxiety issues are things I’ve struggled with as a rider. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to turn to professionals for help when things got beyond the self-help point. (Full disclosure: I have ridden with Andrea a couple of times, and I had an unmounted session with her a couple years ago.) Her new book is the latest tool in my arsenal.

Brain Training for Riders offers plenty of science into why the brain reacts the way it does, how to best effect positive change, and exercises to enhance your mental performance. It’s a fairly academic piece of work—Andrea was a practicing psychotherapist—so expect depth. (There are explanations for everything, including how to use the book.)

Here’s eight lessons I took away from her book.

1. It’s not you, it’s evolution


Just as horses have a flight-or-fight reaction, so do humans. Waldo calls out our “lizard brain,” which handles the most basic and primitive tasks for us and tries to keep us safe from perceived threats—physical or mental. For instance, the lizard brain helps you jump out of the way when your horse kicks out at a fly and you are in the path of his hoof.

I was getting nervous out in the field when I loosened the reins up—it felt like I was not in control, even though nothing bad happened. I had to do it enough to teach my lizard brain that this feeling was ok.

2. You can overcome evolution

Eventing 22

While you can’t eliminate your fight-or-flight response, nor do you want to, you can learn to control it. To do that, it’s important to acknowledge that your brain’s fear is real and there for a purpose.

Brain Training for Riders explains that you can’t shut down this response by saying, “Stop.” You have to offer an alternative:

  • Breathe
  • Rationally figure out what your core fear is. It might not be that the jump is bigger, it might be that you are afraid of your trainer’s disapproval.
  • Decide you can live with your fear—literally. Or make a Plan B: don’t go over the jump at 3′, go over it at 2′ until you’re bored.

As I have been getting back into cross country, I’ve had to get comfortable riding with speed. I spent a long time cantering in a circle in the field over the same three logs on the ground—I’m talking 12 inch logs—until I got used to the feeling.

3. Don’t be a Negative Nellie

Eventing 2

You can’t control fear and anxiety by using negative thinking, says Andrea. You have to tell yourself and your horse what you want, not what you don’t want.

For example, if your horse is spooking in the corner, you might ask him to leg yield and focus on keeping a rhythm—something you want him to do. The same technique applies in training your brain.

She suggests using forward-thinking positive language. “My hands were much quieter today than yesterday.” “When my horse spooked, I remembered to sit up and tell him what I wanted.”

The other day my horse spooked, my trainer said “well sat,” and I was able to just move on from there.

4. It’s not about relaxing, it’s about focusing.

Pan Am 2015 show jumper ©Horse Network

“Focus is the ability to stay present in the moment and concentrate completely on the task at hand.”

This ability is “the secret sauce” that top competitors have, writes Andrea.

I was participating in a show and I was very nervous in warm up before the stadium jump round. Really nervous. When I entered the arena and left the distractions of the warm-up ring, I was able to focus and I became very calm. I completed my stadium round—the first one in two years!

What I didn’t know was that in the middle of my round something set off the horses in the neighboring paddock. My trainer was on the side thinking, “OMG, she’s going to get distracted and have a spook or something!” I was so focused and present that I didn’t even know there was a big scene just feet from me.

5. Practice is a process

( Gennari)
( Gennari)

The latest research, as highlighted in Brain Training for Riders, shows that mistakes are a critical part of the learning process. We progress by making an effort, making a mistake, then correcting that mistake.

In order to learn, you need to live on the edge of your comfort zone or current abilities. You have to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.

For me to get comfortable with speed on the cross country course, I’ve had to push a little bit past my comfort zone each time I’m out there until a pace is “known.” Once that happens, I push a little more.

I’ve had to do the same thing with my rein connection on cross country. I’ve had to give up that dressage-y connection that feels like you are in control and let the horse use his neck. Pushing my hands forward felt wildly uncomfortable but I just kept doing it—living with that feeling until my lizard brain said, ‘Oh, this feeling is fine, nothing bad happens when we feel this.’

6. Set the right goals and support them


Andrea’s advice on setting realistic and actionable goals is another that resonated with my riding. Setting goals that make sense is different than having a dream or a vision.

I thought my goal when I started this first season competing with Fezzik would be to compete at the beginner novice level. I realized after our first ever attempt at cross country that my goal was to compete and complete a three phase event off the farm. It took us the season to do that.

Once you set your goals, you must support them with a plan! Set milestones and make a Plan A and Plan B to achieve them.

I started by setting a milestone to go to an event off property without competing. The next was go to an event and compete in the dressage portion and get exposure to the jump warm up. I didn’t just jump into competing.

7. Sometimes you really do need a professional—in psychology, not riding.

( Furlongs)
( Furlongs)

You should probably seek out an expert for help, if:

  • You are nervous anxious/panicked over small things.
  • Your reaction is out of proportion to the actual thing that has happened.
  • Breathing exercises and exposure don’t do anything to help

When I had a full blown panic attack because my horse cantered, I knew I needed a professional therapist to help me. There are things you can do that will help!

8. The trainer’s job isn’t just “heels down and head up”

hunter jumper

Every emotional, relational, and social issue in a rider’s life shows up in the riding arena. What’s more, as the world has changed, so has our understanding of motives and learning processes. Brain Training for Riders provides a great deal of practical advice for trainers that goes beyond “heads up, heels down.”

(©Nature of Light Photography/Courtesy of the author.)
(©Nature of Light Photography/Courtesy of the author.)

About the Author

Laura Strassman works in technology marketing and lives in the Boston suburbs. She has a long and checkered history with horses but currently owns a wonderful TB X Percheron named Fezzik. He is 17.2 hands, so aptly fits his name if you know the reference. Laura enjoys taking photos and creating video both for work and in her free time. Her favorite subjects are food, and of course, horses.