It’s a whole New Year, and you might be anticipating longer daylight and spending time with your horse. You might have loads of exciting plans for things you want to do or try through the year ahead, or you might be cautious about making plans because things haven’t gone according TO plan when you have done it before!

The big deal is knowing in your heart of hearts what makes you tick about horses, and digging out and squashing those thoughts and beliefs that are of the ‘it’s not quite me but I think I should…’ variety. Some of my lovely coaching clients seriously devalue their right to enjoy time spent with their horses or even take up space because of their beliefs about ‘not being good enough’, or ‘just being a happy hacker’. If you have experienced this and it has put you off having a go at a new activity it’s important to know that when you think about new and maybe scary new things your brain is very likely to come up with all sorts of thoughts and feelings that can stop you! It’s frustrating but quite normal and if you think about it, a sensible thing, after all your brain has to guide you through a long and hopefully not-too-damaging life so it wants to put you off the danger-of-death stuff. “Hmm… I think I’d like to have a go at lion taming?… HELL no!” But the good news is you can learn to be ready for them and ‘pow!’ them into the far reaches of the universe.

Have a little go at this exercise: think of an activity you would like to do with your horse that you haven’t done yet or find potentially scary. Make it the full colour HD version of you experiencing whatever you have chosen. It doesn’t have to be galloping cross country, it could be loading your horse or climbing up the mounting block preparing to mount, those fears are just as valid for more people than would care to admit it. Make it something realistically within your reach that you would like to do but find challenging.  Just thinking about doing that will change how your body feels – what physical changes can you feel in your body? Has anything happened to your breathing, heart rate, posture or muscle tension? What has changed? I would bet it has and that you aren’t even near a horse, you might even be on a SOFA! If that happens when we’re even considering doing something new away from our horse, how much are we likely to change when we’re close to them and facing the challenge? Now, and this is important, how long does it take for you to calm down and feel normal again after bringing up this thought? If you have a heartrate tracker on you can actually see this happening.  Even if you feel normal your heart rate may take longer to come down than you think as you’ve given yourself a nice wee shot of adrenalin without even DOING anything!  Next, bring your original thought back up again, but slow it down and just think about doing the very first movement in the activity, then pause your film strip. Be ready for your body to change and keep your breathing steady, this is just a thought, it will pass. How long did it take this time for your body to respond back to normal? Recognise that this is an important safety system that keeps you from jumping off cliffs or running into traffic – it prepares us to avoid danger and that is pretty useful don’t you think?

As a horse rider you will undoubtedly need this safety system at some point, but you need to learn how it works and how to use it sensibly. In this post I would like to introduce you to the concept of the Readiness Ruler. It’s something really handy you can do on the spot that will help you manage your fear response and make the most appropriate progress for you towards your goals. Let’s give it a shot: bring up the full length colour HD scary thought again. Ask yourself this question: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten – where one is not confident at all and ten is super ninja confident – that you are ready to make that change? Now bring the thought back to the first step in  slo-mo: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten that you are ready to make THAT change? Hopefully the second number is a higher figure than the first, but if it isn’t maybe reassess whether the original thought is a realistic goal for you.

Regardless of where they get to, most people as children start from a similar place when it comes to learning. We are very likely to build up quite an extensive baggage collection by the time we reach middle age, plus there are a whole bunch of physical changes that can potentially impact on our confidence. Our safety warning system has to be hair trigger but it can directly impact on our decisiveness and commitment to change. If you have identified a challenging new set of goals in your horse life in 2019, have you included getting yourself ready to take them on? I know my brain at least loves to dangle nice shiny new thoughts in front of me for me to daydream about how wonderful it would be if I did x, y or z, but I know how uncomfortable it is not being able to immediately put them into practise properly, it can really make you feel like a failure! The way I tackle it (which my coaching clients have sometimes found surprising) is by breaking the changes down into very small pieces, training and exploring them thoroughly in short focussed positive sessions, moving the horse and person gently into new territory and reinforcing prior learning with each session. My goal is to make sure that everyone involved has practised the groundwork and ridden skills they need to confidently influence the horse under a range of conditions so they can both stay as safe as possible and keep enjoying their time together, which will keep the change happening! This means in real life that after the first few big ‘wowserooni!’ mega watt lightbulb learning experiences, we need to expect our practise to simply lead to the next step, to the next step, to the next step, a calm, positive and exploratory progression. If it doesn’t, then we can spot something is up and we can go back a few steps or look for some expert input.

At least that’s my aim…;-), sometimes people take fifteen steps at once on their own accord or decide to skip three and wing it from there! I was once doing foundation work on a young horse for one of my clients. We had started lightly riding about in a halter, had done some work on picking up a bit, and we were happily building towards introducing a bridle with reins along with the halter to make a logical training progression, or another ‘layer’ of the ponies education experience. I went away for the weekend and when I visited again the owner, who loved him, had decided as he was being so ‘good’ that she wanted to ride the pony by herself. He was happy enough about that having being steadily habituated to me getting on from different sides and obstacles, which had involved lots of rewards which made him happy, and waited calmly before she moved off, but her mental image of how to go about it included the pony in a bitted bridle… which was critical to her feeling ‘safe’, but which he had no clue about and ‘strangely’ didn’t comprehend… Happily nobody was hurt or upset and he just walked around the barrels in the arena doing the patterns he had learned with me of his own accord, but imagine if the first ride included a hack! Learning theory tells us steps have to be small, positive and logical for the horse, so we have to recognise when we are leaving the trail ourselves.

You can use the Readiness Ruler to check out if you are about to launch into uncharted territory too. If even thinking about boxing up and heading out for a group hack with strange horses in a new place sends your pulse skyrocketing, it’s ok to take a rain check and stay prepping at home until you are confident. It’s not braver to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ when it comes to horses, as being an equestrian is like no other activity you can choose – the horse will also feel your feelings and in response will add their own! If you want to get to that lovely place with your horse where you can take them out and about and get involved in a wonderful and positive horsey social life, then make your first 2019 goal to get ready to get the prep done really, really, REALLY well, you will definitely be a winner with your horse.

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