Through the Maze: Riding After an Accident
“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”
It’s raining today. Clouds mumble thunder, but it looks like they also have snow on their mind. It is, in other words, a perfect day for writing.
Writing, to my surprise, is rubbing elbows with fear this morning. The act of dissecting fear and regaining the confidence to ride ignites the same sensations of cold hands, shallow breathing, and a brick wall of procrastination that has lasted half the morning.
It used to be the same with riding. A sunny warm day would appear. As soon as the thought about going for a ride became conscious, my hands got cold, my breathing sped up and I would find reasons to not get out with my horse.
I am not a therapist, but after being asked by many horse people about feeling good about riding after a horse accident, it became clear that outlining the process I’ve gone through may be helpful. While not all the answers are here, and some may not fit for you, my hope is that the information will provide the spark you need to start finding your own way back to riding with joy.
Moving toward confidence from fear with horses is about a lot of help. It’s also letting go of any notion that this is an A to B, straight-line, beginning-middle-end process. Most of life’s trips are like driving in the dark: we can only see as far as the high beams shine. And wouldn’t you know it? Sometimes the high beams don’t work. Perhaps we only have the fog lights to guide us.
Healing from a horse related trauma, and regaining confidence, is like a maze. With the fog lights on. In this maze, we can only see a short distance in front of us, and the map is created by the very act of finding our way out. We can get curious and keep following the threads, away from the terror and fear Minotaur, or we can stay where we are. The choice is ours.
Often in this journey, either the brain or the body is ignored. However, when they are woven together and given equal importance and focus, that is the alchemical transformation of leaden fear into the gold of confidence. Books and exercises, along with confidence building clinics are all extremely helpful. However, if they aren’t including the combination of body and brain, it’s been my experience that we are only going to progress so far in our way to riding with less fear.
I say less fear, and not fearless because it is clear to me that after an accident, there remains a bit of fear when we do decide to ride again. We will chat more about this later, and how fear and riding do not cancel each other out.
For now, let’s take a look at the first part of our map, which is the human brain.
One theory that has been helpful for me is the Triune Brain theory.
It’s largely not used by brain professionals, but I have found in it an elegant simplicity to explain why thinking your way out of trauma is often unsuccessful. Peter Levine, psychologist and founder of Somatic Experiencing work, refers to this theory, so I would like to share it here.
It’s based on the idea that the brain evolved in three different stages.
The first and oldest part of the brain is called the Reptilian brain, and is mostly concerned with basic functions such as regulation of heartbeat and breathing, as well as the fight or flight states.
The Paleomammalian (or Limbic) brain evolved next, and is also home to the limbic system. The functions of this system arose early in mammal’s evolution and are responsible not only for emotion, but the motivation to reproduce and raise offspring.
The last part of our brains to evolve, this theory suggests, is the Neomammalian (or Neocortex). This is where more advanced functions such as planning, impulse control, abstraction and perception reside.
Here’s the key: we cannot use one part of our brains (the Neocortex, the newly evolved brain) to talk, reason, plan or manipulate another part (the reptilian brain, the oldest in our evolution) out of fear and terror. It’s almost as though the brain is Europe. One continent, different languages.
I have a question for you: when you remember a horse accident, does your breathing stay long slow and deep, or does it get shallow? Stop? Does your heart rate increase? All of these things are your survival systems coming online. The brain cannot tell the difference between something actually happening, and something that you are remembering or visualizing happening. Once the brain goes on alert, the body is quick to follow.
This is what I mean about one part of the brain not convincing the other part. When there is a choice between survival and thinking, survival will win. And much like horses, if we are fearful we cannot be curious, and curiosity will help fear dissipate.
Our brains and bodies are intimately connected, woven together of gazillions of parts, big and small, to form this one unique expression of a human being.
And this amazing brain (and it’s partner the body) can be both the screwdriver, and the loose screw.
I raise my hand first when it comes to admitting there’s a lot I don’t know. But what I do know, is the most unhelpful thing you can do to try and resolve the fear you are feeling as a result of a horse accident, is sit on a horse, with your racing heart and your Lamaze panting breathing, and try to reason your way out of fear.
It’s the easiest way I know to feel like a failure, feel weak and cowardly and give credence to those internal voices that snicker “you’ll never ride again.”
It doesn’t work – I wish I could tell you it did. In Part Two, we will be chatting about what does work.
We will next take a look at the power of breathing coupled with movement. If you’d like to nose around on Peter Levine’s website (click on his name earlier in the article), you’ll find some pretty useful information there. And you’ll be ahead of the game, once we get into the next section of mapping our way out of the maze.