Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Reprogramming Your Mental Computer

by Lori Albrough

A reader, Katie, wrote to me after she had read my Gumby article on using the power of visual imagery to help with your riding and training. Katie shared her experience with her own horse, who can be difficult at times, and I wanted to discuss part of her comment, because she raises a really important point:

I don’t know that I’ve come up with an image for my young mare and I, but I think your urging us to do that, and your example of how the image of Gumby worked well for you, is very important and useful. Whenever she’s difficult, the line: “This horse could hurt me”, comes to mind. It feels rational and careful, but it may not be.

I’m glad that Katie has realized that the seemingly conservative thought that is popping into her head at times of difficulty with her horse, under the auspices of being a helpful and useful thought, is actually counter-productive.

A thought like “This horse could hurt me” is going to invite a whole host of physiological reactions in the body, including a release of adrenaline, tensing of muscles, defensive body posture, increased heart rate, and quick shallow breathing. To a master of body-language-reading like a horse, all of these signals telegraph “Danger!”

Instead, Katie wants to be sending signals of peace, calm, and leadership to her young horse in those times of challenge. Doing so will defuse the situation, and give the mare trust and confidence in Katie’s ability to keep her safe and tell her what to do. Katie should think of an alternative line or mantra to repeat in her head when she feels challenged by her horse’s behaviour. Some ideas are: “I am a confident leader”, “I calmly tell my horse what to do”, “I inspire confidence in my horse”, or “My horse trusts my leadership”. The body language and vibe engendered by this kind of thought will be picked up and mirrored back by the horse.

Does a person have to have a conscious belief that the replacement thought is true to have this technique work? Surprisingly not!

I used this technique myself about twelve years ago to reprogam my own reaction to situations with my horse. At that time I would feel nervous if my horse got silly and started jumping around when I was riding him. Back then I thought of myself as a normal, OK rider. My horse had a tremendous sense of humour, and he liked to express it by scooting and hopping forwards and sideways when my coach would pick up the lunge whip, or at various other stimuli. Then I would get tense and hold the reins too tight, giving him something to resist, and adding fuel to his general silliness. I didn’t like my reaction, and wished at those times I could instead stay relaxed in my position and confidently ask my horse to perform a leg-yield or lengthen stride or some other movement, as I had observed professional riders doing, rather than freezing up and telling him what NOT to do.

But I honestly didn’t believe that this better approach was possible for an ordinary rider such as myself. At least, I couldn’t find a way to change my default reaction. So I decided to try reprogramming my thoughts, not really believing it would work, but figuring that the worst that would happen is I would end up feeling silly. I chose for my mantra, “I am a bold and confident rider.” Just saying that in my head made me blush and look over my shoulder in case someone had overheard my thoughts and they were going to let out a boisterous Ha!

I couldn’t meet my eye in the mirror when I said my mantra. I did not believe that about myself one iota. But, I just repeated it constantly in my head, all day, over and over. Having a shower, “I am a bold and confident rider”. Cleaning stalls, “I am a bold and confident rider”. Driving to town, “I am a bold and confident rider”. When I was riding, especially if I felt myself begin to tense up, “I am a bold and confident rider”.

Gradually, I began to make myself say it out loud. I had to be alone though, I couldn’t possibly say it in front of others. Then one day I surprised myself while in conversation with a rider friend when I found myself saying, “It doesn’t bother me when he does that, I’m a confident rider.” That’s when it hit me, I had actually programmed my mental computer with the belief that I was a bold and confident rider, and that had become my new reality!

Getting back to Katie, while it may seem on the surface to be rational and “facing facts” to recognize “this horse could hurt could hurt me”, actually practicing having a more powerful and constructive thought such us “I am a confident leader” can result in a very different outcome when her horse is being difficult. Of course we all know that horses can hurt us, but they are much less likely to if we have the actions and the body language of a calm and relaxed leader. That’s why I think there is no point in facing facts if you don’t like the facts. Instead, reprogram your mental computer with the facts as you would rather have them!


4 Responses to “Reprogramming Your Mental Computer”

  1. sue freivald wrote:

    Amen! I had a runaway in the cart about 10 years ago and it took several years for me to get past it in my gut. The runaway actually had no bad outcomes, EXCEPT in my confidence. And I recognized that and worked on projecting — to myself — the fact that I had done all the right things, there were no injuries or damage — I obviously was a competent driver with good reactions/instincts and could support both my horse and myself in any situation. It took awhile, but I realized one day several years later when a helicopter buzzed the field we were next to sending all the horses on a made gallop, that while my Fjord definitely wanted to join the fun, I was right there with the right reactions –and I was calm and in control. I was aware of directional options if Venn didn’t immediately respond as I directed and knew that we were “good”. And so we were. And I also realized that my “gut” had figured out a while before . . . :~). Sue

  2. Bernice Blair wrote:

    Dear Lori,
    I have been enjoying your newsletters over the last few months, but I have never responded. This one hit so close to home that I want share a recent experience of mine. My daughter and I have a 10 year old fjord, BDF Titan. We got him when he was 4 and he has always been a handful (in both hysterically funny, and not-so-funny ways). A barn change and move to a more experienced trainer about 3 years ago really helped settle him, and I finally felt confident riding him in all types of situations (dressage, jumping, out in the field, on trail) (by the way, my daughter is the far better and more experienced rider, so his “spunk” was never an issue for her, even though he left her in the dust more times than I care to count when he was younger).

    This spring, however, he spooked at a bird flying out from behind a mirror in our indoor ring and I took a hard fall. I was fine, and he was confused and snorting at me (why are you lying in the dust over there?), but we went on with our ride and all was fine. Two weeks later, the exact same thing happened in the same spot, and while I was physically fine, I was now spooked. I became afraid (especially at that mirror!) and our rides after that were horrible – I rode with a hard hand, stiff back and racing heart, and he became 100 x’s spookier than before. About 2 weeks ago, after a disappointing lesson (all my fault, because I was just scared the entire time), I decided I was tired of being scared, and tired of what it was doing to my relationship with Titan.

    So, I came up with my own “rewiring” program – have you ever seen the Disney movie “Mulan”? There is a song from it called “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and it is sung by a character whose job is to lead a group of rag-tag peasants and train them, both physically and mentally, as warriors. Its very upbeat, inspirational, confidence-building and funny, and I played it all the time, the entire time thinking of me “leading” Titan.

    Two days ago, I had my weekly lesson and for the first time in 3 months I was not scared (even at the mirror) and Titan was great. Instead of getting to our usual spooky spots (which had become just about everything – mirrors, gates, a different colored bucket in the aisle) and thinking “Oh my god, what are you going to do!” or “You are not going to spook!,” which of course was an invitation to do just that, I was able to calmly think “We are doing this Titan.” And we did.

    Thanks for your newsletters and all the helpful information in them.

  3. Libby, from Nova Scotia wrote:

    Hi Lori,
    I last wrote to you in February in response to your Ground Hog Day article, and have enjoyed your e-Zines since then.
    I would like to add to the “Gumby” and “Re-program Your Mind” articles, which are both very good, but there is a quicker way than re-programming your mind. I am not the first to discover this, by a long shot, but last winter when I was riding in a friend’s arena, on a cold and spooky day, and my mare was very distracted and stiff, I started SINGING! Being a dressage rider I am supposed to be “dancing” with my horse so I started singing a lovely little song call “Let me teach you how to dance” which Ewan MacGregor sings in the movie about Beatrix Potter, who is played by Rene Zellweger. It works in all three paces because even though the tune is a waltz (3 time) you can slow down or speed up the rhythm of the song to go with the foot falls of the pace you are in and especially at the trot you can have a three-beat rhythm within the 2 beat trot sequence. Any horse that is spooky or about to spook will first hesitate – all evasions are a lack of response to the foreward aids (even bolting) – if you are singing (even only in your head) your right brain will keep those hooves coming through in rhythm and the horse doesn’t get a chance to “stall” and therefore doesn’t get a chance to spook. This works with lunging as well as riding. The other thing singing will do is give the left brain something else to do other than dream up scary thoughts like “OMG he’s going to spook!”. If we are riding with confidence we are riding the horse with our right brains – the left brain is used for deciding where to do a circle or remembering to lengthen on the long side because your instructor just told you to. Giving the left brain something to do keeps it out of the way to let the right brain take care of things which it can do quite well – including keeping us safe and out of trouble, if necessary. I am always amused at how easily I handle a spook when I’m relaxed and it comes right out of the blue – my right brain takes care of me; the left brain didn’t get a chance to mess me up!
    I encourage everyone just to try this sometime. If you cant hold a tune or are embarrassed just sing in your head – your horse will hear you!
    Happy Summer – Libby

  4. Nancy Hull wrote:

    Your final sentence, “…reprogram your mental computer with the facts as you would rather have them”, brought to mind a time I used that technique with much success. A few years ago, my warmblood mare bucked me off. Up to that point, she hadn’t ever bucked big, and I didn’t think she could get rid of me. Boy, did she ever prove me wrong! Everybody wanted to know what happened, and I found myself re-telling, and re-living, the episode in great detail time and time again. When I rode her after that, I was very afraid that it would happen again. I became extremely tense and so did she. I was afraid that my tension would make her so upset she would buck again. Finally, I realized that by reviewing the incident in my mind in such detail so often, I was almost guaranteeing that should she buck again, I would be programmed to react in the same way as I had the first time, with the same results. So I asked myself the question, “When it happens again, what will I do?” I came up with a plan of exactly what I should have done, step by step. I reviewed the plan in my mind often, especially before I rode her. Every time I caught myself re-living the fall, I stopped myself and replaced it with my plan. Finally it happened. I was riding her in a lesson, something startled her, and she started bucking. Before I knew it, it was over. I had quickly sat in and back, turned her head in the direction I had imagined, sent her strongly forward, and suddenly we were cantering around like nothing had happened. My instructor was amazed that I had stayed on and managed to break off her behavior and get her immediately back to work. I was even more amazed, because there was no conscious thought involved at all. I had reacted precisely as I had reprogrammed myself to act. After that, my fear and tension were gone, and my mare was immediately so much better. And no, she never bucked again.
    Happy Trails, Nancy

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