Don’t we all like to feel like we’re in control of our actions and reactions? Especially when it comes to working with and riding horses—it is in our best interests (in terms of living to see another day, that is) to maintain some semblance of calm, cool, rational control in stance and movement, and to generally avoid screaming, flailing, lurching, vomiting, fainting, or in other ways baffling or scaring the 1200-pound creature beside or beneath us.
The thing is, any number of years can go by, any number of instructors can point us in the a positive direction, and any number of experiences can go right…but we’ll still be thrown out of whack psychologically at the very thought of them potentially going wrong. And it is this that inspires the sudden and ill-advised lack of control that can end with us bottoms up in a puddle.
“The amygdala, which sits very near the brain stem, is the part of the brain responsible for these basic emotions: happy, sad, mad, and scared,” explains formerly practicing psychotherapist and certified riding instructor Andrea Waldo in her new book BRAIN TRAINING FOR RIDERS. “The area that includes the brain stem and the amygdala is often referred to as the ‘Lizard Brain’ or the ‘Reptile Brain,’ because reptiles seem to have been the first animals to possess this area.
“Much, much later, we evolved our prefrontal cortex,” she goes on, “a very large section located just behind the forehead. This is your ‘Rational Brain,’ the part of the brain that controls logical thought: it allows you to plan
that after you read this chapter, you need to pick up your son from soccer, buy grain, and remind your spouse that tomorrow is recycling day. It also allows you to do cool things like think in the abstract and come up with great inventions like saddles and Velcro and duct tape. We tend to rely on the prefrontal cortex to get us through the day.”
But guess what? Despite all that evolving that has occurred, the Lizard Brain likes to take the reins in our brains, determining how we act and react—and the reptile is neither reasoned nor logical.
“As much as we know that an apple is better than a cookie and that paying the electric bill is more important than the tack shop’s clearance sale, our Lizard Brain couldn’t care less about ‘long term health’ or ‘financial stability,’” says Waldo. “It thinks only about the immediate moment, and it cares about only one thing in this moment: survival. This is why you can’t think straight when you’re extremely nervous: your amygdala has hijacked your Rational Brain. You’re not stupid or inept; you’ve just allowed your Lizard Brain to run the show. It thinks you’re being attacked by a tiger, so it tries to get you to safety.
“The Lizard Brain can’t distinguish between a psychological threat and a physical one; it uses the same response for both. This is why a dressage judge can send your heart pounding and wipe your brain clean of everything you knew five minutes ago…. To the Lizard Brain, a threat is a threat, and you either need to kill it or run away from it as fast as possible.”
The good news is we don’t have to be brought down by a mental Godzilla! Waldo has lots of ways to tame the Lizard Brain, keeping us the cool, rational, controlled riders who are not only safer in the saddle, but happier and more successful in all our dealings with horses.
Here’s an easy exercise to get you started as you head out for a weekend of riding: List 10 of your riding skills.
Can you do it? Every single one, even the most basic, counts. If you can’t recognize your abilities, you can’t have confidence in them. But when you can look at yourself and identify all the ways you are a knowledgeable and capable horse person, then you can take one step in keeping that Lizard Brain out of the driver’s seat.
For more about our reptilian side and the ways we can learn to unlock our riding potential, check out BRAIN TRAINING FOR RIDERS by Andrea Waldo, available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
CLICK HERE to download a free chapter or to order.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small company based on a farm in rural Vermont.