The Magazine September 2020

Think well and move well

Posted 5th January 2021

Ever wondered how top riders maintain their mental wellbeing and how it might help you? Leonie Lightfoot and Jane Holden, from British Equestrian’s Perform Well programme, reveal all

Horse looking out of stable

Just like your physical health, your mental health changes over time. If it starts to dip, it can affect your ability to cope with the normal stresses of daily life – running late for work, your horse ripping his new rug or even not having enough milk for that much-needed cup of tea. Sometimes the need to invest some time and energy in your wellbeing only becomes obvious when you overreact to one of those small incidents.

Taking measures to maintain your mental wellbeing – with a contingency plan if you find you’re struggling – will have a huge impact on your ability to perform, whether you’re riding at home or competing at the Olympic Games. By adopting a few simple techniques designed to help calm a busy mind, you’ll nip negativity in the bud and be happier in the saddle and other areas of your life, too.

Thinking systems

Our brains have two independent thinking systems, with often clashing agendas…

  • a primitive, survival-focused system, incorporating the amygdala and orbito-frontal cortex, which enables emotional thinking – often leading to irrational thoughts and impulsive behaviours
  • a logical, rational system, based in the frontal lobe, which works with facts and evidence and helps us to be the best version of ourselves

The survival-focused system uses the fight, flight or freeze response, which is helpful in dangerous situations, but often less than convenient in day-to-day life – for example, it’s this response that might make your mind go blank before your dressage test. This system seeks instant gratification – it considers no long-term consequences, meaning it can disrupt the plans and intentions that you’ve rationally thought out.

You do have influence over which brain system to listen to, though, and this starts with being able to recognise unhelpful and unwanted thinking. Ask yourself if this is how you want to feel or behave – if the answer’s no, then your primitive, emotional system is likely in control.

Find out more about how to maintain your mental wellbeing in March Horse&Rider, on sale 7 January 2021.


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