Episode 135: Is mental exhaustion hindering your horse training?

Can you effectively train your horse on a day when you feel mentally exhausted? Today I answer a listener question about this by discussing
B- work, resistance, Physical exhaustion vs mental exhaustion and why I think working on days like this can BENEFIT my horses.


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses in today’s episode, I’m answering a question and I’m going to discuss physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion, resistance, B minus work, and all kinds of fun stuff. Let’s listen to the question.

Caller: Hi, Stacy, this is Roxy again, and I have a question that I think probably a lot of readers and listeners might have as well, but it doesn’t make it any easier and I’m hoping that you can address it. I am currently a full time teacher in North Carolina. I teach high school and pretty soon I’m fortunate enough that I’ll be moving into a full-time career, leaving my teaching profession, and being able to help people work with horses and make that my full-time job. And I’m really excited about that. But at the moment, I’m just trying to, you know, continue to improve my riding, myself, my training, and I’m having a lot of trouble with that because it conflicts so much with what I do on a daily basis in my job. I do enjoy teaching and I enjoy my teaching job. But being a school teacher right now is mentally exhausting. I’m sitting in my truck at my barn and it’s about 3:30 in the afternoon. I just got off work and I was hoping to ride my horses today. But the problem is I’m so mentally exhausted that I know I can’t bring what I need to to the table to effectively train my young horse or work with my older horse that needs me to be present in order to get confidence from me. So what suggestions do you have for those of us that might be in that boat? I feel like the only time I can ride effectively is on weekends when I’m mentally fresh and I’m really struggling with this right now. Any advice would be appreciated.

Stacy Westfall: Thank you for your question, Roxy, and I have fair warning for you, this could happen to you even inside of a career in the horse industry only. And I speak from personal experience. I have been full time in the horse industry for decades, and I run into this more frequently than I would like to think. So I’m actually having one of those days today, and although I am having this really heavy feeling like I’m walking around with a heavy backpack, I’m actually going to explain to you how I cope with that when it’s happening and what I do or don’t change in my schedule. I did spend extra time this morning and extra energy this morning, tried to diagnose what might have caused this for me. So for you, you’re pointing toward your teaching career. For me, there are certain days that I’ll come up with something that seems like a reasonable explanation for this heavy feeling. But I’ve been doing this for a long time. And on a day like today, even though I spent the extra time trying to diagnose what might have caused it, was it something I’ve done in the last week? Is it something I ate? Was it the time I went to bed? Was it the time I woke up? Is it something that’s coming up? Is it something I just did in the past? And I’m having one of those days where that feeling is here and nothing stands out. It’s just this really heavy day. And I will after I record this podcast, I will still go out and ride. I will still be prepping my horses for an upcoming show. And I will explain how that’s going to work for me on a day like today. I remember a few years back I was talking with a neighbor who also has horses and we were talking about gardening or something because we have that in common, too. And at the end of the conversation, I said something like, well, I’ve got to go ride the horses now. And it was interesting because she I forget her exact exact words, but it was something like, that doesn’t sound like much of a problem. And I remember at the moment when she said that back to me that it kind of reflected my words back at me. And I remember thinking, wow, that does really sound like I just made that sound like a problem. But it didn’t take me very long to realize that it actually was stated more from a feeling of resolve or something along that lines, because I’m not always in this amazing mood to go out and ride the horses. But if it’s on my schedule, I really do show up 90 plus percent of the time and do what is on the schedule. And so it made me reflect back to that Steven Pressfield book that I’ve mentioned before called The War of Art. And in there, he–he gives this–this feeling a different name and he calls it resistance. And it’s a really great book. I bought it with a Kindle edition where you can just boom, have it instantly. And The War of Art and it just basically talks about that feeling of resistance and how professionals–he does–he interviews a lot of different people, writes about like artists, people that write for a living and do different things and how showing up is this huge part, even though resistance is going to be there. So he’s calling it resistance. I’m saying I feel like I’m wearing a heavy backpack. And so there is this feeling. And I realized when I was reflecting back to what my neighbor had said, that I wasn’t meaning it as a full-blown problem, but I could totally see where she could have heard it like it was a like–a like a problem or a negative. But it definitely was more of that resolve. Kind of a vibration in my body, this feeling of I’m going to go do this work and today it’s going to feel like work. Now, there’s another interesting thing I want to just squeeze in here, and it’s this. I crack myself up when I have this experience. There are days, let’s just say Monday through Friday the horses are on my schedule as work. And so I’ve got a set time that I’m going to go show up and I’m going to ride them, just like when I used to train or train professionally for outside people who own the horses. Like I’m going to show up and I’m going to work these horses on these days. And so what’s interesting is I still do that, but I also take my own same horses that I’m doing that schedule with Monday through Friday and I use them on, say, a Saturday for a trail ride. And I think it’s really interesting that I can have a day when I’m riding them on like a Thursday, and it feels like a whole bunch of work, and then I can turn around, same horse, same rider, and I have a different thought about going trail riding with them. And it’s like, whoo! Let’s go. Oh, you know what? I have some extra time on a Saturday that I didn’t block out. I’m going to go grab the horse and go on a trail ride. And don’t get me wrong, my trail riding might have been one of the things I was doing during the week. So it’s not even that I’m doing something physically different. It’s really very eye-opening for me when I mess with my own head and do this when there’s days that I have them blocked as work versus days that I have open time and then I fill with the horses.

Stacy Westfall: If you watched me on a video camera, you wouldn’t necessarily see anything different in the ride during the week versus the ride on the weekend. But it feels different because of the way that I’m approaching it, labeling it work one time and labeling it fun the other time, which is just a whole different way to think about it. I also wanted to discuss here the concept of physical exhaustion versus mental exhaustion, because there are things that I will work through and and and take myself through and there are things that I won’t work through as much. And I think some of this breaks down into a physical exhaustion versus a mental exhaustion, but I don’t think it’s completely that clear all the time. So let’s unpack that for a minute. One thing that I do love about having had a career in the horse industry for this long is that I’ve had a lot of practice in getting to know my physical capabilities, how long a days I can work in the hot, in the cold, with all these different horses, all these different things going on. And what I’ve discovered physically when I’m in a demanding situation–you know, I’ve been going to horse shows again. So a lot of times the horse shows are a physically demanding situation because I’m riding like at times that where it’s hotter. I’m not able to just be like, oh, I’m going to ride in the cool of the morning. No, I’m going to ride at whatever time my class says I’m going to ride out. And so there are differences when I go to horse shows, long hours, all this other stuff. And what I end up finding out about myself is that I’m capable of more than I generally think I am, which is a really amazing thing to discover on those weekends, because then I can learn how to bring that back into a regular work week. And so I’ve actually spent some time practicing separating the idea between what feels like physical exhaustion and what feels like mental exhaustion, because mental exhaustion to me can give me physical symptoms like I’m tired, but it’s not 100% true. Like I can actually feel the difference in my body when I’m examining that. And the reason I think that’s important is because there’s a lot of times when I feel the label of mental exhaustion would fit, but I have also made the discovery that very often physical work will help shift my mental exhaustion. I’m not saying this is going to be true for everyone, just saying it’s true for me. And so a lot of times I can be mentally exhausted. If I use a horse show, I can be mentally and physically and feeling like I’m at the end and I still have so much more I’m capable of and I’ll go and prove that at a four-day-long horse show. So it’s interesting to me, though, that on a daily basis I’ll have these moments when it feels like I’m just mentally exhausted. Maybe I was doing computer work, office work, doing a whole bunch of different things that are are part of what I do in the horse industry. But they’re not the physical work of being up with the horses. And part of my brain will be telling me that I really need to sit down on the couch and rest and do this. And much more often I say to myself, let’s go out and do some physical work. And when I go out there, maybe I just start by cleaning stalls, cleaning run-in sheds, doing something that’s a little bit monotonous. A lot of times when I get out there and I start moving around, I start to realize that this was like a mental thing that was going on. And I physically have a lot more ability to continue going. And for me, I often discover that when I get myself out into the barn and doing that stuff, that that physical work starts to actually shift that mental feeling. Now, I’m going to talk about it a little bit more specifically in my next little segment here, but the way that I do this–keep in mind, I’m not going to push myself through any kind of safety issue with horses. So when you just said that you–you were leaving this message and it’s 3:30, you’re sitting in the truck, you’re planning on riding today. A couple of those things really resonated with me, because when I am looking at my week, I often time block. And so it would look a lot like what you just did there. Me, I might just be walking out of the house, out to the barn. You’re sitting in the truck getting ready. So let’s just say it’s 3:30 in the afternoon. You feel mentally exhausted and you have a time block from 3:30 to 5:30 that you’re going to work horses. I’m just making this up because you didn’t leave it on the message. So I’m just going out on a limb here. So I time block and so it might look like something like that for me. Three-thirty to five-thirty, work the horses at the barn. If I’m in that position I will give myself other options but they won’t be the one that my brain offered me, which was go sit down on the couch and watch Netflix. It’s going to be something like, OK, it’s 3:30 and I have blocked 3:30 to 5:30 to work the horses. I would have–if I’ve run into this before, if this isn’t the very first time, then personally I would probably have a journal with me because I would actually just sit down and write down everything that was in my brain that was kind of going on right there to see if I could figure out what was going on. That’s what I was telling you about when I did this earlier today when I’m like, is this something I ate? Is it is the time I went to bed? Some of that you can do in your head. But I like to do a lot of it in a journal, and I kind of write out all this stuff and see if that shifts anything. And then, you know, maybe I’ll allow myself like fifteen minutes to do that and then I’ll be like, OK, I’m headed out to the barn and then this is where I’m going to go do something. It’s not going to be the Netflix that my brain wanted to offer me as a great, lovely alternative. It might be barn chores or it might be what I’m going to call repetitive work with my horses, which brings me to another topic, which is B- work.

Stacy Westfall: You may be familiar with the phrase, but there are times that like, I love that you’re a teacher, so you totally understand the whole grading system. We’ve got A, we’ve got A+, we’ve got A-. I’m saying that there are a lot of days when I’m having what we’re calling right now, that mental exhaustion. When I have those days and I’m…signed myself up and I wrote down that I was going to be out there from 3:30 to 5:30 working my horses I oftentimes will go do a B- work. And what that means to me is that a lot of horse training is very repetitive. If you think about it, super common, get a halter, put it on the horse, lead the horse to a spot, brush the horse, saddle the horse, maybe do some groundwork with the horse, get on, ride the horse, unsaddle the horse, un-halter the horse. So there’s a lot of this that happens, especially as a professional trainer that’s doing this five days a week, five, six days a week, where there is a lot of repetition to it, which is very similar to, I would imagine, working at a school, because it’s very similar to going to a school. Like there’s this repetition of getting up, getting dressed, getting ready, going to the school, showing up at the classes, and you don’t always show up at A+ level. And so show up sometimes at the barn and it’s like, you know what, today’s B- for me. That’s a lot of times when I’m doing things that are repetitive. So I’m doing something like, OK, this is my young horse and this is the groundwork I’ve been doing. And ideally in my mind, I thought I was going to be working on, you know, introducing this new concept. But you know what? Today I can feel that I just need to do some B- work. And to me, that’s going to be repeating something we already know pretty well. That is a great way to be able to check the box of having done the work, but not necessarily showing up in the frame of mind of A+. There’s an interesting thing that goes on, at least for me here, which is sometimes my mental exhaustion when it’s around this barn stuff. And I know it for you. You were saying it feels like it’s coming from the school work and then that is then affecting the way you show up for the horses. But I’ve got this idea that maybe there’s a little bit of perfectionism of wanting to show up for the horses as an A+ kind of a teacher. And so sometimes for me anyway, my mental exhaustion, some of these things that make me want to go sit down and watch Netflix are actually little hidden ways to find my perfectionism peeking out. And my perfectionism is often me being really hard on me. So it’s like I know I’m not going to do this good enough. This isn’t going to be enough. I’m not going to get this right enough. It’s going to be something to do with me not showing up as the best instructor ever. And so when I am in that frame of mind, I think it’s a great time for me to do the work anyway because it’s actually a great way for me to see that I’m exhausting myself with this perfectionism thinking. And I can show up and I can still get B- work done and B- work will move you forward more than zero, incomplete, assignment not turned in. So again, I’m always saying over and over again, you’ve got to be in a safety zone, which means that, you know, if you’re–let’s say that you rode your colt one time and you’re getting ready for the second ride. Well, if you’re not mentally present, that’s not really a repeat thing, because it’s not–it’s not something that’s super solid. It’s like yes, so you don’t get on for ride number two when you’re in this mental state of mind because you probably do want to sign up on ride number two on a colt in more of an A+ kind of brain power. But you know what? You can go back through all the hundred other steps that you did to get to the part where you were going to get on. At any of those you can go work for however long, 30, 45 minutes, and you can be like, yup, I was totally in the safety zone. I was doing lots of repetition and I was doing B- work and great, perfect repetition, repetition, repetition. That horse got another time of being caught, haltered, led, ground-tied, brushed, groomed, groundwork in all of those different steps. And that matters. Now, it’s also interesting that you might learn some interesting things when you do this assignment. You might even surprise yourself with what you’ll learn if you’re accepting less, but you’re also still really aware. So what I mean by that is that you go out there with the idea that you’re going to do some groundwork with this horse for 30 minutes and you’re going to accept B- work. What’s so interesting is that if you’re carrying a level of awareness, but you’re doing this B- work, a lot of times you’ll see different shifts in yourself and the horses because you did allow a change in the energy level, the expectation level. And if nothing else–this is a thought–can you be less? Can you be less than perfect? Can you be B- and still be aware? That’s an interesting thing to think about, because if I say to myself, I’m going to let myself be B- there’s some times that I’m like, no, I don’t even want to accept that. I’m not even going to work if I’m going to have to be B- today. So I’m not even going to work. Well, that’s actually blocking something in me. It’s like it’s literally that perfectionism coming out and being like, I’m not allowing myself to do this if it can’t be perfect. It is a really interesting exercise to be very aware and be lacking. A great recent example for me of this would be going to the reining show with Willow and showing her these last two times, last two horse shows because I was very aware of the less the–the inadequacy, the lack because that’s the stage we’re at. We don’t have it. And I’m very aware of those feelings that come with knowing that. And I’m allowing myself to be aware, even though that lack is there. And so if you can feel this lack and still look at yourself and watch your actions, I think that’s a crazy high powered skill because it’s not really comfortable. It is not comfortable to be in a position, especially where I was at a horse show watching other people and other people can see the–the less, the inadequacy, the–the lack, the B-, whatever that is today. I can see it, they can see it. It’s all on the table. Knowing I can do that is crazy. Good stuff to know going forward into the future.

Stacy Westfall: I’m basically proving to myself that I’m mentally stronger then I often think I am. And then this brings me to my final argument for the day of why this could be a good thing, this could possibly be a really strong way to make yourself a more effective trainer. I was actually thinking about, like, how does it benefit my horses for me to go to work on a day like this? So again, I’m kind of having a day like that today, and I know that I’m going to work my horses about five days a week, and that’s pretty much year round. So let’s just kind of round it off to a different number and be like, let’s say I’m going to work my horses 250 days a year. It’s a little less than five days a week, so 250 days a year. And so that–I’m not even counting the 365 days that I’m feeding them. So I’m technically interacting with them every single day. But let’s say I’m going to ride. That could be groundwork or riding work, let’s say 250 days out of a year. I’m going to work with my horses. There are pretty good odds they’re going to need to know me on less than an A+ day. And interestingly, I want them to know me on all of these days. So basically, I’m saying I want them to know all of me. And one of the reasons this is really important to me is because this is my chosen career path and because I do a lot of things like horse shows, there is a really, really high likelihood that I am going to have days with my horses where I’m not on my A-game. And if my horses know me in the barn, doing the regular day to day work on these different days, in these different moods, then it actually makes the relationship deeper, bigger, broader. It’s so fascinating because if you look back and you think back to that bareback and bridleless ride with Roxy, if you think back to that and you go back and watch it, I just watched it right before I recorded this, and I’ll tell you, I…maybe I watch it once a year. Usually it’s like I’m somewhere and somebody wants to play it to a group of people. I very rarely do what I just did before this podcast and just watch it. But I thought, I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to watch it. My goodness, I should hook myself up to a heart rate monitor. You should see my body go crazy like I’m watching it because I’m reliving all these different phases of what was going on around it, because I’m letting those enter my body and so my heart will be pounding. But it’s not all like a positive pounding. There’s a negative. You know, the announcer announces that my–my dad had–had passed away 24 days ago. When you think about the way I was experiencing life leading up to that and during that ride, we could probably say that I was a little off like I wasn’t on my game because I was carrying around a very heavy backpack. And you know what? Roxy was carrying around me while I’m carrying around a heavy backpack. So she knew I was having an off day or an off month or whatever you want to even call it, because it’s not like it was just a piece of cake around that whole time. But she didn’t require me to be perfect, like our relationship was not built on perfectionism, it was built on the idea that I didn’t need to be perfect all the time. I could do B- work. And I absolutely had days that I let her also do B- work. That’s something that gets really interesting to think about because a lot of times we try to ride perfect and be perfect and get perfect responses. And that makes a very…tight relationship with the horse in a way that, like, everybody’s a little tense looking for that perfectionism. What’s so fascinating is by me not requiring me to be perfect all the time, and then that makes it a lot easier for me not to require them to be perfect all the time so there’s these ups and downs there’s these training cycles and it leaves room in the relationship for both of us to have this full experience of this whole life thing. We’re doing the good stuff, the good, easy days when the weather is perfect and you jump out of bed and the birds are singing and the coffee wakes you up perfectly and everything happens just the way you want it to. And on the days when you get up and you’re dragging yourself out of bed and thinking what in the world is going on? And it’s the less fun side of it. And I’m going to have those days and my horses are going to have those days and I’m still going to sign up and show up and move on. So here is an idea. So you said earlier that tou know that you can’t bring what you need to to the table to effectively train your young horse or to work with your older horse that needs you to be present. And you also said that you were continuing to improve your riding yourself and your training. Here’s my thought, as long as you can stay in the safety zone, what if showing up on these days is the way to improve your riding yourself and your training? Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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  1. Heather Wimer on June 17, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    I struggle with the fact that I have to be perfect, with my horses and with life in general. This podcast was so great! I appreciate your honest insight so much!

  2. Ruth McDermott on June 16, 2021 at 3:47 pm

    Stacy, I loved this podcast about B- work. Thank you. It made so much sense. And it takes pressure and guilt off the rider, too. 🙂

  3. Martina Brown on June 16, 2021 at 10:30 am

    I totally needed this this morning. As you know I’m riding and training more than I have in the past summers. I like how you use the B- analogy. I like things to be perfect and I have to acknowledge that A+ work will not always happen. I also have to realize that my horse will not always be on her A game. Remember last week I was having difficulty with the lope well she is way better this week. She may have been off. Thanks for reminding me that horses can also have bad days.

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