I remember my first conversation with Ann very clearly. She introduced herself as a Clinical Psychologist and told me immediately that whilst she was aware of NLP she was a sceptic about TFT but would like to try working with me as a last resort to help her with her riding! Scepticism about TFT never worries me—I was sceptical when I first heard about it too—and I'm happy to take a challenge. Ann's call led to a very interesting journey for us both.
I took up riding at the age of 42, having never previously even touched a horse! I went along for some riding lessons at a traditional riding school and all went well until it was time to move on from walk and trot to canter. My instructor decided that I should be on the lunge to learn this. I realise now that the instructor was not very skilled, but unfortunately, I did not know that at the time. The first lunging experience was something of a ‘wall of death’ and although I didn’t come off on that occasion, it was very frightening. After being persuaded to try again, off we went. It was dreadful, I felt very out of control and within seconds, the horse bucked and I came off. I found from then that although I very much wanted to learn to ride, I dreaded my lessons because I was so afraid to try to canter. Whenever I did I was afraid, my body was rigid and this of course made the entire process more difficult. Sometimes I came off and went home bruised, sometimes I stayed on, but it was never good and I always felt frustrated and that I had once again failed.
Only a few months after beginning lessons, I was advised by the same instructor to buy my own horse (far too soon of course). The mare tended to be very spooky and she could be difficult. I frequently, fell off her in trot. I desperately wanted to canter, but whenever I tried (not very often) and even whenever I thought about it (very often), I became acutely anxious and I simply couldn’t face it. Time passed and I was all too aware that I was the only person I knew who had been riding for two years and who could not canter. I found it very embarrassing, frustrating and the repeated bouts of punishing anxiety had become quite distressing. Also my anxiety had generalised and I was becoming anxious about mounting. I was usually okay once on board unless I thought about canter, or the horse didn’t do as I asked. I would very easily catastrophise from something small e.g. ‘the horse has taken a couple of steps backwards, to what will it do next? It will be something awful and I’ll be out of control’. As a Clinical Psychologist, I used all of the conventional forms of anxiety management with myself that I used with my patients. I expect that, had I not done so, I would have given-up riding all together. However, no matter what psychological strategy I used, I could not rid myself of the phobic anxiety I had developed about cantering and I wasn’t very successful in addressing the more generalised anxiety about riding.
After having my first mare for 15 months, I sold her and bought a cob which I had been given to understand was a bombproof angel! As is so often the case, he wasn’t as described. He was not a bad horse, but younger than I had been told and probably badly started. He had a well practised tendency to take hold of the bit, put his head down and run off – just what a canter phobic needs! He didn’t just run off with me, but also with a very experienced friend whose chosen sport is eventing and who likes nothing better than a good gallop across open country. I was told by several people that he was not a ‘novice ride’, but I had sold one horse and I wanted to try to make it work with this one.
Whilst having one of my regular ‘feeling desperate’ moments, I came across a piece in a magazine about Jo Cooper and TFT. To be honest as a behavioural scientist, TFT seemed to me illogical. I could not see how it could work and I assumed that whenever it seemed to, it must be due entirely to the ‘placebo effect’. However, at the time, Jo was offering to forgo charge for the treatment if it did not work! Thinking that in those circumstances I had nothing to lose, I telephoned her and arranged treatment with TFT. By this time there were several problematic thought fields around simply mounting and being on a horse. Jo worked on these initially. I was working with two different freelance instructors at that time and following my first session with Jo, they each separately commented that I seemed to have ‘turned a corner’ (I think each thought the other responsible!). Instead of worrying about what might go wrong whilst I was on a horse, I was actually concentrating on riding the horse and I was enjoying it for the first time since those early lessons before I ever tried canter! The next step would have been to work on canter with Jo. However, unfortunately, my cob ran off with me once too often. We were in an indoor school, he was racing around, turned quickly and I flew off into a wall. I broke my arm quite badly, requiring surgery. It was put back together with various bits of metal and I was left with some permanent limitations in movement and strength.
When I was discharged from hospital I decided to sell the cob, but I still wanted to ride! I was told by the surgeon not to consider it for 12 weeks, but I knew that the longer I left it, the more difficult it would be to get on again. I went along to ride one of my instructor’s horses after 6 weeks. I tried taking a Cognitive-behavioural approach, again as I might with my patients. I knew that with this instructor there would be no pressure, I could take things as slowly as I wanted. I used ‘positive self talk’ to answer the negative thoughts running through my mind and generally prepared myself mentally. Well, all this got me there, got me on the horse and got me walking and trotting, but when the horse spooked, I had a full blown panic attack. It was a horrible unpleasant experience, yet still, I wanted to ride!
Fortunately, both Jo and I like a challenge! I rang her and she used TFT to help me. Firstly, she focused upon the traumatic memories of the accident, then on the tremendous anxiety I was feeling about all aspect of riding. I’m afraid by then I was officially a complicated case, so several sessions had to be spent working on various thought fields before we reached a point where we could address cantering. Every session brought about improvement, but sometimes the particular aspect of my riding we had been working on was only partially improved, whilst something else that we hadn’t worked on was transformed in some positive way. I think this suggests overlapping thought fields, but I’m just the client in this case, it’s for Jo to explain the process.
Happily (and amazingly to me), when we got past the new obstacles, Jo worked with me on canter and some three years after beginning to learn to ride, I finally cantered and enjoyed it. I still can not explain how TFT works. However, I do know that it does work and that it helped me to overcome acute phobic anxiety when well practised, conventional techniques did not work for me. This is not to say of course that conventional psychology does not work for anxiety disorders, it certainly does, but I think there is something about anxiety when riding a horse that sometimes doesn’t lend itself to traditional anxiety management and, although I had thought that logically TFT shouldn’t work, for me it has been a remarkable success.
Ann V Dunkerley
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