The Rider/Ryder Cup

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In the U.S. Open Golf Championship last month, the two leading golfers both blew dinky putts on the last hole. Golfers call this the yips, involuntary muscle tremors in moments of tension, thus sending a two-foot putt a mile past the hole. Basically the body won’t do what the mind tells it to do and then does something else on its own. Most competitive riders also know about the yips.

My husband once tried to get me into golf, and I wasn’t all that bad. After years of dressage lessons, I could isolate body parts and assume any posture required. But the mental part of the game struck me down.

One day, when I started blubbering after three lousy shots in a row, my husband tossed me in the cart and raced to the driving range. “You don’t understand,” I wailed as we flew along. “I can’t get my tempis.” He backed off on golf when I convinced him I already had one frustrating sport and didn’t need two.

The Mayo Clinic has even done research on the yips, concluding they may be caused by a combination of mental and physical reactions that include brain waves, stress hormones, heart rate and grip force. That sounds a lot like the forces swirling around a rider at a show. Experienced riders often get an equestrian version of the yips. They tense up and their muscles send the wrong signals to the horse. At best, their performance isn’t as good as it is at home. At worst, their usually calm, confident horse starts shying or dancing on its hind legs.

The yips are more likely to happen when there is too much time to think. An eventer won’t get the yips while on course, but he’ll be paralyzed with tension while trotting into the dressage test. The solution is in staying calm and confident but, of course, it’s easier said than done. Your trainer will be telling you to relax while he raises your stirrups at the in-gate, just as you get a muscle spasm in your leg and kick him in the face.

Too many riders pay all their attention to the physical aspects of their sport — training, conditioning, grooming and much more — and ignore the mental side of the game. If you want to win, however, you can’t do that. There are fine books on the subject, and there are sports psychologists. Or you could switch trainers to one who helps you relax instead of raising the tension level. Or you could encourage your spouse to stay out of your hair and play golf on the weekends so you can play horse show.

The biggest international golf team competition is called the Ryder Cup. Maybe some horse show could find a way to combine scores from golfing and riding partners and create a Rider/Ryder Cup. The prize could be a joint session with a sports psychologist or maybe just relaxing massages all around — for the golfer, the rider and the horse.

’Til next month,

-Margaret Freeman