Along for the ride: CBT on a plane!

by Robyn Schiller

Robyn is the wife of horse (and people) trainer Warwick Schiller. She invites you to join her as she journeys through her life as trainer’s wife, mother, business woman and nationally competitive rider.

Learning to deal with anxiety is more important than trying to avoid it.

Warwick likes to tell the story about when I discovered Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in order to address my anxiety. He gets most of it right, but some of it is a bit exaggerated.

If you haven’t already heard the story, I’ll share that I’ve suffered with anxiety for pretty much my entire life (now that I know what it is, I know why I had to leave cheerleading camp when I was in high school!) I’ve been medicated for it, tried to exercise it away, seen therapists for it and have had my sister talk me down from it. For the most part, those things worked ok, but usually once I am in a panic attack, it is too late for anything to work. It wasn’t until two things came together that I got a handle on it.

The first thing was that I learned about breathing properly and focusing on my breathing as a way to relax myself. I’ve just recently heard it called Tactical Breathing. Then I learned about CBT from Dr. Laura (she has a radio program and writes books). I went through a phase of listening to her, because my nieces were having a hard time in life and I wanted to know how I could help them (that is a whole other story and the answer is tough love!). Dr. Laura had recommended CBT for someone who called in who had anxiety. So, I googled it! I read about it and then filed it away inside my head.

As these things have a way of doing, someone else brought up something they were doing, not calling it CBT, but explaining how she was getting mentally prepared for showing her horse. It was actually Petey’s old owner, Anna. She was doing this to get ready to show Petey! (Funny how things come around full circle, since we now own Petey.) Anyway, she explained that she would think about showing and get a little nervous and then breathe or I can’t remember what she would do, but she would get herself back to being relaxed. Then she would think about showing again and get anxious and then get herself relaxed. She would do this over and over and she said that it had helped her immensely.

I started practicing as Anna had and I’d use the breathing technique to get back to relaxed. It certainly helped the anxiety leading up to a horse show, but I had no idea how much it had prepared me for a plane trip in Canada.

I must explain that the full-blown panic attacks are always triggered by a physical feeling. Maybe it’s a weird pain or feeling in my body. That in turn triggers a thought and that triggers a feeling of fear. After the fear, it’s usually too late – the anxiety spiral is enacted. As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t enjoy flying very much. I am always sure I cheated death when the plane touches down.

So, we were on a plane trip in Canada. After Warwick went to sleep, I started feeling a little woozy/dizzy. I think it was the plane, it wasn’t really turbulence, but it was a small rhythmic bouncing that made me feel off. That triggered a thought of “Oh no, what if I get vertigo on this plane!” (I have had vertigo on and off for years). The fear hit and as I mentioned, that is when I usually cannot stop it. My thoughts just take over and usually I obsess about how many ways that I’m going to die from this feeling! This time was different. I started to practice my breathing. I did it for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was probably about 5 minutes. It actually worked! The breathing and concentrating only on the breathing kept the anxiety from escalating. I still felt a little woozy, but I didn’t have a full-blown panic attack as I would have usually had in the past!

Warwick talks about this story because using this same technique with the horses is a really good practice. We need to give our horses the experience of relaxation. We need to be their guide or teacher in this endeavor. The more that they can practice going from relaxed to a little stressed back to relaxed, the better they will be able to get themselves out of their own panic attacks.

This process is explained in more detail in many videos on our video library under the Principles of Training playlist. The second principle of “Don’t Go To Bed Angry” goes into greater detail.   It’s also available on Warwick’s Youtube video called “How to solve anxiety issues in horses”.

I think it’s one of the most important things we can teach our horses and actually a gift we can give to them. If you have ever had a panic attack or known anyone who has, you know that if you were able to give them the ANSWER to preventing one – it would be about the best gift ever! Warwick has given you that power in his videos – now you just have to give that gift to your horse!

Thanks for reading.