Life Before and Life After

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By Kate Ramseur

This story is part of the series “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice show you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.

It’s a feeling that many riders are all-too familiar with: you’re standing on the mounting block with a pit in your stomach, heart pounding, trying to slow your breathing. Maybe it starts before you get to the mounting block, when you swing the saddle over your horse’s back. Maybe it starts far earlier than that, on the drive over to the barn. No matter the timing, many equestrians struggle with riding anxiety at some point. Some find a way to address it and move on, while others spend years trying to reconcile the sport they love with the fear that holds them back.

I was firmly in the second group with years of riding anxiety under my belt. I had spent countless hours (and dollars) trying different methods to overcome my riding anxiety – trainers, therapists, a sports psychologist, buying different horses, even random Facebook ads promising to finally kick that riding anxiety to the curb! And none of it worked, not one bit. I had a gentle giant of a horse that was my steady teddy and was under the tutelage of a very capable instructor and still the panic would set in. Until one day my long-time therapist Cindy suggested we try a method called Brainspotting.

I immediately began researching and learned that Brainspotting was developed by a psychotherapist for athletes who had experienced sports trauma, and the method uses eye positioning to access unprocessed trauma deep in the brain. I’d experienced a bad riding accident in late 2014 after which I’d never quite been myself in the saddle. With all of the therapy I’d been through, I wouldn’t exactly say the trauma from that accident was “unprocessed,” but felt like I had nothing to lose by giving Brainspotting a try and so signed up for an appointment.

“What are your plans for the rest of your life once we do this?” That’s what Cindy asked me at the start of my first Brainspotting session. I distinctly remember chuckling because who has ever heard of talk therapy being so transformative that you would start to think of your life in segments – before and after – after only one session? Having been in therapy for almost two decades, I knew it didn’t work that way. So my plans for the rest of my life were the same as they had always been, until they weren’t.

It’s hard to describe exactly what we are doing during a Brainspotting session. I stare intently at a small silver ball at the end of a wand, keeping my head still and only letting my eyes track as Cindy slowly moves the wand left and then right. Every time I think I know what I am going to talk about that day, my eyes lock onto the silver ball and my brain starts talking about what it knows it needs to, earlier plans out the window. It’s weird, it’s uncomfortable, usually there is crying. Cindy says it  “hurts so good” and she’s right – I don’t enjoy the process but the results have been transformative.

After my first session, I could not stop my mind from reeling. My brain felt like a hamster running madly on an out of control wheel. Mainly I could not wrap my head around what in the world we had just done. Cindy had told me the most progress would be made that night while I slept, and to try not to overthink things too much in the meantime. That elicited another chuckle because she knows if they ever decide to add overthinking to the Olympics that I will win a gold medal without even batting an eyelash. So my poor little hamster ran her heart out on the spinning wheel until I finally crashed into a fitful sleep that night. I tossed and turned, woke up, fell asleep, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat until I woke up in the morning feeling… kind of amazing. Which was a completely foreign feeling, until I looked at the clock and saw that it was 7:15 in the morning. HOW was this complete and utter “Not A Morning Person” awake and feeling amazing at 7:15? Clearly we had done voodoo yesterday in Cindy’s office.

Riding at a Lisa Wilcox clinic this past summer

The real test would be at the barn. Sure, I’d woken up early and felt amazing, but how would I feel in the arena? I was to a point where even the smallest unexpected thing happening while in the saddle would send my heart pounding, blood pressure skyrocketing, adrenaline jolting through my body. And if something slightly more than small happened, it’s as if I would lose all motor function. If there is one thing I don’t recommend, it’s performing a complete freeze of one’s body and mind while piloting a 1,500 lb flight animal that just spooked at something and is now running across the arena.

On my drive to the barn, I felt hopeful and happy, not at all anxious and trying to dodge the scary what-ifs my brain usually tried to throw my way. Tacking up was the same, I was enjoying this time with my horse and there didn’t seem to be any unwanted thoughts creeping in. But the real test wasn’t when I stood on the mounting block feeling fine, or even when we took those first steps into the arena, it was when my horse suddenly swung his head to the outside to take a look at the horses galloping in the field. Gone was the woman who would freeze and panic. Gone was the racing heartbeat and sudden intake and holding of breath. In her place was a rider who simply put her inside leg on her mount and moved forward.

At the end of that first ride, happy tears welled up. I had wanted this for so long and after one bizarre session in my therapist’s office, I had finally attained it. As the weeks and rides ticked by, I started working outside of my previously very limited comfort zone with joy and ease. I still to this day am amazed and grateful when one of my horses does a silly horse thing, and I simply handle it and move on. There is no getting locked in fear. This is no complete freeze of all motor skills.

So what will I do with the rest of my life now that I’ve done this? So far I’ve started checking off major riding goals and enjoying this sport again. I picked up a second job because riding goals cost money, friends. Gotten a second horse. Worked out more. Slept amazing. Became a morning person. There is now a Life Before and a Life After.

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