I had a really interesting conversation a little while back that sparked some thoughts I want to share with you. The challenge came from a showjumper who was having trouble calculating distances to jumps. It was a situation of “it’s going well, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t”.
A problem they described as getting worse and worse.
They asked if I could help them and, having an idea of what was going on, I suggested that they join my membership. They responded that they weren’t a good fit, that they didn’t have a problem with fear; that their job had put them in many life-threatening situations, and they were usually the one picked to ride the most dangerous horse.
The problem wasn’t fear.
It was just this one thing with distance that was needing to be fixed.
I completely appreciate why they thought this- and it could be that you agree. But what it highlights are some common misconceptions about our nervous system, our relationship to fear and how it effects our experiences that I thought we could chatter about now.
Before we’re able to do that, however, there are some principles we need to cover first…
- Your parasympathetic and sympathetic (or fight flight) nervous system is what we are referring to when we talk about the autonomic nervous system.The autonomic nervous system is under the umbrella of the motor control system.
What that means is your body moves and holds itself differently depending on what nervous system state you’re in.
The brain makes this decision based on its perceived level of threat to the environment.
If it assesses you are safe, it sends out a parasympathetic response. If not, it activates one of the sympathetic reflex patterns. This expresses in your posture and in your movement.
- The sympathetic (fight-flight nervous system) is a system of reflex. If we consider the different sympathetic states (fight, flight, freeze and collapse), each of those different states has its own postural template that the body assumes, something that is common to all mammals.That means that you, me, and everyone else reading this—when we go into a sympathetic nervous system response, our bodies arrange themselves in the same way. It’s a part of our defense mechanism when we are under physical threat.
We do this to maximise our powers of force and acceleration, to better defend ourselves, to flee faster or go into shut down mode.
- Consequently, all our movements originate in either the parasympathetic or fight flight nervous system.
All movements have a dominant system that the brain chooses for that movement.
For instance, my walking style could be sympathetically or parasympathetically dominant. All that means is that the way that my body leverages (creates) the movement is either rooted in the sympathetic (in the case of being sympathetically dominant) or parasympathetic (in the case of being parasympathetically dominant) system.
It’s possible to change your dominant pattern by influencing the body’s sensory system.
- If we continue to use the example of the walk, I may have a walk that is sympathetically dominant as its movement pattern. This doesn’t mean that as I walk around all day, I’m feeling afraid. The emotion of fear is actually entirely subjective (I’ll post more about that shortly).
But it does have consequences on the body including:
– Increased wear and tear on the joints
– Leveraging of the lumbar and cervical vertebrae
– Narrowed sensory input (this part is particularly important in relation to the initial question)
I’ll add a side note here and say that us modern humans have got into quite the funky town place when it comes to movement generally. We have lost the nervous system adaptability of our hunter gatherer forebears who would never have had to tackle such situations or think of addressing thing such as their movement; their lifestyle took care of it for them.
For us, in our sedentary, non-natural environments, where we think our way rather than feel our way through the world, we have got ourselves stuck.
Instead of flipping back out of fight flight mode when it’s not required, we find ourselves using it as our primary operating channel. Which is where things start to get messy….
When we look at the initial question of striding to a jump, what this optimally requires is a wide field of sensory input, so our brain can make assessments that occur faster than conscious thought.
This is where we transition to riding artfully; where it’s our feeling body that is making adjustments rather than our thinking body.
If we are riding and the pattern our brain chooses for us is sympathetically dominant, our sensory awareness is limited or turned right down (depending on where we are sitting on the spectrum). In circumstances where this lack sensory adaptability is especially obvious or even dangerous (calculating distances for example) this is somewhat problematic.
Of course, we can think our way through certain situations and get away with it for so long- but the conscious brain can only hold so much and has limited bandwidth. At some point, this strategy becomes problematic and, in some situations, where we’ve relied on it, we’re left with no strategy at all. Especially when there is increasingly more pressure, or the “problems” we have to solve (or jumps we have to jump) become increasingly complex.
If you remember back to the beginning of our conversation, it was mentioned that fear was not an issue. And I’m not suggesting it’s even relevant now. But what I do want to reiterate is that you don’t have to be experiencing fear for the survival nervous system to be the dominant program you’re using.
And when what you’re seeking is harmony, awareness, nuance, and adjustability, this is not the system you want to be riding from.
The work I’m interested in looks at movement and sensory awareness as the foundation for nervous system health and adaptability; so that we can ride and be with our horses in a way that promotes harmony, wellness, and optimal performance, whatever that looks like for you.
It doesn’t sit separately to practice, experience, skill, and partnership. But it does sit solidly alongside it. And for me, understanding my nervous system’s relationship to movement was the piece that I’d been missing.