The Blueberry Bulletin Presented By Equine Equipment: The Mental Side Of Riding A Young OTTB

This is the third installment in our monthly column from editor-in-chief Natalie Voss following her journey with her 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover hopeful Underscore, fondly known as Blueberry. Read previous editions in this series here and learn Blueberry’s origin story and the author’s long-running bond with this gelding and his family here. You can find Blueberry’s Facebook page here.

Like a lot of other people, I’ve spent a lot of time this week absorbing the ongoing coverage of gymnast Simone Biles and her decision to withdraw from several Olympic events. Her choice has meant different things to different people, and has been a jumping off point for discussions about mental health, athlete image, and the unfathomable pressure surrounding Olympians. What I have found most interesting – and most understandable – was her discussion of the phenomenon she was experiencing that led to her decision.

As Biles has explained, she was not simply discouraged by a less-than-perfect performance early in the team competition: she was experiencing something gymnasts call “the twisties.” The twisties are apparently a phenomenon where a gymnast suddenly loses track of their position in the air, having no idea where the floor is in relation to their body. It’s something many of them experience at some point, and apparently there is no straightforward cure. They have to break down their routines into smaller, simpler pieces and hope the feeling dissipates. Some move past it, and some can’t. The twisties are more likely to happen in times of stress, and of course spur their own kind of stress. Imagine how terrifying it is to suddenly realize you may come crashing down out of the air onto your head because you don’t know if your feet are pointed at the floor or the ceiling.

I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be the greatest gymnast of all time, but I do think there’s some degree of constructive delusion that’s required for any dangerous, athletic endeavor. Biles knows that (particularly with her unique and difficult skills) she could end up dead or paralyzed if one of her routines goes wrong, but she must go out every time and suspend her awareness of the fact in order to do it successfully. Riding horses (at any level) is like that, too. You have to be aware that at any moment, the 1,000-pound beast beneath you could make today your last. But if you ride like you know it, you’re going to make it more likely to happen, so you have to pretend that the stakes are low.

As Blueberry has advanced in his dressage training, I’ve had a lot of people ask me whether we’re going to begin eventing once we get through the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover in October. I made the switch from riding hunters to eventing when I got my draft cross mare years ago. The horse loved it and I’m never sure whether I did or not.

When I was younger, I had no fear over fences. I jumped school ponies with sometimes reckless abandon through rollback turns and over skinnies. I was wary of a horse with a dirty stop, but not afraid, happy to push for a long takeoff or hold for a difficult turn. Then, in one of my first rides schooling a horse by myself, I had a crash. I was 18 and on board a willing little mare who had a lot of spunk. I spotted a skinny fence in a tough spot in the outdoor arena and thought, ‘You know, I bet that’s even harder if I jump it the opposite way from what we do in our lessons.’

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I had good, forward energy coming out of the very difficult turn I’d plotted for us. I saw a good spot. I did not see that there was no ground line on the jump coming from this direction. Without a pole on the ground to help create depth perception for her, the well-meaning mare saw the wrong take-off point, and the wrong height. She launched into the air a solid one and a half strides early, high enough that I had time to realize that something was wrong. I realized we were hurtling through the air way too high, returning to the ground in the general vicinity of the jump standard. We were going to fall. We were both going to fall. We were going to fall on top of the jump. And we did.

We were lucky – we hit the rails instead of the standard, and they collapsed under us. The horse hit the ground and tossed me clear of her. She crushed the rails but did not get them tangled between her legs, as I’ve seen horses do in similar falls. She ended up with a few scrapes on her knees, and I took the skin off my arms and face. Thankfully, the mare moved on in about a day, once again attacking fences with no fear. But I couldn’t stop remembering the suspension of that constructive delusion. I realized how it felt to have made a mistake, lost control, and thought I was about to be seriously hurt as a result.

So far, Blueberry is progressing well in his blossoming dressage career. Photo by Joe Nevills

I’ve never quite let it go, even all these years later. My mare, Jitterbug, does not frankly care much about my anxiety and loves jumping so much she has covered for the many moments when I have frozen, unable to figure out where our bodies are in space, how many strides we have left, paralyzed in my own loop of fear. My legs come off her sides, my upper body curls forward and I forget to breathe. For a lot of horses, that’s a really mixed message about whether you actually want them to jump or not. It comes and goes – sometimes I can tackle the most wicked bending line, and other times I have a mental breakdown over a crossrail. I can navigate a course; I was trained well before my accident. The trouble is, once you look into the face of your own vulnerability, it can be hard to access the muscle memory that lets you actually do the thing. The brain is trained to hang onto traumatic experiences so that you won’t repeat them, and you don’t get to pick and choose what to delete and when.

I worry that Blueberry may not be as resilient as my mare. Is it fair to someday ask him to learn to do this, knowing that I’m an unreliable partner on a jumper course? Will I train him to be fearful? He has the heart so many people rave about in off-track Thoroughbreds – eager to please, happy and trusting of whatever I ask him to do. I don’t want to wreck that. I also don’t want him to miss out on the opportunity to do something he may really enjoy, or deny myself the chance to work through my fear and enjoy something I used to be good at.

As long as we’ve got the Makeover in our sights, it’s a moot point. He has made a fantastic start in his dressage career, winning two of three classes we’ve entered at local schooling shows and picking up a second place ribbon. We have lots to improve upon before October however, and there wouldn’t be much time to work in baby crossrails even if we wanted to. At some point though, I’ll have to decide whether I want to face my fears again.

The post The Blueberry Bulletin Presented By Equine Equipment: The Mental Side Of Riding A Young OTTB appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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