You've probably used soothing words to calm your horse from time to time. Did you know, however, that you can use them to calm yourself, as well? If you sometimes struggle with fear when riding (and how many of us don't?), soothing speech can help bring you out of your "fear bubble" and put you back in the moment, where you can think clearly and act appropriately to the situation.
Feelings of fear originate in the amygdala, an almond-sized organ in the limbic part of our brain. The limbic system is an ancient, still-primitive section of our gray matter; it's surrounded by the newer, more advanced neocortex, the brain's rational engine.
And it's true: You can put your neocortex to work to soothe your amygdala. Or, put another way, you can use your smart, rational brain to calm your reactive, emotional brain.
Author Susan Cain talks about this in her new book Quiet. She notes that a recent functional-MRI study shows that when we use self-talk to reassess upsetting situations, it actually works. Specifically, the "live" MRI shows that the amygdala of a test subject calms down when his or her neocortex becomes active through speech.
How would this work in practice? Well, if your horse shies and you know it's nothing serious--but you get that heart-in-the-throat feeling anyway--you can talk yourself out of feeling panicky. You simply say out loud in a low, soothing tone: "You're fine. Re-l-a-a-a-a-x. He's just feeling good on this beautiful day. You know what to do?put him to work. Get him long-trotting on a big circle...there, that's it. Here we go."
The bonus, of course, is that your comforting monologue will help your horse to feel better about everything, too.
Obviously, if you find yourself in a truly dangerous situation, you won't be able to talk yourself out of your fear--and that's a good thing. In that case, your fear is telling you to protect yourself however you must, even if it means dismounting your horse.
But if it's just timidity or your own nerves prompting you to feel fearful, then acting like your own trusted friend and offering encouragement aloud can help you put your fear and the situation into perspective. And that makes it possible for you to make the right decision about what to do next.
For more on where riding-related fear comes from and how to overcome it, check out Horse & Rider's online article, "Fear of Riding."