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Dealing with Anxiety and Horses

Let’s talk anxiety. How about, dealing with anxiety while dealing with horses.

Sounds terrible! I mean, let’s face it. Horses pick up on everything, right? They can tell if we are scared, if we are nervous and even if we are anxious. So, lets add a 1200lb animal to the mix of us dealing with anxiety….rational.

This is a topic that is near and dear to me. It is so important to me that I write this blog in hopes of helping someone who is dealing with anxiety, but also in hopes of helping those that are working with a student, client or loved one suffering from anxiety.

Only those that have spent enough time with my husband and myself would know, that I suffer incredibly from anxiety. SERIOUS anxiety. Sometimes, crippling and debilitating anxiety. I have shown up to clinics, horse shows, lessons and horse events and left before beginning because of my anxiety. I have become physically ill while sitting on a horse because of my anxiety. I have found myself curled up on the floor, crying, because my anxiety has taken control of me and I have lost. I have skipped out on rides, horse shows and continuing ed because of my anxiety. I have lost at horse shows because my anxiety took over. My timing and feel have lacked because I couldn’t control the anxiety. I have even thought about leaving and quitting horses all together because of my anxiety.

Something to know right now, anxiety and fear are not the same thing. Anxiety can become a symptom of having fear but fear does not mean anxiety and anxiety does not mean fear.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Did you just cringe reading that? Why? Did you not know that it is considered a mental illness? It is. It’s real. It’s also okay. It doesn’t mean that you are a lost cause or that you are broken. It just means that it’s time to learn about yourself and work toward growth.

Anxiety can stem from genetics or even be environmental. It can also be both! Was there a turning point for you? Was it college? Was it high school? Maybe the pressure of stepping up into the rated show scene? Maybe you are like me and it has just steadily crept up over the years until it was right there in front of your face.

For me, I suppose now that I am fully aware that I am a high anxiety person, I can look back and see signs of it while I was in high school, college, a young adult, new mom and so forth.

Now, here comes the horsey part.

Horses have taught me how to read it creeping up. How to see the signs of it progressing. How does it creep up? It starts with the mind starting to fire off at a million miles a second. I can’t focus on someone talking, I can’t focus on what I am working on or what is going on around me, my breathing becomes faster, my heart rate increases and then my stomach starts to knot. I can’t sit still. My hands will shake sometimes, my legs, arms and chest will feel heavy and I am literally in a full attack by this point. However, these last years I have honed in on feeling it begin and working myself out of the, “rabbit hole,” as my husband calls it. THAT’S the trick. Well, not the only trick, but that’s the start! You HAVE to catch it. You HAVE to catch it before you are not function-able. However, in order to catch it happening, you have to admit that you are feeling anxiety and be able to recognize your signs.

I am absolutely not going to tell you that this is an easy process or one that has this beautiful outcome, because neither of those things are true. This is a long road of self reflection and growth. I am also going to admit that medication certainly wouldn’t be a horrible thing, especially for those who struggle as badly as I have, however, the person that I am is not one to take medication…..I even wanted natural births with no epidural! Just try to get me to take your ibuprofen! So, if you are one that is losing this battle with severe anxiety and it is effecting your day to day life like it has myself, please don’t hesitate to talk to someone about medication. That may be the best course of action for you and your situation. I have chosen to fight this battle with no medication. This doesn't make me any better or worse than those who have chosen to get extra help with medicine. Sometimes, I certainly wonder if I should try that route.

I have really had to feel and think my way through this battle. All of those signs that I listed above, that lead to a full blown attack, I have had to fight my way through to the other side. For me, telling myself that, “everything is going to be okay,” was a load of crap and never helped. What helped me was wanting to be better and do better. I had to get angry. I had to get angry at myself and realize just how much I was missing out in my life because of my anxiety. YOU HAVE TO DO THIS! YOU HAVE TO FIGHT! YOU HAVE TO DECIDE THAT ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! So, what I did, was start searching for ways out. Here is what worked for me: slowing down in that instant. Literally, stopping. Not shutting down, but taking a minute and thinking and breathing. I had to tell the instructor that I needed a minute to gather myself and my thoughts, and so what if they got pissed….I’m the one paying them. I also had to use the quiet time to run every scenario through my mind and come up with a plan. I had to imagine, literally imagine, myself doing whatever it was that I had intended to do, successfully. Really, I had to see myself do it. I had to think about what exactly was making me anxious as well. Sometimes, I didn’t know and sometimes I still don’t know. There are days that I still wake up and look at my husband and say, “Today is going to be hard for me. I don’t know why, but I am incredibly anxious and I haven’t even made it out of bed yet.”

I started carrying a notebook and pen around with me (everywhere) and writing my thoughts down to try and get them out of my mind. Making lists of things that I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget or even ideas that I had or things that I needed to remember to get done. Lastly, I started working out. Heavily. I started trying to tire myself out more physically. This helped IMMENSELY. Now, when I am feeling especially anxious, I put on my running shoes and try to run it out. This also gives me time to think and decompress. Lastly, finding things to help take my mind off of my day-to-day anxiety triggers helped. Things like reading a good book that made me leave my own world.

To those suffering from anxiety and dealing with horses, you need to know that it is okay to walk away for a moment. It is okay to say, “I’m overwhelmed and need a minute.” Breathe. Breathe deeply and slowly and start to picture yourself. If you are riding, loosen the reins and take a few laps while breathing deeply and slowly and try to clear your mind. Slow things down and TRY to think of things step-by-step. Try to feel nothing but the horse underneath of you. Remind yourself that it is just you and the horse and you are the leader. Step up to that plate. If you wake up in the morning and you feel yourself already anxious before going to the barn, go for a jog or make a pit stop at the gym first. Try to burn some of it off. Or, try to make yourself notes and lists to get the thoughts out of your head. I know this is sounding, “easier said than done” and it is! I STILL STRUGGLE WITH ANXIETY! But, if I cannot work myself through it while working with horses, how can I help anyone else?

My final advice goes to the instructors, trainers, coaches, husbands, wives and horse friends of those with horses. You HAVE to understand that anxiety is not always controllable. TRY TO BE PATIENT. You have to know that those who deal with it don’t like it and don’t want to be dealing with it and that we are literally doing our absolute best to keep it contained. Sometimes, it doesn’t stay contained. You have to know that we would give anything to get rid of the feelings of anxiety but maybe what we are trying isn’t working. You also need to not say cheesy things like, “Stop worrying and just do.” “Stop thinking so much.” “There’s nothing to be anxious about.” “It’ll all be fine.” Honestly, we just want to hit you at that point. So, when you can see that someone is struggling with their mind, tell them to take a walk. A clear mind learns better anyway. Help to slow things down for them and create a more step-by-step process to help them get through this. Think of things in smaller steps and break it down.

These tips and tricks are the only ones that have helped me to-date. They do not all work, all of the time, but this is a journey and I will continue to try to help myself and those who share in the same struggles!

Think this blog can help someone you know? Think it might just raise awareness? Then please share!

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