Better Horsemanship? Meditate On It
Meditation boasts benefits including improving focus and increasing happiness. Research on this age-old practice has shed light on why it can be a useful tool to combat feelings of stress and anxiety. But, have you ever considered utilizing meditation to improve your horsemanship and increase success in stressful competition scenarios?
Before dismissing the idea that meditation could give you the competitive edge, consider how your horse may perceive your pre-show jitters. As herd animals, horses pick up on the littlest things about our behavior, including breathing rate and tightness in our bodies. If you are looking at Cone A and become anxious about how the rest of the pattern will go, your horse can pick up on the tension and negatively react.
Tony King, Ph.D. and Department of Psychiatry Research Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, has been researching meditation and mindfulness for years as a neuroscientist. “I wanted to know how patterns of negative thinking could affect behavior and how those patterns could be disrupted,” King shared. “I began using meditation and mindfulness in group sessions, and the participants enjoyed the work, so I set out to understand how it was different.”
What is the difference between meditation and mindfulness? King explained, “Meditation is a broad term. Mindfulness is a style of meditation that can be done almost anywhere and doesn’t require a large time commitment associated with a more formal practice.” The goal is still the same King (pictured right) continued, “Taking the time to focus on one thing to ground yourself or broaden your focus away from a trigger of anxiety, can reduce a negative reaction.”
Before entering the show pen, it’s easy to begin thinking about a missed lead change in the last class or a new obstacle in the trail pattern your horse might balk at it. King remarked, “As humans, we tend to take our mind into the future or ruminate on the past. When our minds wander, we are more likely to think negative thoughts. Mindfulness helps train us to come back into the present moment where we can decide to focus on the positive.”
King suggested a popular 3-minute exercise to help with grounding thoughts. Try it before your next ride to help squelch anxiety. Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit before you begin.
Minute 1 – Physical awareness. How you are feeling in different areas of your body? Take a mental note from head to toe. Are you holding stress in your shoulders? As you continue, try to soften and relax those trouble spots by taking deep breaths, releasing the tension.
Minute 2 – Focus on your breath. Take deep, slow breaths noticing the feeling of expansion as you breathe in and release as you exhale.
Minute 3 – Broaden your focus back to the physical body. While continuing to take slow and steady breaths, reassess how you feel. You can even think of a word such as gratitude or confidence to complete the session.
This simple exercise can help bring attention back to the present moment and dissipate anxiety while setting a positive intention for your ride.
Although horses are not part of his research studies, King has spent time around them in his personal life. King’s daughter, Seanna Meuller-King (pictured left) is a Senior at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, MI. She has been riding for years, competing on the Skyline Equestrian Team and showing hunter-jumpers during the summers.
King observed, “Being with the horse lends itself to staying present in the moment because it organically draws your attention.” His daughter agreed, “I feel less stressed when I am riding than in some of my other competitive activities because I have built a partnership with my horse.” However, she shared, “The jumper classes are my favorite, but he anticipates the course when we are entering the arena, so I have to work on staying calm to help him relax.”
Perhaps a bonus of having a father who’s an expert in meditation and mindfulness is that you gain an important perspective. When asked what she enjoys most about working with horses, Seanna replied, “It’s all the little things that we accomplish together, working through a new part of a course, or when he responds softly to a cue we’ve been working on.” Finding joy in the day-to-day work leads to the accomplishment of bigger goals while still appreciating the journey.
Using mindfulness isn’t going to replace great training, hours in the saddle and early morning warm-ups, but it can set you up for success in a different way. Investing time in yourself and working toward strategies to better control stress and anxiety can positively impact every area of life, including communication with your horse. So, take a few moments, take a deep breath and meditate on it.
Lisa Kiley is a lifelong horse owner originally from Manitou Beach, MI. She grew up showing in 4-H and open shows, then PHBA and AQHA as an amateur. With a B.A. in Psychology, she has always had an interest in human and animal behavior. She is currently working in marketing and sales at Cashmans Horse Equipment in Delaware, OH and is the proud owner of three AQHA geldings.