“Omi-gosh! Omi-gosh! Omi-gosh!”
If this is your internal conversation when you’re loping your horse, you’re not alone. For many of us, the lope is the point at which our courage can begin to flag. All sphincters, pupils, and even pores contract as we lean forward, tense our muscles, and hold our breath. We do all these things because we’re trying to control what feels like a saddled trampoline building velocity like Willy Wonka’s speedboat.
Let’s change that conversation, shall we? Over the years, I’ve worked with many adult students suffering from loping anxiety, and there’s one simple strategy I’ve learned can make an enormous difference. It’s reciting out loud, at high volume, from memory.
It sounds crazy, I know. But I guarantee it’ll enable you to relax and let go of those nerves, which in turn will allow you to sit properly and ride with more confidence.
Why It Works
First, I’ll assume your horse is safe to ride at a lope. (If not, your anxiety is warranted and you should address your horse’s need for training with a qualified professional.) Knowing you’re safe and feeling safe don’t necessarily go together, however. And because nervousness causes you to tense up—even curl into a “fetal crouch”—it creates a feedback loop. The physiology reinforces the nervousness, which reinforces the physiology…all leading to the “omigosh!” chant in your head.
How does reciting from memory correct this? By requiring you to concentrate on something other than your nerves. As you work to remember the words to your favorite Robert Blake poem or Winston Churchill quotation (more on that in a moment), you’re distracted from your tension. Instead of succumbing to mild panic, you begin to notice that everything is going along just fine, and you can relax.
Reciting out loud also makes it impossible for you to hold your breath—something a surprising number of riders do at the lope without even realizing it. And because you can’t “hold forth” while holding your breath, reciting from memory solves that problem, too.
How to Do It
First, choose your recitation. It might be your favorite Bible verse, Kipling passage, Frost poem, commercial jingle—whatever you like. (My personal favorites are the Pledge of Allegiance and anything Dr. Seuss.) All that matters is that you know the passage by heart.
Next, warm your horse up properly so he’s physically and mentally ready to give you a nice, cadenced lope. As you ask him to strike off, begin reciting your piece out loud. And when I say out loud, I mean loud, as if you’re addressing a group of 500 people without a microphone. Project your voice! (As an alternative, you can also sing a favorite song, but if you do, belt it out like an opera singer.) If you aren’t getting weird looks from unwitting spectators around your arena, you’re not doing it right.
But if you are, you’ll feel the tension melt away, replaced with the simple pleasure of enjoying a lope.
As silly as this sounds, I routinely see a significant difference in people’s posture, relaxation, and expression after just a few circles’ worth of reciting something out loud.
Keep It Up
For the time being, start each loping session like this. Over time, a new emotional pattern of comfort and confidence will have replaced the old pattern of tension and anxiety. At that point, you can stop. But if the anxiety comes back, use the tool again.
Be loud. Breathe. Have fun!
Daniel Dauphin, Rayne, Louisiana, offers lessons, clinics, demonstrations, training, and consulting. His catchphrase, “Effective, amusing, genuine,” reflects his belief that learning should be fun (dauphinhorsemanship.com).