“Being sensitive is part of my life. I think it must have been what drew me to the horses in the first place. But is the sensitivity a plus or a minus when it comes to winning competitions?”
By Princess Märtha Louise. Photo Therese Alhaug / Geir Kvamsvåg.
The other day I was talking to Johan Olav Koss, Olympic- and World Champion speed skater. Being a highly sensitive person myself, and having felt that this trait has been a plus in being in the equestrian sports, I asked him whether he knew any highly sensitive people within skating? He looked at me a bit baffled and answered: “If they are sensitive they definitely don’t win!” This took me aback as I have always thought of being sensitive as a big plus in the horse world. Also, in regard to competitions. But he continued saying that if he would have been more sensitive he would felt too sorry for the ones he beat. That might be right. But maybe there was a difference competing in individual sports and team sports such as riding?
Having been away from the sport for numerous years, owning my own horse again, is like a guilty pleasure. My every day life has for years been focused on running the family and being a full time working mom as you do when you have small children. I wasn’t even looking for a horse. In fact, I was looking for a pony for my daughter, when I stumbled across him. It was my friend, and then owner of the horse, who suggested we try him for my daughter as a Children’s horse. So off we went.
I always sit on the ponies, in this case a horse, before my children try it. It is just a safety measure, I guess, to see if it is rideable. He was very fresh this particular morning. After every fence, I felt we were on a rodeo show bucking our way down half the rink. Normally I am terrified of horses bucking. I have been thrown off enough times to know that it hurts. My daughter wouldn’t go near him, much less sit on him. But there was something about him that just clicked with me. He was so rideable to the fences. For those of you who have been away from showjumping for a few years, know that your eye is not like it used to be. Meaning that getting your stride right to the fence can be quite a bit of a challenge. But on him, it came naturally. His ears perked, body naturally bouncy and round. Ready for jumping the fence. And what a feeling he gave over the fence too! But in addition to that, there was one more crucial thing; I could feel him.
I am born highly sensitive. Meaning that I am part of the 15-20% of the people in the world that have this innate trait. Elaine Aaron, the leading scientist on the theme of highly sensitive people, states that sensitivity is equally divided between men and women and the same relates to animals.
Being highly sensitive basically feels like being born with your nerve endings on the outside of your skin. It’s like the nerves touch people around you, taking in their information of emotions and physical pains. This is very confusing because you can have a really good day and suddenly get a pain in your back or in your knee and feel very down. You don’t know if this is your own body talking or somebody else’s. It feels like being an app constantly downloading information. And before you get to zapping it off, the next one starts downloading, and the next and the next. Needless to say it is very tiring being around other people. In addition to this you may be sensitive to smell, light and/or sound. You have a very rich inner life and take everything to heart in a deep and profound way. Even details that others might completely overlook. You get easily over-stimulated and have no idea why you suddenly break down and have to be alone when you have had a wonderful time with other people.
For many years I felt this trait was a downside in my life.
“Elaine Aaron, the leading scientist on the theme of highly sensitive people, states that sensitivity is equally divided between men and women and the same relates to animals.”
It made me too focused on what other people were feeling. I was the perfect confidant, taking in their pain and understanding others so well. The trait gives you an advantage of seeing people behind their masks. In some occasions, this is positive for solving other people’s problems, but most of the time it is very confusing watching expressions in the faces around you but getting a completely different feeling. Just saying the usual “How are you,” makes the answer difficult. It is very seldom anyone answers truly to these questions. And so again the face would give a big smile and say, “I am fine, thank you.” While the feeling coming across my extended nerve endings and downloading in my sensitive app, might be a feeling of sadness or anger. I was always very confused wondering whether to trust the face or my feeling. These experiences made me wary of people. Wondering if I could trust them. I felt much safer with animals.
Animals are always honest and straightforward. If they are down, they show it. If they are happy, you can really tell. There is no underlying scheme. They show what they are. The stables were somewhere I could relax. Where the horses were the centre of attention. And I have the impression there are many sensitive people in the sport who are drawn to these beautiful animals like I am.
In the beginning, my sensitivity was a bit of a disadvantage in competitions. I got overwhelmed by all the sounds, the pressure, all the people watching, where I was supposed to ride and in what way and on top of that take care of the nervousness and the horse at the same time. And it exhausted me. But once I managed to get into the zone, and managed to exclude everything but the horse and I and where we were going, nothing could disturb me on the competition field.
Being sensitive also gave me another advantage. I could sense if the horses were in pain, or if there was something wrong. I felt on my body where they had a problem. Very useful as there are very few horses who can explain in words if they are in pain. But in addition, and this was the main plus, it made me having this special connection with them when I was riding. Some horses had it more than others. Their sensitiveness varies too. But with Carsall, my new horse, it was there in an instant. I could feel his heart. Not his physical heart, but his core. It was easy to connect with him and not only through the reins, seat and legs. But through the deeper connection of trust and partnership, which I think, all equestrians seek in one way or another. It is like a flow going from your heart to the heart of the horse, and you know as long as you have that connection the horse will take care of you. It even sometimes feels like you can simply think where to go and the horse responds.
This connection was crucial when I did my first international show for many, many years at Drammen Spring Tour in Norway just a few weeks ago. Ok, so it was merely a 1m10 class. It was the same field where I years ago had done Nations Cups and Grand Prix and my body thought that was what we were going to do. Needless to say, I was nervous before the finals. But as soon as we went into the main arena I knew we would do well. Carsall is such a positive horse who really loves speed and jumping. You can feel it in his whole being. And so when we were clear in the first phase and went to the second, I gave it a whorl. We twisted and turned and I thought I went really fast, and we ended up third out of 102 participants.
I was on cloud nine, and I think it’s no exaggeration saying that I must have been the happiest person of all the prize winners overall.
“In the beginning, my sensitivity was a bit of a disadvantage in competitions. I got overwhelmed by all the sounds, the pressure, all the people watching, where I was supposed to ride and in what way. On top of that, I had to take care of the nervousness and the horse at the same time.”
I know people who are sensitive that win prizes on horseback and I know people who are not sensitive at all winning prizes on horseback. In regards to the conversation with Koss, he too stated that being sensitive might have its advantages feeling the horses moves and moods in competitions. But in the end, the main thing is not whether we are sensitive or not. The main thing is that we enjoy the sport on whatever level. Both being sensitive and not have their advantages. The main thing is that these beautiful animals simply enrich our lives. They even make receiving the 3rd prize in a 1m10 class feel like you have just won a Grand Prix.