From Free-fall to Freestyle

It’s easy to forget the vital role that mental preparation plays in sports of all types.

I have arrived at more than one show with every possible piece of equipment, many hours of lessons under my belt and not a single usable mental skill in place. In fact, for the better part of the last year, I arrived at every show not even sure of which test I should be riding. My mind would skip irrationally over a frenzied jumble of multiple complex thoughts, followed by, completely inappropriately, an alarming blank, cavernous space, where my dressage test was supposed to be stored.

This wasn’t my usual pattern. I am by nature quite well planned and pretty well organized. My memory has always been excellent. “Going blank” was definitely something that happened to other people. So this phase of my riding career left me feeling very insecure about my ability to progress up the levels, my show temperament and my overall sanity.

Yes, I had quite a lot going on in the rest of my life. We had moved. We were renovating. Building stables. Also, one of my adult sons was dealing with an ongoing addiction problem, and we were constantly in the grip of the drama surrounding that. It was easy for me to plead the “overstressed” card – and so many people were kind and forgiving for my distracted and rather distant state. I tried desperately to focus on my dressage, and worked harder and harder, having lots of lessons and buying a lot of new tack. (I think they call this “retail therapy”)

It wasn’t helping. I felt as though I was in free-fall, somersaulting head over heels through the year, losing motivation and starting to dread performing dressage tests, because I couldn’t rely on my previously quick mind to help me out. My brain seemed to be on strike, and I simply couldn’t “pull myself together”. Rather obviously, in hindsight, my horses were tense and we performed well below our combined abilities on show days. I felt powerless to change this “streak” of bad riding.

Eventually, in an attempt to distract myself, I turned back to work, and started planning to re-open my leadership coaching practice. I wondered whether I should consider studying again…
Almost by accident, I picked up a book about mental skills coaching, and read about how top sportspeople of all disciplines are turning to mindset coaches to help them fine-tune their sporting performances. I wondered idly if this could be something useful for me to play with….

As I began to do the research and practice some of the techniques offered in the book, I started to feel more hopeful, more inspired about my own riding. Gradually, day by day, I pieced together forgotten bits of joy and fun and my original love and passion for my horses, and riding. It was with growing excitement that I began to superimpose my own coaching skills and knowledge of how humans learn and grow. I realized that I could learn and acquire some of those previously elusive skills of confidence and focus.

But would it really work?

I wish I could say I was a model student. But sadly, I wasn’t. I kept falling asleep during my visualization exercises. I found it really difficult to admit to my own anxiety and feel it in my body. It was hard for me to stop my own blathering self-talk and reframe my experiences into positives, instead of the stream of nit picky perfectionistic rhetoric I had been ascribing to. But I persevered. Slowly, ride by ride, I began to get a grip on myself. My confidence emerged shyly from the shadows and my ability to focus began to improve.

I entered Freestyle Champs. I almost gave it a miss, as I really didn’t feel quite ready yet, but a small, determined voice sternly told me to “Just Do It”. After all, the musical aspect of the Freestyle is why I decided to do dressage in the first place. In days and years gone by, I had fantasized about dancing to my favorite music with my equine soul mate, and the memory of that dream drove me as I clicked “enter this show”.

The week leading up to the show was different in some very specific ways. I created a special “show zone” time for myself every evening, and I used this time to get clear about my goals, plan my show day timetable, set intentions and visualize myself riding my musical kur. I enrolled helpers, groom, husband, stepson and I worked hard to be gentle to myself and kind to everyone else. I felt, almost for the first time ever, truly ready!

Things almost fell apart as I had a rather disappointing warm up test on the Saturday. Catching myself in time, I quickly listed the positives that I remembered from my tests: I prepared well for all my downward transitions and I remembered to ride forward and soften my left rein in the counter canter.

On Sunday morning I had an early draw, and I was warmed up and ready a little before my time. Breathing deeply and strongly, I made my way down to the indoor arena and started my test, to my all time favorite music, Queen. A few bars of Bohemian Rhapsody to start my performance, then the music changed to You’re My Best Friend, for our canter work. I remember feeling incredibly joyful as I cantered around that indoor arena, with my best friend in the whole world, having such fun and shining so bright, that it truly didn’t matter to me what anyone said about my performance. I was so utterly proud of how much both Jazzy and I had improved since we had last spooked around that same arena, two years previously.

I almost undid all my plaits afterwards, as I never even suspected we would be in the prizes. Someone (thank you!) stopped me and said, “you never know….” It was a really strong class, with few competitors, but very stiff competition. I heard the announcer saying blah blah blah 68% and assumed it was someone else. So, it really did catch me unawares when I finally realized we had won the Adult Elementary Freestyle Championships for 2019!

What a super platform from which to launch my new mental skills coaching practice.
Named Forging Ahead, in tribute to a horse of the same name, and to the idea that even when it seems really difficult and you can’t see the way out, to just keep taking small steps forward, by doing one tiny thing every day in pursuit of your bigger goal.

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