The Nervous System Game: Part Two
Exercises to engage your sensory awareness
The following exercises are designed as introductory ways to connect with the senses. This type of skill building and practice can help you learn to regulate your nervous system very quickly. These small steps can help you learn to come into your body and be in the present moment. You’ll find that these essential skills can be very helpful when you might be experiencing states of anxiety or fear before or during riding, have a lesson or competing at a show.
- Prior to entering the stables and getting out of a vehicle take a few purposeful minutes to stop and look around. If you have lower limb issues or disabilities, make a point to take a few moments to really notice your seat bones. How do they feel connected to the seat of the vehicle in which you arrived? Intentionally notice the physical sensations of the weight of your body supported by a car seat or wheelchair. The stables and farm may be a familiar place to you. If so, you may habitually do the same thing each time you arrive at the barn. If you are attached to checking your messages, email or social media before you get out of your vehicle, you might want to use these actions as a cue to just pause after you’ve put your smartphone away and chose to engage your sensory perceptions.
- As you move towards the barn or pasture simply look all around, notice what your eyes might be drawn to today, such as particular colors in the landscape, notice similarities or differences in textures, the shapes of any horses outside, different types of manufactured objects or even patterns of light. Name these things silently to yourself. Practice keeping your instincts sharp.
- Next, pay attention to the familiar smell of the horses. Is it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral to you today? What other smells do you notice in the air? Humans used to travel for the purpose of finding food and smell is a primary tool of awareness.
- Consciously make note of what sounds are audible to you today. Horses, vehicles, birds, planes etc.
- And last, purposely take time to notice the temperature on your skin, hands, or face? Does it feel good, bad, or neutral?
Breathe and getting embodied exercises
- In this present moment of practicing self-awareness, also bring attention to a soft easy breath, staying aware of the breath for the entirety of three full breathing cycles. Whether breathing in for three, four, or more counts, simply exhale one beat longer than the inhalation.
- Next, take a short time to feel the weight of your feet and body on the ground or chair.
- Shift your weight slightly from side to side, or gently rock from your toes to your heels if you are able. Really take time to notice what you are feeling.
Already, relational feel for your horse can be developed, by this act of becoming attuned to yourself. Through these initial practices you can become connected to your bodily sensations before moving on to the goal of noticing a connection in the saddle.
Bringing the nervous system into balance
The simple act of acknowledging how you are feeling internally can help take the potency out of any heightened arousal states. What, if any, emotional extremes might you be experiencing today? Be honest and notice them by simply naming them to yourself, a friend, or your trainer. As psychotherapist Diane Poole Heller points out, the ability to develop presence and relax into the relational field begins in the body. Regardless of any history of trauma, attachment or injury, energetic flow throughout the body can happen. Thereby, beginning to liberate your schooling, and in turn, your performances, from unconscious blocks in nervous system energy.
Thus, it is important to find some extra time for these simple beginning exercises. Purposeful attention into feeling your body is as important for dressage, as it is for any sport. If you have barn chores and are on a tight time schedule, maybe your horse can be a little dirtier today. These quick, intentional, sensory integration exercises can also be done when tacking up and grooming.
The instructions from trainers or comments of judges can sometimes make riders feel vulnerable to criticism. For example, some people pleasers may find it especially hard to develop feel when riding because they get caught up in suppressing their own thoughts to please others. Both seasoned and aspiring competitors may bring an array of such problems into the show arena. Psychological blocks ultimately compromise feel and connection. Performance experts, David Grand, Ph.D. and Allan Goldberg, E.D., address this question in their book “This is your Brain on Sports,” (2011) the authors teach that athletic endeavors are all about movement and the body. The body is the starting point for everything related to the chosen sport and must be considered in the wider multi-dimensional context of training. Furthermore, they suggest that competitors suffer when their own well-being is placed far below winning, resulting in athletes at all levels exhibiting states of depersonalization. This can be disastrous for riders who hope to train in a state of union by riding another living being. Remember, that attending to your nervous system and body, being in touch with your own somatic sensations, allows for engagement in the present moment with the self and ultimately the horse.
Repeat and Practice
Doing a quick body scan from the ground up, bringing awareness into the toes up through the legs and torso to neck, head, shoulders, and jaw can highlight any tightness or tension the rider might be unconsciously feeling. This can be done repeatedly and as needed, unmounted, or mounted. A somatically trained therapist or health professional can facilitate the deeper processing of chronic or habitual pain patterns in the body, that may otherwise interfere with the regulation of the nervous system in riders. The goal is to go beyond just trying. You must practice. Practice feeling into each day and each ride.
If unexpected distressing thoughts or images come up from your day or from the past, when doing these somatic exercises, they can be acknowledged with acceptance and non-judgement. If you need, go a step further, place them in an imaginary container, where they can be privately held in an imaginary safe spot. Let the thoughts or images remain there until such time as you have the resources to work with a therapist, coach or trusted mentor who can attend to them with you. Becoming, purposeful about understanding how your body holds big or small traumatic events, such as grief, loss of any kind, injury, or separation from a person, animal, place, or job, allows riders to begin to make more space in their nervous systems for successful biomechanical approaches to training.
As humans, our own emotional worlds are conveyed by the way we walk, talk, stand, and move. It makes sense that if the rider can develop a quick awareness of both the mind and body, then a faster transition to connecting with the horse can occur. If you are not ready for these techniques, start with this one step. Soften the chest as you slowly and deeply breathe in and out for one full cycle. Relax the fingers and relax the tongue to communicate to your nervous system that you are ready to meet another sentient being with an open heart. Tracking your body is the first step in noticing that thoughts and behaviors are separate from sensations. Allow yourself to develop a deeper capacity for relaxation, non-judgement, and gratitude for the privilege of riding or being with a horse on any given day.
These grounding and orienting techniques, used in somatic therapies, can be helpful for riders to begin by getting out of their thinking brains, and to start being curious about experiencing more connectedness to bodily sensations. Initiating a purposeful routine to quickly recognize and acknowledge the state of your nervous system will help facilitate harmony between horse and rider, ultimately improving utilization of performance skills.
Trudi Howley M.S., SEP, LPC, NCC, CPC is a Somatic Psychotherapist, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Nationally Board Certified. Trudi is also a USDF Silver medalist. She specializes in trauma, grief, solution focused outcomes, sports performance, and wellness.
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