Have you fallen off your horse and hurt yourself? Did you sustain injuries not only to your body but also to your psyche? In our career as equestrians, most of us will experience a nasty fall or two. When a young rider tumbled off at the IEA Nationals last year, the announcer said matter-of-factly, ‘well, the only riders who don’t fall are those who don’t ride.’ True words. Most falls are routine—the rider dusts off and gets right back on with minimal effects. But if the fall is serious, with injuries and months of rehab, bouncing back with gusto takes both work and courage.
In my experience, the emotional recovery can take much longer than the physical. Both the speed and thoroughness of recovery depend on the severity of the fall, and the rider’s innate personality. When you think about it—we’re very similar to our horses. If you have a naturally brave horse who is inclined to keep going despite rails coming down, his emotional recovery from a fall will be easier than a naturally careful horse who hates to touch the jumps. If the careful horse crashes through a fence, it reinforces his naturally high level of fear—which in good times makes him a winner. He’s a perfectionist. However, this naturally careful horse is going to need more time and patience to get back to where he was. The more easy going type—the one who doesn’t get upset by knocking a rail—he’s the one who will bounce back sooner.
So as with people. Two riders can hypothetically sustain the same fall, but one will be back out jumping grand prix courses as soon as she can, whereas another will take a step back to gradually increase the intensity and complexity of the work until she feels confident again.
What’s the key to optimal emotional recovery for you? There is no magic, but if you treat yourself as well as you would your horse, you’ll be on the right track.
Here are some steps to get you started.
*First of all, know what kind of person you are and have gratitude and compassion for yourself. Are you super eager to jump back on? Or are you feeling tentative about being back in the saddle? There is no one right way to be. If you can accept the way you personally need to heal, you’ll be one step ahead of the game. As you know, there are different types of horses, and we appreciate them for their unique gifts. Let’s extend our compassion to different types of human personalities, and especially to ourselves.
*Take more time than you need. I imagine you are familiar with how long it takes to bring a horse back from, say, the dreaded ‘soft tissue injury.’ It feels like eons when you’re in the middle of it. If you’ve been through it, you know it’s much better to take more time to rehab than rush it and risk re-injury. Same with pushing yourself to the next level after a fall. If you’re the anxious type, take more time than you think you need to build your confidence. Don’t let anyone rush you.
*Desensitize yourself by being immersed in positive experiences. This process is natural for horse people. If your horse were afraid of something, you would do a careful reintroduction, rewarding him for any positive interaction with it. Treat yourself similarly. Re-immerse yourself slowly, setting reachable, positive goals and rewarding yourself for every forward step.
*Visualize your ride and how you specifically want to be ‘back.’ You can only ride so much, but you can visualize yourself riding as many times as you like. It’s well documented that visualization alone can substantially improve your performance without any physical activity. Use visualization not only to see yourself riding the way you want to ride, but also correcting the mistakes—or circumstances—that led to the fall. This kind of visualization may be uncomfortable at first, but if you can gradually allow yourself to ride the course again in your mind, and correct the mishap, your psyche will be on a faster track to full recovery.
—Feel stuck? It’s very hard to recover alone. Be sure you have a supportive community around you. We all need some outside input to get us on the right track, and recovering from an injury is a particularly vulnerable time both physically and emotionally.
Want some help with your recovery? Or just want to know more? Be in touch! I’m delighted to be a resource for you.
Performance Psychology for Equestrians
For over 25 years, Darby Furth Bonomi, PhD has facilitated positive transformations in clients of all ages. As a practicing psychologist and consultant, Darby has worked with many people to achieve lasting change and establish the foundations for mental wellness.
Now in her primary role as a performance psychologist and family consultant, Darby merges her life-long experience in the equestrian world—as a rider, parent of riders and owner—with her vast toolbox of psychological and coaching interventions to help riders of all levels and their families reclaim the joy in their sport, leading the way to improved performance and better health. She loves helping clients untangle the complicated situations that tend to arise when horses are added to families.
A dynamic speaker and change maker, clients have sought out Darby to help improve their lives, both in and out of the saddle. She is devoted to making the equestrian world—and the world at large—a kinder, gentler and more respectful place.
Darby currently shows in the amateur owner hunters and equitation with her horses Little Wing and DaVinci, alongside her teenage daughters. She is married and has a college age son who steers clear of the barn. She lives in San Francisco.
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