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How to build your resilience

This article first appeared in a previous issue of Equestrian Life. To see what's in the current issue click here.

Kerry Mack - Michelle Terlato

© Michelle Terlato


By Dr Kerry Mack

One of my favourite quotes is from the great German philosopher Nietzsche, who said: "That which does not destroy, strengthens". He’s talking of resilience, that intangible quality that every individual has to develop in themselves to better themselves.

WHEN SOMETHING GOES wrong in our equestrian routines, we often say to ourselves or to each other: “That’s horses!” It might simply be a case of being late for a meeting because the horse decides not to get on the float, or you might be disappointed at not delivering the performance you had worked so hard at. There's falling off and injuring pride or person because the horse does something unexpected, and then there’s the big tragedies of having to put a horse down or of foals dying. Equestrian sports are very demanding psychologically. We enjoy the highs of our wonderful passion and get plenty of practise dealing with the lows.

Through our experience with horses, we all get to practice and learn resilience. In physics, resilience means "the ability of a substance to spring back to shape". Interestingly, this is related to elasticity and physical flexibility. Psychological resilience is the capacity to recover from difficulties. This, too, is related to (psychological) flexibility. Of course, research has been done to identify what makes us resilient. Resilient people:

•    Are committed – they persist in the face of difficulties
•    See themselves as in control - having a view that blames others (horse or human) does not offer you a solution you can implement
•    See problems as a challenge to be overcome, rather than a threat
•    Get support from others, not block them out
•    Are optimistic and keep hope – a cup half-full kind of person
•    Find meaning in adversity – this includes finding the lesson in what went wrong
•    Are able to manage and express feelings – being able to self-soothe or calm down
•    Don’t use non-coping strategies such as drugs, alcohol and isolation – sometimes we do things that we think help us cope but are actually the opposite


Failure is inevitable from time to time. William Magee, Bishop of Petersham, in 1868 said: "The man who makes no mistakes usually does not make anything.” You have worked so hard to prepare for this competition and yet you manage to snatch failure from the jaws of success. He stops at the water jump, he just isn't fast enough, he gets his tongue over the bit, or he just gets tense and it all turns to rubbish. Try to find the challenge in what has happened. What happened? Why? What can you learn so that you can prevent this from happening again? Do you need to go back to basics and reinforce his response to the leg? Can you train him to react to the leg with lots of novel things like tarps, camping tiles, umbrellas, flags etc, so that the next time he goes out and there is something unfamiliar he has the confidence to go forwards because he really understands that your leg means go. Horses don't do random things to annoy you. You are not the victim. Horses do things for a reason based on their own nature and experience. It is your job to analyse why and train them correctly.


Tell a friend how you feel about what has happened. Feelings help us to know the significance of things and can help us proceed. Feelings are an important part of our experiences. People do better when they express their feelings in healthy ways and don't bottle them up. It's okay to cry if you are sad, express anger verbally or physically in a way that doesn't hurt other people. Actually, anger can be a feeling that helps us fight the good fight if that's what we need to do. Certainly it's better to tell a friend about your anger than take it out on your horse, which is never okay. Talking through what has happened can help you find perspective, or meaning, or just make it hurt less, as someone else understands what it means to you. Another horse person will understand what it means to lose your mate, if this is what has happened. So you can't compete at a big championship you have been working towards because he has hurt himself at the critical moment. How about volunteering to help a friend who is going? Be part of their support team. Still participate. You will still learn from being there and you will strengthen your friendship while helping someone. Perhaps pencil or steward. Altruism is a good coping strategy. Keep perspective on what has happened, don't catastrophise the event. If the worst thing that happens to you is that you ride a bad dressage test, then you have a really lucky life. These days we say "first world problems". Even if your much-loved horse dies, try to celebrate that he was in your life. What a privilege it is for us to share our lives with these wonderful creatures. We are living the dream that is unattainable for most of humanity.


This helps keep the inevitable disappointments in perspective. Where there are highs there will be lows, and vice-versa. Notice the good times. Be grateful. Enjoy the journey.


If you are forced to take a break due to an injury, don't just sit around and sulk. Make it an opportunity to refresh yourself doing something that you wouldn't get a chance to do. Have a non-horsey holiday and/or learn something different. Catch up with non-horsey family and friends. These important people may not really understand your total obsession. You can easily lose people from your life if you don't invest some time in these relationships. Make it an opportunity to do some cross-training, take up yoga or Pilates, which can help your core strength and help your riding. Maybe your horse is okay for light work, so do something you could both enjoy, like swimming in a dam, going to the beach or a relaxing trail ride. Perhaps some in-hand work will help you both stay sharp and responsive and in tune, without the pressure of ridden work. Try to make it fun, play some games. If you really can't ride you can still be working on improving your performance by using imagery. Ride in your mind and practise in your imagination. This is a very powerful way to improve performance. Build as much detail as you can into your imaginary practise and think about the sights and sounds, the feeling in your body. Try to do it in real time, at the same speed it would really happen.


One way to ensure that you will have to contend with disappointment is to set a goal that is not likely to be achieved. Set a goal that you can't afford or that your horse is not suited for, or that you haven't the time or resources to achieve, and surely you will be disappointed. Maybe keep something like that in your long-term sights, or on the bucket list. For example, if you are not on an elite squad now then you are not likely to be on the team for Rio next year. Of course, if there is a chance you will succeed at a really hard goal you could enjoy the elation of achieving the nearly impossible, but I don't recommend that approach. Set goals that are likely to be achievable. You will still have to cope with disappointments along the way. If you don't achieve the goal, try to find the meaning in the experience. What can you learn from it? Why did the plan not work? What contingency hadn't you thought of? What can you do differently next time? Did you cut corners by leaving the shoes on for an extra week then lose a shoe at the crucial competition? Get him shod a week before a big class. After working out what the lesson is, set a new goal. There is always another competition.




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