Monday, March 26, 2012

Hey Goldilocks – there is no bear.

No, I wasn’t hijacked by a blue dot. Surprisingly, life gets in the way of blogging! Back to the subject at hand.

 First, a little horsemanship lesson. Riding, you will not be surprised to learn, is dependent on balance. When I am coaching my kids on their riding, I often redirect them to focus on a point ahead of them and ride to it. “You will end up where you’re looking” I say, “if you’re looking at the ground under your horse’s feet, that’s not a good thing.”

Picture this: You’re trotting down a beautiful trail on your faithful steed – let’s call him Max. It’s a gorgeous Colorado day. The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing . . . you’re singing, perhaps. Ok maybe that’s just me. Anyway. Suddenly, your horse’s head flies up, and he begins to shy away from the horse-eating whatever it is off the side of the trail. The HARDEST thing to learn to do as a rider is NOT LOOK. Seems reasonable, right? Horse spooks into the next county, you want to look and see what in the world he’s afraid of! Here’s what happens. When you’re turning your head and looking around for the rabbit/squirrel/leprechaun/rock/mailbox/WHATEVER, your center of gravity shifts and you are no longer balanced in the saddle. So in that moment, you become more likely than ever to perform my own personal favorite – the spontaneous left-shoulder dismount. In this precise maneuver, the rider is pitched forward in the saddle (as their momentum is still going and the horse has stopped), lose their balance, and wind up clinging ever so elegantly to the neck, sliding gracefully out of the saddle, and finishing with an up close and personal visit with the flora and fauna beside the trail. Which in Colorado is often cactus. Or poison ivy. Yeah. Better to stay on the top side of the horse.

Less Balanced.
(photo by Thowra_uk)
  It took me YEARS to learn not to look for the source of the spook. These days, (thankfully) I don’t come off that often. My balance and strength is better. Having said that, my next blog post will undoubtedly be from the hospital in traction. Malcom Gladwell proposes in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at any given thing to become really really good at it, and I know I’ve gotta have at least twice that many hours in the saddle. So I’m a slow learner. Point is, I’ve stopped looking for the bear. What I know in my highly developed pre-frontal cortex that sets me apart from my horse is that 1) most of the places I ride, the most dangerous wildlife is a coyote. Coyotes are big ol’ chickens and want nothing to do with me or my horse. 2) The OTHER places I ride, where there might actually be bears and mountain lions, I am really really unlikely to run into them because I’m crashing down the trail making a heck of a lot of noise (and singing John Denver songs) and they are long gone before I get there. Thus, the assumption can be reasonably made then that whatever Max is freaking out about is of absolutely no danger whatsoever. Looking around trying to figure out the source of his angst only makes me more likely to fall off, and if, by some rare coincidence there actually IS a bear around, I will probably get the message loud and clear and being ON my horse gives me a better chance at staying on top of the food chain.

Case in point: on one cool July morning on a ride in Wyoming years ago, I trotted over what I thought from a distance was a stick across the trail. When I was on top of it, I realized (WHEN IT MOVED) that it was a rattlesnake. Did Max spook at that? NOOOOOOOOO. Didn’t give it a second look. My friend Carolyn, who was riding behind me, likes to add to the story that she never saw the stick that turned out to be a rattlesnake, but she clearly saw the subsequent 500 rattlesnakes that turned out to be sticks as her amygdala ran away with her the rest of the day. On another ride that season, after spooking at every single mailbox we passed (25 miles on a country road is a lot of mailboxes) Max flatly and fearfully refused to cross the chalk finish line. In his defense, he was only 4 at the time. Horses don’t get smart until 7. Ish. Still. The ride manager was waiting for me with a frosty beverage (did I mention the multitude of reasons I LOVE this sport?), and my silly youngster who had, 2 months earlier, trotted over a rattlesnake was now flipping out over a white line. One of us was motivated to cross it.

So here’s the take-home message: Stop looking for the bear. We are extremely unlikely, in the course of day to day events, to come across any sort of life threatening danger. Your amygdala is a light switch, not a dimmer. It’s on or off. We MISINTERPRET stressful circumstances in our lives as immediate, life-threatening dangers. Our bodies respond AS IF there were a bear. Remember my hero Dan Goleman? The sudden, intense emotional response is out of proportion to the situation. We don’t NEED adrenaline to survive getting a speeding ticket. Once we begin to recognize that those physical reactions in our bodies are unnecessary in MOST situations – did you hear that? That physiological anxiety response is NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION - we can start to anticipate that we could handle stressful situations without the adrenaline response. Imagine approaching a stressful situation with confidence. Imagine going in and asking for a raise, or speaking in public, or facing a jam-packed, non-stop busy day or cranky kids WITHOUT that feeling in your stomach. WITHOUT that tightness in your chest. WITHOUT tension in your shoulders. We are so conditioned to the expectation that the stress response is just part of the package, we don’t even consider that there might be something we could do about it. The first step is to recognize, in that moment, that even though we might have been hijacked, we aren’t a hostage.

Practice this today: any time you feel that anxiety, just have an awareness that you don’t NEED that level of physiological response. Think about the fact that you’re having all this physical stuff going on in your body, and there is no bear. Talk amongst yourselves.