Random Musings: Nervous Nellies

Barnes Equestrian

The Nervous Nellies

 I don’t actually like the term “Nervous Nellies.” Maybe it’s just me but it almost makes light of nerves a little too much? I mean, it’s fine if you’re a nervous rider who is comfortable with acknowledging their fear but what if you’re not? Maybe “Nervous Nellies” doesn’t suit everyone.

 For some people, acknowledging that there is an issue of nerves is actually one of the hardest steps on the path to overcoming those nerves. It can be incredibly daunting for someone to admit it to themselves let alone to people around them. But lets move past the terminology for now get into the guts of today’s post. 

 As you’ve probably guessed, the topic is…Nerves. 

 Everybody has either had or knows someone who has suffered from nerves when working with their own, or other people’s horses. It can often be quite extreme. Typically, in established horse-people it comes as a result of mental or physical trauma. You don’t always have to hit the ground to develop a fear or nerves. Sometimes it’s as simple as being in a situation where you forsee that as a possibility. 

 Nerves can happen to anybody at any time. Why then do people feel so hesitant to admit it?

 It’s not a sign of weakness

 Let’s get that off the list now. Weakness isn’t being nervous. In fact, I’d always make a strong case that true weakness is overconfidence. 

 Do you know what nerves are? Nerves are a realisation that you have something to lose. Overconfidence is complacency. 

 Quite often we’ll see nerves cement themselves in a multifaceted way. Take this for example:

 Hypothetical Sally

 Sally is nervous about jumping. One day she was on her quiet horse and got a little left behind in the movement. Sally didn’t fall off but the experience shook her to the extent that she can no longer bring herself to jump. She stayed on but there was a split second where she thought she was coming off. That’s all it takes. A split second. 

 In this hypothetical scenario, Sally knows she’s afraid but she struggles to admit that; not only to herself but everyone else around her. Even those closest to her. She tells her friends “oh I just like flatwork!” or “I just don’t want to jump!” but as time goes on, they ask more. Eventually the excuses run out. Sally is pushing the reasons not to jump to their limit. 

 It begins to overwhelm her. She finds less and less enjoyment in being around her horse. She avoids riding, maybe citing aches and pains. The passionate flame that once roared now flickers dimly. 

 A Silent Tragedy

 Can you see what it is? It’s not that she has become nervous. It’s not that she has a quiet horse or even that she allows the situation to escalate through the avoidance of participation. 

 The true tragedy is that Sally doesn’t feel comfortable admitting her nerves to herself or to anybody else. 

 Why is that? Well, the truth is never black or white. As a society we tend to see nervousness as a bad thing. In the horse world it’s all too common to mock someone who is “scared” to do something on their particular half-tonne animal. The stigma is real. 

 Stigma

 No matter what anybody says, horse-people are some of the worst people for being overly judgemental and belittling people. Despite what we like to pretend, it’s not the ones with the money and good horses that are worst for it. It’s the grass roots level. 

 For such a small close-knit community such as the Equestrian community, we really do tend to treat nerves as something negative. It’s such a shame. Nerves can be overcome and they can be worked with. There’s no reason whatsoever for someone to feel like less of a person or rider because of nerves. 

 A good rider isn’t a gutsy rider. A good rider is one who can read the situation well. Think about it. Whether it’s as a person admitting their own limitations and working with it or a rider reacting to the feel of the horse. Reading the situation on or off the horse is what separates the good from the bad. Nerves aren’t something to be ashamed of. If you have them and can sit down and admit it to yourself and your peers, then be proud! For that is the first step in overcoming the nerves. 

 Don’t give yourself (or others) labels. Labels are a terrible burden on people. You can believe you’re labelled one way but you may be perceived as another. Ultimately labels can add a whole new dynamic of worry and stress to people – Especially if your label is perceived as being ‘below’ others. 

 At the end of the day, it’s simple. You can be nervous and still aspire to be the next Carl Hester. It just means your path on that journey has a new hurdle to learn from. 

 What About Coaches?

 In Ireland there is a huge lack of common sense in how to work with nervous riders. I’ve seen some coaches literally say “ah yer well able! Just get on and do it!” Confidence building doesn’t work like that. Nor does it require only a handful of sessions to see real change. 

 One of the biggest issues I’ve seen is a lack of human understanding from coaches. As coaches it’s easy to develop a way of coaching that becomes who we are. Some people are like drill sergeants. Others get more technical and explain things. I’m the latter. But it’s important to be able to adapt to the rider. Especially when nerves come into the equation you have to be able to step back and consider the human. 

 The Human Side

 In its most basic form, if a nervous rider seeks help and sits their backside in that saddle, you can guarantee that they have that spark and want to overcome their nerves. 

 It becomes our job to assist them and give them blocks of confidence so they can put it together. They can then step back and see what they’ve built and be proud of the culmination of all those small achievements along the way. 

 If we fail to connect with the human side to those nerves, we fail in our task as coaches. Connecting with the human side means…

Understanding the problem and its roots.

 If we are to work with a nervous rider we have to understand why they’re nervous and how they got there. Effectively we have to put ourselves in their shoes and understand their journey. 

Understanding the person’s perception of the issue. 

 Working with nervous riders is like providing a therapy session. Remember earlier when I said that nerves can be multifaceted? This is how. A rider can be nervous of a jump but also how others view them. We have to work with the rider psychologically as well as physically. It can often be harder to change a mindset than it is to change the riding. 

Breaking the issue down.

 We can only guide the rider but it’s ultimately their responsibility to put the work in. It’s often a good idea to break the issues down and build confidence from a more basic level prior to tackling the main problem head on. Doing this develops trust. Especially a nervous rider, they have to trust that you will look after them. They have to trust your guidance. 

 Balance: Encouragement Vs Pushing

 It’s a fact that the only way to see progression is to push your rider. But a balance is required. Especially when tackling nerves. You can’t push your rider to the stage of a mental breakdown and ruin all the hard work you’ve both done prior to that stage. You do, however, have to encourage your rider to push themselves. This comes back to trust and those blocks of confidence that we give our riders to build from. 

 But Remember

 The human side requires us as coaches to understand. To break things down but most of all, to remember that we are dealing with a unique individual. A person and not a robot. The biggest thing when dealing with a nervous rider isn’t getting the rider to achieve the physical steps, but to train their mind to recognise theirany small achievements along the way. 

 That’s what I think most coaches neglect. The physical goal is great but without changing the mental aspect and addressing those real unseen issues, we can’t really make a change. 

 The Nervous Nellies

 This whole post is just an excuse for me to rant about that darn label! Not really…or is it?

 I feel it’s too casual and almost makes it seem light-hearted. Maybe that’s fine. But nerves can be truly devastating for the individual. Yes “Nervous Nellies” may be a ‘cute’ label. It may even be funny for some; Much like a ‘silly Billy’ in ways, but it also has very casual connotations in my opinion. It’s okay to make light of your own situation but I don’t agree with labelling all nervous riders as Nervous Nellie’s. 

 We should account for those riders who compete and face attacks of nervousness. Take into consideration those with high aspirations. The Equestrian world is already too judgemental without adding labels that make people feel put down even more. 

 Nervous Nellies are fine, but i also want to consider the nervous RIDER. Nerves are natural. They can happen to any of us at any time and in any phase in our career. At any level. 

 Those who are nervous face a layered challenge both physically and mentally. We, as coaches and peers need to do more to make being nervous acceptable. The Equestrian world is an unforgiving and judgemental place. 

 As coaches we can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

 We just need to take the time to understand just how deep nerves can root themselves in our clients minds. Making a positive change… Isn’t that what it’s all about?

 Random Musings: Nervous Nellies was written by Scott Barnes of Barnes Equestrian as an opinion piece on a random thought. If you wish to follow more updates on Barnes Equestrian, please follow our Facebook Page!