Controlling YOUR Fight or Flight Response

We spend a lot of time figuring out how to control our horse’s fight or flight response (FOFR). But did you realize as a rider, you have one, too? Once you understand how your brain’s fear response operates and why it does what it does, you can focus on how to prevent that fear from getting so big that it hijacks your ride.

Before I offer suggestions for what to do, I’ll tell you what not to do: Don’t tell it to shut up and go away. Don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. Don’t tell your fear that it’s stupid or ridiculous and it shouldn’t be there.

Remember, fear is your body’s alarm system, its way of telling you that SOMETHING IS VERY WRONG. Alarms don’t stop if you ignore them; they just keep on sounding until you do something about them. Human alarm systems even have an escalation feature built in. Think about this: If you see a small child running toward a busy street, what do you do? You shout at him to stop. If he doesn’t listen, you shout louder, and if that doesn’t work, you run and grab him! All of this happens in a matter of seconds—if not less. Your FOFR can escalate in the same way, rapidly intensifying your feelings of fear until it gets your attention. Covering your ears and repeating, “Not listening! Not listening!” just doesn’t work. So what should you do instead?

Recognition

This may sound obvious, but the first step in managing your nerves is to realize that they are there in the first place. People experience anxiety in different ways, depending on their temperament and past experiences. Some people get restless and pace a lot (“flight”), while others get irritable and snap at the people around them (“fight”). Others seem like a deer in the headlights (“freeze,” another way of fleeing) and can’t respond to anything around them. Some people start micromanaging their environment, which often includes their horses, usually with poor results. A few of my students can’t stop talking, and some of them stop talking altogether—when these two types are sharing a trailer at a show, it often doesn’t go very well!

The inner experience of anxiety differs from person to person, as well. Some riders feel their mind go blank, while others hear incessant chatter in their head. While one rider becomes very tense and rigid, another may become floppy and physically disorganized. Stomach upset and inability to eat are common experiences.

In order to cope effectively with your nerves, it’s important to recognize how they express themselves, both internally and to the outside world. This is especially true if you tend to mask anxiety with anger or irritability. This is usually the brain preferring “fight” to “flight”—it feels more powerful. However, it’s detrimental to your relationship with your horse and with the people around you.

Try This Exercise: Recognize Your FOFR

List your internal and external signs of worry, anxiety, or nervousness. If you aren’t sure how you express these signs (feeling or behavior) outwardly, ask someone close to you. I asked my business partner this question and she said, “Your sentences get shorter.” I had no idea.

When you notice any of these feelings or behaviors, label them: “Oh look, that’s me getting nervous.” Labeling how you feel helps you take a step back from the emotion so that you’re not swamped by it. Do this out loud if you can—hearing yourself say it out loud is more powerful than just thinking it inside your head. Plus, if you’re talking, you’re usually breathing, and that will help to slow your FOFR, as well.

Breathe!

Speaking of breathing: if you’re in the middle of Fight or Flight, chances are good that you’re either holding your breath or breathing fast and shallow. You need to start breathing correctly in order to slow your FOFR. Take a deep breath, and notice: Did your shoulders come up and your upper chest expand? If so, you’re not truly breathing deeply. Instead, take a “soup breath”: Breathe in slowly, to at least a count of four, all the way down into your lungs so that your stomach expands like a balloon.

Now, purse your lips and blow it out slowly through your mouth, as if you’re blowing on your soup to cool it. This slows your breath and your heart rate, which then begins to turn down the volume on your FOFR. It also helps your Rational Brain to re-engage, making it easier to think clearly and make better decisions.

Acceptance

The next step in managing fear and anxiety is both acknowledging them and accepting their presence. Most of my students hate this step and often misunderstand it as a form of giving up. “I can’t accept my fear, I hate it! I just want it gone! If I give in to it I’ll never feel better!” But acceptance doesn’t mean liking the feeling or capitulating to it. It simply means saying, “Oh, hi, there you are. I see you.” That’s all. You’re just acknowledging reality as it already exists instead of protesting against it or pretending it isn’t so.

This is actually harder than it sounds—Buddhists often call it “radical” acceptance—because denial is much easier in the short term. We would much rather pretend that everything is fine. That doesn’t make the anxiety go away, though; as I mentioned before, it usually makes it kick into high gear because your Lizard Brain is sure that if you ignore it, something terrible is going to happen. But once you simply accept that the nerves are there, you take away one layer of struggle and free up a great deal of mental energy to do something about them. “Oh, it’s you. You always insist on showing up, don’t you? Okay, now that you’re here, I have to figure out what to do with you.”

An important point: you’ll notice that I’m referring to anxiety or fear as if it’s a thing or a person, rather than saying, “I am nervous.” This is called externalizing, and it’s a very handy trick. When you describe a problem as a thing or person, you’ve separated it from yourself; you’ve made the problem the problem, instead of making yourself the problem. This makes it feel less like a character defect and more like a puzzle to solve.

If you’re a visual learner, you can picture the emotion as a particular creature or object. I tend to use the image of a small lizard, since fear comes from the Lizard Brain. Plus, I think lizards are kind of cute, so it feels less like something I want to squash and more like something I want to take care of. The Pixar movie Inside Out also has a great depiction of fear: he’s a skinny, neurotic little guy who’s always flipping out, but is really quite loveable and is just trying to help. Externalizing may sound a little ridiculous, but I encourage you to try it, because it really does work.

This excerpt from Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

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