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Riding with Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are what clinicians, psychologists, and other mental health professionals define as: "An unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate" (1).

As riders we may encounter these thoughts more often than we think. Seeing it in written word may be a little off putting or scary. If you google, ‘intrusive thoughts’, it might even make it worse. It comes alongside diagnoses such as Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Intimidating, right?

Let me break it down for you. It's a gorgeous sunny day at the horse show. You cheered on your friends in the other ring this morning and now you are getting ready to hop on and give it a go for yourself. You're a bit more nervous today then you usually are at shows. Probably, just because you missed the last horse show because of a family conflict and it has been a little while since you've been in the ring. Your trainer notices your nerves in the warm up and let's you catch an extra vertical or two, to "get your eye working again". You walk in the ring. You pick up the canter and head to your first fence. Instead of counting down 3, 2, 1... you feel a confusing, tense, shaky, feeling through your arms and chest and you think: "Oh no! I am going to chip this jump, he's going to trip, catch a leg, flip over, and I am going to go flying off!” All of a sudden you see the distance and kick for the long one. Your horse lands from the jump. You land with your horse, a little discombobulated, sit up and carry on. You finish the rest of the course, beautifully. At the end you shake your head, if only you had sat still to that first fence!

That is an example of an intrusive thought. It may not even be as dramatic as that for some riders. For some, it could simply be thinking about what happened yesterday in the warm up ring, when you “almost got run over by that stallion that kid was riding”. You feel a little anxiety thinking about it, it distracts you for a few strides, to which you are not paying attention to your horse or your task at hand. Then, after a couple seconds, you refocus and move on. An intrusive thought is any unwelcome or involuntary thought that causes us to feel upset and distressed.

It is normal to have these thoughts. You do not have multiple undiagnosed mental health illnesses for thinking some of these things. We all experience these thoughts in different ways and in one aspect of our lives or another.

Now, let's find a way to handle it. As riders this is hard. We can't just pull up in the middle of our course in the show ring to take a few deep breaths and maybe even a "mindful minute" on our Headspace or Calm app and then try again. Though, as a clinician I think this would be incredibly beneficial...

Here are my tips to conquer intrusive thoughts when riding.

  1. Notice it. Recognizing that this thought, might be an intrusive thought. "I feel _____" or "That thought made me feel ________ (uncomfortable, nervous, scared)". Tell yourself that that thought cannot harm you.

  2. Bring yourself back to the present. What are you doing right now? Riding? Are you posting the trot? How does your canter feel? Ground yourself and look around to your surroundings. Notice what you see, hear and feel.

  3. Remind yourself that it takes practice. These strategies can be easily supplemented with psychotherapy if you find yourself struggling with these thoughts often and they are interfering with your riding on a daily basis. Developing mindfulness skills and understanding sources of your anxiety and worried thoughts, in therapy can be a great first step in conquering intrusive thoughts while riding.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you read, subscribe on my website for more!

- Jenny Swanson, LICSW

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