Saturday, January 28, 2012

The tragedy of a one-horse string

There are a lot of times when I love having one horse. I love giving my undivided attention to one. I love knowing one horse, like he's an extension of my own self (and soul!). I love that I never get tired of riding my one horse. But, this is not one of those weeks. This is one of those weeks when I realize the tragedy of having a one-horse string. This is a week when I want a string of 10 horses. So if one needs a few days off, there are 9 others happily waiting to pick up the slack.

We leave for my first trip ever to Aiken, SC on Friday morning. And wouldn't you know it, Katchi has picked this week to convince Dr. Allen to prescribe 30 days of restricted light work on account of a very sore foot. No Aiken competitions. No Aiken jumping with Phillip. I can do a walking dressage lesson with Silva. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of. My mom and I talked about cancelling the trip, but we've decided to persevere. So, Katchi will go to Aiken to walk. And to swim. And to watch the USET training sessions. And to come home rested and ready to go back to full work.

As we all know, the more time you spend around horses, the more times you will have your heart broken. And while my heart is pretty broken right now, I'm also so very thankful that the prognosis looks very hopeful that Katchi will be back to full work in no time and we'll be charging full speed into the spring season! And I'm trying to keep the tears to a minimum and keep my mind thinking forward and positive and to all the things we can accomplish while we're walking - perfecting our rein back, turn on the haunches, no stirrups, two-point (with no stirrups?!? AGH!), walking lateral work... there really are a million things you can do at the walk if you think about it.

And just as I've been trying to keep myself focused on an exciting year to come, I found just the pick me up I needed - a new promotional video for Hagyard Midsouth has been released, and wouldn't you know it, there's my Katchi racing around at the T3D's awards ceremony, with me flashing a huge smile! Just seeing my smile atop my favorite and best one horse, reminded me again why it's not so bad having a one-horse string.

Katchi zips past at 3:25

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Belly Dancing Eventers - Area II Annual Meeting

When I headed out on the snow-filled streets of DC this morning, on my way to the Area II Annual Meeting in Leesburg, VA, I can tell you one thing that was definitely not in my mind or plan for the day - belly dancing! Nope, not on my "to do" list. But by 11:00 this morning, I had an orange chiffon sash with 150 coins wrapped around me, and there I was, with 6 other Area II eventers - shakin' our coins!!!

Area II hosted another great Annual Meeting today - although, it seemed like the snow kept away a lot of people (which definitely worked out just fine for those of us bidding on the silent auction - less competition!). Unfortunately, the snow delayed me a bit and I missed the session on the USEA's new online entry system, Xentry. I guess I'll stick to my paper mail-in entries for another year!

Next up was the Adult Riders forum - with such a small crowd, it was a nice opportunity to ask some questions and brainstorm new ideas for developing the program. In 2009, I received an Adult Rider scholarship - a program which has apparently been on hold for the past 2 years on account of USEA restrictions. However, good news is that lots of paperwork is underdevelopment to revamp the program and hopefully scholarships will be back to Area II soon! With so many upper level riders at our fingertips for lessons and clinics in Area II, everyone agreed that scholarships (that allow riders to choose how to allocate the training funds) are the way to go!

Finally, the coffee and food arrived - and no sooner had I wolfed down a full plate and (not enough!) sips of coffee - I was summoned for a little brain testing! A few folks were there from the local hospital to administer the ImPACT testing to establish a cognitive baseline to utilize later in the event that I might have a concussion and need to determine my neurocognitive functioning (especially to obtain approval to "return to plan" earlier than the standard time-out periods). As I sat down to take the test, I definitely regretted that glass of wine last night and the lack of coffee this morning! But, the cognitive scientist in me was ready to have some fun playing mental games! And, I did have fun! The test revealed "correct" or "incorrect" upon each answer, so you had a pretty good idea of how you were doing. My one complaint about the test design was the portion that required you to hit a key on the LEFT every time you saw RED circle - HELLO?!?! Every eventer knows RED on RIGHT!!! That took me a minute just to remember the stupid instructions! Anyhow, it was a fun little game and now I've got my "clinical report" and I'm all ready for the concussion I hope to never have!

Having missed the first portion of the next session, I found my way into "Increasing Your Own Core: Not the Old Pilates Again!" with Allison Woodruff (, not having any idea what I was walking into! A few minutes later, the one guy in the room excused himself to head elsewhere. And then we were instructed up and out of our chairs. And then to the front of the room. And then we were handed a sash - with 150 coins attached to it. We exchanged glances. We giggled. Slowly, we did as we were told. We've all spent years following instructions in riding lessons. We thought it was silly, but we were game to give it a try. And bit by bit - we might even have started to have fun! We shook our coins and rolled our spines and shimmied our shoulders! And we tried to explain to our teacher that "hip thrust" was a sitting trot, and that "belly tuck" was a half-halt and she said a "half what?"! And we laughed and shook some more! Definitely a new angle to achieving core strength - and we could all feel it working! After an hour of this - we felt great! Strong, relaxed, flexible - and STARVING!! Thankfully lunch was next!

But lunch wasn't just lunch - we were in for quite a treat! Lynn Symansky was our Keynote Speaker, and she was just fabulously inspiring! She spoke to us about her Pan Am experience - from finishing 3rd at the final selection trials, to being named as a team alternate, to being a final-substitution team member the day before flying out. She was a wonderful speaker and her words beamed of heartfelt passion! And she shared some pretty cool "behind the scenes" photos from the trip - which I think made every aspiring rider in the room dream of being on the team one day (although, hopefully at a destination event that doesn't require armed militia at every corner!!). Lynn said over and over again - never give up. With horses, your plans may change 100,000 times, but that's never a reason to give up. She even spoke about spending 3 weeks walking her horse for 2 hours a day, up the O'Connor's "mountain" to maintain fitness while he was suffering/recovering from cellulitus - and going to Dr. Allen's Virginia Equine Imaging on a Tuesday to get the "okay" - and proceeding DIRECTLY to ROLEX - after a final prep of 3 weeks of walking a hill. Not a recommended plan. But she never lost hope. wow.

And then it was awards time!!! So many awards - so many pretty ribbons! And remember Area II folks, to be eligible for one of these fine awards you must "self-enroll" - I'm sure the 2012 forms will be up on the Area II site soon, so don't forget to make yourself a contender!

Katchi was honored with the Reserve Champion award for the Training Level - Open Division. I came home with a beautiful huge ribbon and an elegant silver frame - engraved with "USEA Area II" at the top and "Training Reserve Champion" at the bottom. Something to keep me dreaming of the day when I have my own barn and can adorn the tack room/office with a history of awards that represent a lifetime of hard work, goals, accomplishment, and memories! I can almost see it now - sitting on a shelf of dark stained wood, high above a wall of saddles and bridles...

And then something super fun happened ... I got to be a substitute "Smurf" when I accepted a very special award for my student, Diane Zrimsek, who won the Area II "Smurfette" award - to honor the Area II adult rider who demonstrated outstanding turnout over the year - and strove to improve the turnout of those around her as well! See, there was this little incident at the Virginia Horse Trials this fall when Diane braved a blizzard at 3AM to braid her horse as well as her roommate's horse (after we had made the mutual decision that frostbitten fingers were not worth perfect braids) - but Diane couldn't sleep, with visions of unbraided ponies dancing through her head! Former Hunter-Princess Diane won the Smurfette award fair and square!

The day finished with 2 more outstanding presentations - "Taking the Confusion Out of Supplements" by Dr. Carey Williams and "Deciphering the New Drug Rules" by Dr. Kent Allen. Both were extremely informative, connecting us to the latest research, news, and rules. And, again, taking advantage of the small group - those of us there were privileged to ask lots of questions! One fun tidbit Dr. Allen shared with us - with the roller coaster FEI the past few years - Dr. Allen will be the FEI Delegate Veterinarian at this year's Olympics - and, well, lets just say he said something along the lines "stay tuned folks, it's gonna be a wild ride!" My interpretation... people are gonna try to cheat with drugs. Drug testing is getting better and better. The FEI powers are totally unpredictable (crazy??). There will be drama.

So that was the Area II Annual Meeting in a nutshell. Don't you wish you were there?!?!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Choke. Get it under control.

And we're onto part 3 of my venture into sports psychology and human performance! Choke. Failure under high pressure. Is it fatal? Is there a cure? Can you self-escape? I bring good news - there is hope!! Through my "real job" last week I had the opportunity to enjoy dinner with Sian Beilock, author of the 2010 book, Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. The contents of which have been a major contributor to my last 2 posts. She also writes a blog for Psychology Today that covers a range of topics, including sports psychology. Over a glass of wine on Thursday night, I asked Sian if she had worked with any equestrians - turns out that she's very familiar with the unique challenges of dealing with psychology issues when your golf club (horse) gets nervous too! Her mother competed in show jumping! While it wasn't exactly appropriate to lay down on the couch and spill all my mental demons in the middle of a business dinner, I was thrilled to talk through a few issues with one of America's leading cognitive scientists, while enjoying a glass of wine! Funny enough, we both graduated from UCSD's cognitive science department, Sian just a few years ahead of me - and we even had some of the same professors! Clearly, she's put her degree to better use than I have!

I confessed to Sian that when I read the list of "choke" predictor questions - it was me. But, before I got too obsessive about my failure, Sian was absolutely adamant that research is proving that you can influence your performance success to a much greater degree than most people realize! You can take control of your mind and steer it in the most productive way, but it takes dedication and practice (just like learning the actual skills of riding). As we talked about some of my specific challenges, Sian emphasized a few things that she believes will have a very positive effect on my mental preparedness to compete at the top of my game -

1. Develop a pre-game routine. This has been a work in progress for me over the past 3 years. While I have a pretty solid routine that has a lot of good elements, I'm also starting to realize that it needs some modifications to get me in the right frame of mind. For one thing, I need to make a clear distinction between my coaching role and my riding role - coaching is analytical (left brain) - riding is executing (right brain).

2. Write down my worries. I don't want to do this. I don't want to acknowledge they exist. Yea, I know, I joke about trakehners - but to really write down what actually scares me about them?! Oh boy. But Sian was adamant that there have been tremendous results showing that taking a few minutes to write down our worries allows the brain to let those things go. I'll have to work on getting the guts up to do this. Does writing down that I'm worried about writing down my worries, count as writing down a worry???

3. Stay in the present. Reminiscent of Jimmy saying "stop critiquing your ride in the middle of it" - wasting even a moment thinking that the last jump sucked is no good. I must keep my mind in the present and ride to the next fence rather than living in what did or didn't go right at the last one because that one is done and finished. Sian asked if I'd tried meditating. Um, nope, I don't really relax so well. Thinking back to my need for a GRRR face - I asked, "but won't meditating and finding your zen, make you all soft and relaxed - how does that fit into competitive aggression?" - and then I learned something big... meditating isn't all about peace and quiet and relaxation. It's about clarity of mind. It's about training your mind to focus on the present. Sian's blog article about meditation is here. Mind wandering. Thinking about anything and everything except the present. As I've been riding Katchi the last few days, I realized something - when I'm riding on the flat, I am totally in the present. When I'm jumping, my mind is EVERYWHERE but there! I WAS SHOCKED! It was like a crazy dream sequence - hopping erratically from that jump in the past, and that show jumping course last fall, and that lesson with Phillip, and when Jimmy said... OMG! I couldn't get it to shut off to save my life. No wonder I can't get my S&*! together in show jumping - I'm not even in the ring! So, now I'll be looking for a book on meditation for athletes - any suggestions??

Meditation for horses too???

Okay, so what else?? Here are 2 lists from Sian's book that I've taken the liberty of "interpreting" into the world of eventing as I could. The great thing is all this stuff is so simple - but so often ignored! What power we have at our fingertips!

(Selected) Tips to ensure success under stress (p.174-176)

1. Reaffirm your self-worth. If you've been writing your daily note recognizing something you did well in every ride, it should be pretty easy to recall a few of those things just before you head into the competition ring.

2. Write about your worries. The night before the big competition, take 10 minutes to write down everything you're worried about for the next day. Train your brain not to dwell on these fears - instead, recognize and discard them.

3. Think differently. Don't think about yourself as, "well, I'm no Phillip Dutton" or "I'm only an amateur with one horse." Instead, think of yourself as an aspiring eventer just like other top level riders in some way - Kevin Keane, an amateur rider with a full time job who was long-listed for the 2011 Pan Am Games - Amy Tryon, a full time fire fighter all the way through her trip to the 2004 Olympics - Julia Wendell who as a middle-age woman decided she wanted to learn to ride and has made it all the way up to the Advanced level. Don't stereotype yourself as a "smurf" - instead focus on the credentials you have that will help you put in a good performance.

4. Reinterpret your reactions. When your heart starts to flutter and you feel the adreneline rushing in - don't think "I'm gonna die in there" - think "I'm ready to CHARGE!" The body's physiological reactions are similar in many circumstances - a first kiss, an exhilarating athletic feat, a surprise or scare - but context lends us to perceive those bodily reactions as different emotions. Train yourselfz to perceive pre-competition excitement to defeat your opponent!

Tips to escape Choking under pressure in sports and performance (p.232)

1. Distract yourself. Think Ralph Hill singing a song while riding XC. Count the rhythm of your strides (as Jimmy says, don't count 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, or 3-2-1... just count until you run out of numbers 1-2-3-4...).

2. Don't slow down. Keep a careful watch on the order of go and don't leave yourself sitting at the in gate waiting for your turn - this gives you too much time to think about what you're about to do - Just do it.

3. Practice under stress. Do you feel pressure when your husband comes to video your lessons? Does having an audience at your lessons make you feel like you're at a show? Then invite them out some more!

4. Don't dwell. Analyzing past performances (failures) can be good - IF you look at them as an opportunity to learn, understand, and improve. Don't beat yourself up over them for eternity - remember the importance of training confidence? Dwelling on a failure without looking for an out trains defeat.

5. Focus on the outcome, not the mechanics.

6. Find a key word. A one-word mantra to keep you focused on the end result rather than the process. Forward. Rhythm. Focus. Straight. Smooth. Clear.

7. Focus on the positive. Don't be helpless.

8. Cure the yips by changing up your grip. When Jimmy encounters a rider who tends to pull up and back on the horse coming into a fence or over the top of it - he often has them change their grip on the reins into a "bicycle grip." Every time I've seen him do this, the pulling has miraculously stopped. I'll have to ask Jimmy if he knows he's a cognitive scientist - because I'm pretty sure he has proven Sian's research that "the alteration in technique reprograms the circuits... clearing your brain and body of the motor hiccup". Interesting.

Well, how's that for giving you all a little homework???

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Harness your inner horsepower!

Thanks to everyone (especially Eventing Nation!) for your positive feedback on my last post - great to know I have friends also searching for their GRRR face this winter! The fun thing about all this sports psychology stuff is that for someone like me who thinks too much, this has given me some GREAT stuff to think about!

So, this post is about cognitive horsepower. Rev your engines folks - turns out we're not just sitting on horsepower - we've got cognitive horsepower too! And it will lead us to great things if we can figure out how to properly harness it!

The brain's prefrontal cortex is the center of the working memory and attention. It's a flexible mental notepad. It holds information in the mind while you are doing other things at the same time. Like remembering to turn left at C at the same time that you remember your trainer's instructions to keep your horse forward and soft and your shoulders back, chest lifted, hands still... Does the prefrontal cortex fail us sometimes? Yep. And that's when we turn right at C instead of left. And the judge blows the whistle and says, "you were supposed to turn left." And you say, "didn't I?" It happens to the best of the best - at the biggest competitions of their lives. Just watch this video.

2000 Athens Olympics
David O'Connor's gold medal winning show jumping round.
Skip to 3:50 for the start of David's ride.

We all remember that DOC won the gold medal - but he very nearly lost it! We'll never know exactly why his prefrontal cortex failed him in that crucial moment between fence 6 and 7, but scientific research can give us a pretty good idea. Basically, there is only so much multi-tasking the prefrontal cortex can handle at a time. Beyond that and things that you are not directly attending to start disappearing. And here's the kicker - anxiety and worry take up massive amounts of attention. And when you're attending to your anxiety and worry, things you need to know to perform (like turning left or right at C) are not immediately available to your working memory. This is also why students bomb math tests or choke in the SAT and why politicians flub simple answers in high-pressure debates. The key to success in these situations is that you must turn your attention to what is important - and away from what is not: worry and anxiety.

And, here's where it gets really interesting. Most people assume that worry and anxiety causes high performance athletes to choke. But, research shows this isn't the whole story. Like a football player remembers plays or a figure skater remembers her routine - eventers have test patterns and courses and plans of attack that we must attend to precisely. Working memory. Prefrontal cortex. But there's more to it. High performance athletic skills operate largely outside of the working memory. Expert athletes don't attend to what they are doing - their movements are controlled by other parts of the brain. This is why so many post-game interviews with winning athletes go something along the lines of "I don't know, it just all came together and it was brilliant!" and they really have no memory of what the hell happened at all (this is probably why we really love helmet cams - so we can find out what we just did!).

Then why do elite athletes choke? Why do basketball players miss free throws and soccer players miss penalty kicks - when they have all the advantage? Why does the top golfer miss the 3 foot putt - and miss it again! Paralysis by analysis. To deal with worry and anxiety, we desperately try to control everything that could go wrong. We start to attend to movements of our body that we never attend to in practice. In desperation to succeed, we engage our prefrontal cortex in things it should stay out of. When you run down a flight of stairs - you just run. Now think how your running changes when you overly concentrate on not falling down - you run stiffer, slower, and less fluid. You may even fall down. You think the same thing might apply in riding? Start overly monitoring your movements and you actually freeze your movements. And you think your horse doesn't feel that?! Gee, wonder why he always drops rails at shows but never ever when jumping much higher fences at home??

One big thing to remember when thinking about what I've just said is that for a novice in any sport - working memory is critical! You must attend to everything your trainer has told you to do, because it has not yet become an unconscious skill. Think about how hard it was to learn to post the trot and how many things you had to manage in your head to survive. Working memory. Prefrontal cortex. Now you post the trot as easily as you walk. Expert athletes are so well practiced that their movements operate outside conscious control. And it is when they begin to worry so deeply about screwing up, they take conscious control to force themselves to succeed - and this is actually when they fail. Make sense?

Okay, that's enough for one post. So, I'll let you think about this a bit and then I'll be back with good news - there are well researched strategies to keep your prefrontal cortex at just the right level of control!

But let me end with a note about confidence. Just after the USEA annual convention, USEF high performance posted several items from USOC that were given to our high performance riders - sports psychology, nutrition, fitness... it peaked my interest, so I went directly to the USOC website to see what else I could find. And I found some materials for coaches - and here's a key point that really struck me: Confidence has to be trained just like performance skills. Huh. Well, isn't that interesting. As a horse trainer, building a horse's confidence is everything. One of my favorite sayings is "never show a horse what it can't do." So, why don't we train confidence in ourselves? One technique the USOC recommended is to make athletes write down a single line each day of one positive accomplishment - no matter how tough a training session was. Find one thing you did well. "Make building confidence a daily discipline." Gee, how much easier would it be to believe in yourself in the moment of competition if you've actually spent some time believing in yourself before you get to the big test - every single day take a moment to believe in yourself. So simple. Yet, when was the last time you took that moment? I've made this a New Year's resolution for myself.