by Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in Practical Horseman, July 2012

There you are on your horse, waiting for your lesson to start. Things have been very challenging recently, and to say you’ve been having a rough time is an understatement.

These difficulties are constantly on your mind; in fact at this point they have created enough anxiety to fill a large wheelbarrow. Today you are feeling particularly off-kilter. You do a quick self-assessment and this is the worrisome report, “Heart in my throat and can’t seem to catch my breath. Legs are weak like spaghetti; arms are tight and strangely lifeless. I’m continuing to imagine nothing but mistakes!”

You pause, and then think the truly scary thought, “I love riding my horse, but right now I am wondering why I am even here.” Uh-oh! Houston, we have a problem. Riding is supposed to be fun! What happened?

There can be times when your mental and physical energy feels out of control, as if you’re a small boat being tossed around on a sea of adrenalin. Extra energy in your body can take strength away from places that need it, and add too much of a charge to areas that need to be supple and relaxed. Understandably, this can be quite frustrating, but changing your perspective about what energy is and what it can do for you is the golden ticket to finding your way to shore.

To start adjusting and successfully utilizing mental and physical energy, you must do just that: simply call it energy. You may have too much or you may have too little, either way you do yourself a disservice by vilifying the state you are experiencing. It is simply a state of being, and with practice and the proper techniques, you can learn to effectively control it. Then, instead of getting stuck judging how you feel with a negative label like “nervous,” “anxious,” “tired,” “flat,” “zoned-out,” etc.—as if that is a state you are trapped in and have no control over—you can spend your time getting yourself to the energy level you need. This will happen in one of two ways:

  1. Let go of the energy you don’t need, and then channel the rest productively.

You can learn to release unneeded energy and effectively direct the rest to help you accomplish your goals. Remember this at the moment your energy is spiking; your body is on your team, trying to help. Sure, it may be a bit overzealous, but energy in its pure state represents your body’s readiness to get the job done. It’s a bit like the engineer’s assistant in an old steam train throwing too much coal on the fire. Ideally, the head engineer simply says, “Thanks for your help, but this is a bit more than we need. I am going to let off some steam here at the station, and we’ll use the rest to get us to Chicago.”

  1. Generate energy for the focus and intensity you need to ride your best.

When you are tired, unfocused, underwhelmed, or generally feeling “blah,” you may need to boost your energy level in order to ride your best, and there are many strategies that can help you.

First, assess your current state and be clear about the energy level you are going for—which is your Optimal Energy Zone—then choose the most appropriate tools to utilize in that moment. Ideally (and with practice) it will feel like your energy is on tap, and anytime you need to you can either make more or draw on your reserves.

Remind yourself that you do in fact: 1) need your energy and 2) have control over it. These are important steps in becoming a consistent rider. You simply assess your energy level, choose the best tools to adjust it appropriately, and away you go.

I definitely, still to this day, can get nervous or worked up.  You don’t always realize that nervous is good [but] really it is at those shows when it’s back east or major shows or major competitions that I always seem to ride better.  So the nervousness and then knowing how to work it… that’s when you ride your best.”   – John French, 3-Time World Hunter Rider, U.S. Show Jumping Team Member

Your Optimal Energy Zone

Personality, experience, fitness, level, and what discipline(s) you participate in are just a few of the variables that will affect how much is the “right” amount of energy to have in a particular riding situation. The purpose of this chapter is to help you understand and learn to manage your mental and physical energy so that you can ride your best. Therefore, this won’t be a lesson to teach you every different kind of engine and how they work; just your unique make and model. So let’s get cracking on the assessment tool, definition and discussion of your Optimal Energy Zone.

Performance-Energy Assessment Scale

No one can tell you the exact amount of energy you need or what it feels like, this is information you have to gather yourself. Use the Performance-Energy Assessment Scale to rate where you typically find yourself in your day-to-day riding. Notice the differences between your hacks, lessons, and shows.

  • What happens to your riding skills when you are under-energized? How can you tell you “don’t have it?” What changes in your technical riding abilities, muscles, awareness and mental attitude?
  • What does it feel like to have too much energy when you are riding? What different feelings do you recognize when you are too amped up? You may interpret this experience this as nervousness, anxiety, or worry, but what does it do to your body, focus and thoughts? What changes do you notice most?
  • What does your energy feel like when you are at a 5 and in your Optimal Energy Zone? This is key! You need to understand what it feels like to be in your zone so you will know what you are shooting for, and how to identify it when you are there. Without this knowledge you can adjust your energy all you want and still miss the mark, like an archer shooting arrows in the dark. What do you feel physically when you are at a 5? What are your thoughts about? How do you feel emotionally?

Different Energy Levels and Feelings

Now look at the Goldilocks Guide to Understanding your Energy. It describes the typical indicators of having too much, too little or just the right amount of energy to further assist you in your identification process. Goldilocks discovered what “Just right!” felt like, and you can too. Here, you will not only learn what optimal energy is, you will also learn how to make it for yourself!

Before you build a personalized preparation routine, it is important to note that it is typical for there to be differences in your energy level when you are either riding on your own, in lessons or at shows. For example, you may be at a 3 – 4 energy level in hacks and lessons, and in the 6 – 7 range at shows. This is very common, but doesn’t do much to prepare you to handle your extra energy or ride well at your competitions. Remember, however, that knowledge is power. Once you know what your typical energy pattern is, you can put things in place within your preparation routine that will help you ride at a 5 as much as possible. For there to be true consistency in your riding, there must also be consistency of energy. The rest of the chapter will explore tools you can use to adjust your energy.

I just had a girl do her first grand prix indoors, probably her fourth grand prix ever. She said, ‘I’m really nervous!’ And I said, ‘That’s good. You should be nervous; anyone who is at the in-gate who tells you they aren’t nervous is full of it. It’s just a matter of maintaining the adrenalin level to make it work for you, and not against you.’” – Susie Hutchison, U.S. Show Jumping Team Member

Breathing: Your Best Energy Adjuster

On a bright spring day I went to an event to observe Ava, a client who had come to me because she was battling her nerves before and during her stadium rounds. She reported that she frequently held her breath on course and half-joked that one day she might actually pass out. The show environment got Ava’s energy up to extremely high levels, and she was struggling to cope. We had just started working together and although I knew some basic things about her (she was in her late 20’s, fit, motivated, new to eventing and wanted to move up to Novice Level in the fall), I hadn’t seen her ride.

As I observed Ava, I noticed that while she was at the back gate waiting to go, she spoke so softly to her trainer she was barely audible. Her eyebrows were up by her helmet, and her shoulders were up towards her ears. Tension and worry were reflected in her round face from top to bottom . Her ride clearly reflected this tension (let’s just say that there was more than one gasp from her support team as she cantered around the course).

She came out of the ring struggling to catch her breath, looked at me and said, “Help!” I nodded. It was obvious to me that before, during and after Ava’s round her breathing had been very irregular; this would be our starting point (see Ava’s complete energy-management plan at the end of this chapter).

Breathing is one of the easiest ways to control the body’s physical and physiological state, partially because with the proper mindfulness and technique, it is simply easy to do. When you breathe deeply you help oxygenate your blood and remove any accumulated toxins in your cells that are getting in your way. This helps your body to relax, settle, and, if necessary, come out of flight-or-fight mode that can be caused by fear or stress (when you are in fight-or-flight mode, adrenaline has kicked in to the point where there is too much energy, and it is at risk of inhibiting your performance). Additionally, your mind associates confidence with smooth, rhythmic breathing.

Although breathing is essential for optimal performance, it is an unconscious process. Therefore it is frequently taken for granted and/or overlooked when it comes to preparation or the skills associated with peak performance. When you are riding, there are many ways your breathing may change unintentionally:

  • Intense concentration can cause you to dramatically alter your breathing. In an attempt to reduce distraction and direct all of your energy to the highest priority task (jumping the technical aspects of a course well, getting through a difficult series of movements in a test, listening intently to your trainer’s instructions, etc.) you may attempt to maintain your body’s status quo, causing things to lock up—including your chest and lungs.
  • When you are nervous or scared your “fight-or-flight” response gets triggered. This may cause you to curl up and go into some approximation of the fetal position. In this case your upper body, chest and lungs are essentially folded, making it very difficult to take a complete, full breath.
  • Being out of breath due to lack of cardio fitness can be misinterpreted as an inability to perform the task at hand. In this case, lack of physical fitness creates a change in your breathing, which then breeds doubt, which then snowballs into a lack of confidence that changes how you ride.
  • When facing a challenge you perceive as stressful, shallow breathing can cause a lack of oxygen, and create a negative feedback loop like this:

1) You are concerned about the riding challenge you are facing,

2) your breath gets shallow and fast,

3) you feel out of breath,

4) this worries you,

5) the worry makes you breathe even more shallow and fast,

6) you get more out of breath—and so it continues.

  • When you are bored or “flat” you can easily forget to integrate your breathing into your ride as you normally would, thus exacerbating the problem. It makes sense that when you aren’t feeling sharp you can overlook the things that maintain your energy, focus and intensity. The old “chicken-and-egg” scenario!
  • Ask yourself—What happens to my breathing when I’m feeling nervous? Fearful? Extremely tired? Weak? In those situations your breathing may in fact be affected, and not for the better. Has someone ever told you, “Take a deep breath!” “Keep breathing!” “Relax and breathe!” or, “Get focused with a breath”? Were those reminders helpful? Well, they were certainly on the right track! Again, breathing is certainly the best and easiest way to adjust your energy level, but you still need to utilize a method for it in order to get the results you want. Of all of the breathing techniques, a specific breathing strategy called Circle Breathing can really improve your use of your breath.

Circle Breathing

Circle Breathing is a technique that is used to increase or decrease your energy level, build confidence and improve focus. The emphasis is on breathing from the diaphragm (or belly) instead of the chest and consciously controlling the sequence of the breath, as these will produce feelings of being centered and in control.

Directions for a Circle Breath:

  1. Inhale through your nose while counting to 3. Open your chest and lift your chin. Bring air into your lungs from top to bottom and breathe energy in, feel your belly expand as if you are inflating a balloon.
  2. Pause, while counting to 2. Allow yourself this moment to feel still, calm and patient.
  3. Exhale gently through your mouth at a steady rate while counting to 4. Be sure that your exhale lasts for at least a beat longer than your inhale. Feel your belly flatten, and the muscles in your face and arms relax, while your body melts gently toward the ground. Let yourself enjoy this peaceful moment.
  4. Appreciate how grounded and strong you feel as you begin your next circle breath.

Using Circle Breathing

Reduce Your Energy (Relaxation)

When relaxation (or letting go of extra energy) is the primary goal for the Circle Breath, pay the most attention to the exhalation through your mouth. Gently purse your lips and imagine any tense muscles in your body letting go as you exhale the used air from your stomach and up each level of your lungs. Pay special attention to smoothly exhaling for a beat or two longer than you inhaled. You may even attach an image to the process, like visualizing butterflies flying out of your mouth (a useful way to feel a sense of control and empowerment over your nervousness/extra energy). In addition, think of a word or phrase associated with being calm and centered that you say to yourself as you exhale, such as, “Let go”, “Easy”, “Balance” or “Relax.”

Increase Your Energy

When you find yourself needing to increase your energy level, you will concentrate most on your inhale. Fix your gaze on a specific point while you inhale purposefully through your nose, this will narrow and therefore intensify your resolve. Imagine breathing in strength in order to turn up the volume on your energy. As you inhale, you may choose a vibrant color to bring into your lungs, such as a brilliant blue or shimmering gold. It is also helpful to pull up a memory of a time you fought through fatigue or dug deep to “get it done”— this could even be from other life experiences or athletic endeavors. This can be inspiring as it reminds you that not only does your determination play a large role in your success, but you have done it before, and you can do it again. Having a cue word or phrase to associate with increasing your energy can also be valuable, such as: “Now” “Power” or “Get it”!

When and Where to Use Circle Breathing

Anytime you are learning a new strategy it is helpful to brainstorm the specifics of where and when you will use it. By doing this ahead of time you increase the likelihood of working it into your routine. Of course you would like for Circle Breathing to be something you can pull out of your toolbox on the fly as you need it, but you need to practice the process and foster your belief that it will actually work.

You know more about your typical energy levels now after using the Performance-Energy Assessment Scale, so go ahead and make a list of several times and places you could use Circle Breathing this week to increase or decrease your energy before, during or after your rides.  How about:

  • While standing on the mounting block?
  • Waiting your turn at the back gate at a show?
  • During a walk break in the 95-degree sunshine of a summer lesson?

NOTE: Be careful to come up with times you have a moment to concentrate on yourself, as this process requires an internal focus. For example, using Circle Breathing while halted or when walking your horse is fine, but do not do it while trotting, cantering, or jumping.