Finding meditation on the top of a horse

Rocky cuddles aachen

An article written for Dumbo Feather 

Originally published 18th April 2017

“How one athlete discovered the power of meditation, much to her surprise.”

I have never been the type to pull out my yoga mat at 7am and spend 20 minutes finding clarity. I’m more a leap out of bed, scramble for peanut butter on toast and start training kind of girl. So no-one was as surprised as me to find that meditation would become an important part of my life.

After finishing high school, I deferred university to pursue a career as a professional equestrian. I’d competed at a high level in youth competitions but I was in no way prepared for the chaos that was about to become my life. I would leave the house at first light and be outside sweating my way through as much work as I could until it was dark— and then a little longer, until my eyes could no longer make out the ground from the sky. Then I’d go back inside, eat dinner and fall asleep. Six days a week.

One day I was riding down the road, stressing about what to cook for dinner and an upcoming competition, when the young horse I was on got a fright and leapt to the side. I was thrown high into the air but luckily landed on top of the horse, saving my face from meeting the gravel. It was a shake-up for me — literally and figuratively.

I swore right there that while riding, I would never think of anything other than exactly what my body was doing in every moment.

The process of learning to focus on the present and channel my energy was gradual. I paid close attention to my coaches when they pointed out when my reactions were too slow or strong so that I could identify when I was slipping into auto-pilot. I read biographies of athletes who had overcome amazing hurdles to try and understand how they found clarity and focus.

Eventually, I started a diary so that at the end of each day I would write down one time I achieved the quiet, one time I missed the mark and what I could learn from these moments. After a few months of (very slow) improvement, I was writing less in the diary and finding the focus easier every day. And that’s how it happened–I became a meditator almost by accident.

I began to ride with complete focus on the physical processes running through my body: the shifting of a seat bone; adjusting the pressure in one leg; the pace of my breathing. It didn’t happen suddenly, but over time I was able to channel the outside world into such silence that I never heard the commentator as I competed. All I heard was the blood pumping in my ears and the shortening of my breath when I began to tire.

Once I found this cone of quiet during exercise, the change flowed naturally into the rest of my life. I wasn’t erratic, racing from one place to another. When I dismounted, I left the training session behind me and anything bad that happened out there didn’t make me irritable at home. Burning my toast didn’t mean that all my horses were going to go badly that day. Suddenly bad events were just that–bad events. Not a bad life. Because I had that space to tune everything out other than the raw physical process of exercise, my mind had a chance to reset itself.

Today, I use this quiet space to stay calm in the melting-pot of competition stress. As I drive to the venue, I start focussing on blocking out the noises around me. I don’t want to listen to gossip as I get ready–I only want to hear the sound of my breathing.

Once I’m warming up, I focus my eyes on a point just above my horse’s ears. I want to be able to see where I’m going without letting myself get psyched out by the competition. Then I start to actively fill my thoughts with what my body is doing. It feels strange at first to think “left heel down; more pressure in right fingers” but, after a few minutes, my mind is so consumed by the mechanical processes that there’s no room for nerves or self-doubt.

The final step is to blow a raspberry with my lips as the judge signals for me to enter. I know this probably seems strange, but it makes sure my face muscles are relaxed and releases any last lingering bits of tension. I can’t imagine competing without this ritual anymore. It keeps me comfortable and focussed in the most demanding events. It’s my sanctuary from the stress of competitive sport.

It wasn’t until years after that initial shake-up, while reading the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness, that I would come to label this mental rejuvenation as active meditation. Meditation has become such a buzz word that we can lose sight of the fact that it is, at its core, a very personal experience.

For me, meditation is not about emptying your mind of one load of stressful decisions so as to refill it with another. Nor is it a tool to be used only in the event of a life crisis. Meditation is a way to control what you think and when, and how you will react to these thoughts. It’s a way of keeping yourself grounded so you can respond to the chaos around you from a position of wisdom and reason, filling your heart with love instead of angst. Meditation is a tool to being proactive–not reactive.

Through forging my own path to the calm and empowerment that comes from meditation through movement, I found a way to meditate that fits me. Sport gives us a beautiful opportunity to nourish our spirits and bodies simultaneously and we so rarely harness that.

That I, the girl who never sits still, can find quiet solace in the middle of the competition arena is testament to the incredible capability of the human mind to create sanctuary.