Timmie Pollock, Ph. D , C.C. – AASP
Equestrian Athlete Sport Psychologist
Your Horse Is Your Mirror Series
Self -Erected Roadblocks
Your unique combination of early learning, personality, and life experience coalesce into your own unique patterns of thinking. These patterns make perfect sense to you, but they may or may not appear logical to the casual observer. Let me give you an example. Have you ever known someone whose behavior and decisions seem self-defeating and at odds with what they say they want to achieve? Most of us have, and we scratch our heads, wondering why our friends’ words and actions don’t mesh.
Such self-defeating behavior can manifest itself in riding as well as in other areas of a person’s life. Molly, an experienced event rider in her mid-thirties, came to me for help in overcoming a nagging problem. (named and details used in this article have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.) She had recently developed the habit of jumping ahead of her horse, which frequently landed her in the dirt. Competition exacerbated the problem, and by the time I met her she had become nearly incapacitated by her fear of jumping.
Molly sensed that she was sabotaging her riding, but she could not figure out how or why. She said she knew that there were “other things” going on that might be important to talk about, but she hoped that I could help her pull out of her slump with some visualization exercises or a little positive self-talk.
Little did Molly know where her “little riding problem” would take her. Several sessions into our work together, things with Molly were actually getting worse. The “day of reckoning,” as she put it, was when she fell off three times in a row trying to jump her very experienced mare over a six-inch pole. It was then she knew that she had to bring up some of those “other things.”
Molly told me that she came from a family with some well-publicized problems, which had embarrassed her as a youngster and had been the source of ridicule by other children. In college, she had “gotten into big trouble” in an effort to prevent her family’s problems from intruding into her life. The situation had long been resolved when Molly and I met. None of her current friends and associates knew about her past. She was successful and respected in her job and in her community.
It was difficult for Molly to talk about her past; but as she did, she discovered the cause of her equestrian self-sabotage: the belief that she did not deserve success in a pursuit that brought her so much happiness. Further exploration helped her to put her past in perspective. She realized that she was not doomed to repeat her family’s mistake. Although she was not proud of her past behavior, she was able to put it behind her by recognizing how much she had changed since that time. At last she was free to begin rewriting her life script.
It was difficult for Molly to break her entrenched patterns of behavior, but she is now scoring and placing higher in the shows than ever. More important, she is happy with herself. She is once again fully enjoying her riding; and, as she puts it, ” the rest of my life is much better, too.”
The belief that “I don’t deserve anything good” is surprisingly commonplace. Let me give you another example of the ways that this crippling mindset can affect one’s riding. When my client John was sixteen and a new driver, he was hit by another car. The other driver’s two-year-old child died in the crash. John tried unsuccessfully to rescue the child and, even though he was not at fault, still had guilt and vivid memories of the crash ten years later.
John came to me because he had been riding at the same level for several years and wanted to improve. He felt “stuck” and could not find a good explanation for his lack of progress. As with Molly, standard sports-psychology mental-skills training was not proving effective.
As I got to know John, the story of the accident came out. He still felt considerable remorse and became emotional when he recounted the event. It became apparent that he believed that, because he had “caused” the child’s death, he did not deserve success in his own life. Through our work, he began to accept the death as the accident it was. He started to understand that it was not necessary or helpful to give up happiness in his own life in order to atone for something that he had not caused. From that point, we went back to our standard mental-skills work. Johns riding immediately improved.
Our self-concept and beliefs about what to expect in life are based on two kinds of early information. The first is what others – especially parents and other adults – tell and show us. The second is the (usually immature) conclusions children draw based on their interpretation of experiences and of the way they are treated by others.
This information causes us to conclude that life is either generally positive or negative. If you believe that life will treat you well as a whole, then any negative beliefs tend to have minimal impact. But if you learn at an early age that life holds much unpleasantness, then you may unwittingly behave in ways that attract more negative outcomes, even though you may say and believe that you are trying to avoid such incidents. Eventually, you may become unhappy and frustrated and even may resign yourself to these limitations. The saying “What you think is what you get,” for better or worse, is quiet true.
Dr. Pollock is a Clinical and Sport Psychologist based in La Jolla, California. She has worked exclusively with equestrian athletes from all disciplines of riding for over 20 years. In her practice she uses a variety of techniques including biofeedback, hypnosis, EMDR and TFT in addition to the basics of mental skills training.
Dr. Pollock is a lifelong horse owner, breeder, and rider and has competed for over twenty-five years, primarily in dressage. She has also competed in Hunter/Jumper and Eventing divisions as well. She can be found on her new equestrian athlete Sport Psychology at EQUExcellence.com