Sunday, November 19, 2017


In the winter, SFD runs unmounted and mounted theory education. While I was working on this year's theory plan, I ran across this, which was a class we ran several winters ago. I brushed it up a bit, added a few transitions (forgive some of the abruptness, remember, this was originally a class, so some of those rough transitions were actually discussion moments), and voile, a blog post. It's a bit technical, so my geekiness comes out loud and clear.  Feel free to skip to the end if you just want a plan. But if understanding WHY is important to you, get a fresh cup of Joe and enjoy. 

Frustration, in my opinion, is the rider’s Elephant-in-the-room.  It is the cause of unhappy training rides, tears, and over-correcting.  I hold to the idea that no one rides badly on purpose. I also know that ambition’s ugly shadow will always be frustration, and only Peter Pan has been able to escape his shadow. Show me an ambitious dressage rider, and I’ll show you a rider who deals with frustration. To quote Antonio Banderas, “Expectation is the mother of all frustration. “

Since frustration is clearly a downside of performance-based activities, and with so much research available when I researched about performance anxiety, I was a bit surprised that when I started researching for this class I didn’t find a lot.  I found lots of definitions, lots of examples, so it’s clearly a problem – enough of a problem that Amazon advertises “frustration-free packaging.”  But not much about what is going on in our brains, and on a few plans to combat frustration. So I asked Kelsey for help, and between her, my experiences, and some careful internet digging, this is what I came up with.

So here’s the official definition: Frustration is a feeling of annoyance that occurs when something doesn't go as you expect. Frustration comes from the Latin frustrationem, "a deception or a disappointment." (

Ironically, I found information about frustration was on the internet Pokemon encyclopedia. I never knew Pokemon had such an organized following, but then I doubt gamers know we spend hours making circles in the sand and get excited about a score that wouldn’t be passing in grade school. But I digress (again).

Turns out in Pokeomn, “frustration” is the name of a fight move. I love this line under “Effects” on the web page == “Frustration inflicts damage and has no secondary effect.”

It goes on to describe this complicated mathematical formula that quantifies the power of frustration based on one factor – friendship.  In that game, the higher the friendship score, the lower the power generated by the frustration fight move. So even in the video world, emotions, specifically friend-trust in this case, have an effect on the power of frustration.the lower the power generated by the frustration fight move. So even in the video world, emotions, specifically friend-trust in this case, have an effect on the power of frustration.

Leaving the land of video games and entering neuroscience, let’s look at what happens to our brains when we are frustrated. For starters, emotions in general are hard-wired into the subcortical nuclei, which brain researchers call the “animal brain” as it is so similar to that of lower mammals. 

In Animals in Translation, Grandin and Johnson write: "We humans tend to think of emotions as dangerous forces that need to be strictly controlled by reason and logic. But that's not how the brain works. In the brain logic and reason are never separate from emotion. Even nonsense syllables have an emotional charge, either positive or negative. Nothing is neutral."

In Pankseep's Affective Neuroscience, he explains that there "is good biological evidence for at least seven innate emotional systems…." The list, slightly modified for clarity of definitions to non-brain-science nerds, is as follows:
Seeking (anticipation, desire)
Rage (frustration, body surface irritation, restraint, indignation)
Fear (pain, threat, foreboding)
Panic/loss (separation distress, social loss, grief, loneliness)
Play (rough-and tumble carefree play, joy)
Mating (copulation—who and when)
Care (maternal nurturance)

Just to make things harder,  these emotional systems kick in  BEFORE neuro impulses hit the logic centers of our brain. In other words, we can’t change the fact that we become frustrated.  It’s part of our wiring.  So quit feeling guilty about being frustrated. It’s as much a part of our dna as your height and hair color.  But we can control what we do about frustration, so that is where we have to focus.

But there is one really scary thing in that list – that frustration is listed as a component of rage.  Also quite interesting is that when neuroscientists study rage, they find the paths in the brain parallel the trajectory of the fear system.

Certain stimuli trigger frustration/rage in the “animal brain” – things that restrict freedom of movement or access to resources.  Easiest way to trigger frustration and rage in a baby is to hold the arms down.  Even our horses feel frustration when we limit their freedom of movement.  But since we are human, we get the added advantage of our “logical brain” creating even more triggers than we instinctually have.

So here’s the technical list of how the brain is impacted by rage/frustration:

Areas of the frontal cortex containing reward-relevance neurons influence RAGE circuitry.

Frontal eye fields are impacted, drawn to especially prominent objects in the environment. (doesn’t this remind you of the tense horse looking for something to spook at?)

The orbitoinsular cortex—where a multitude of senses converge including pain and perhaps hearing—may provide specific sounds direct access to RAGE circuitry. In humans, these sounds may include, for example, an angry voice.

The nucleus of the solitary tract, which collects information via the vagus nerve that is probably related to processes such as heart rate and blood pressure, inputs to RAGE circuitry.

If I lost you with that list, here’ the Cliff Notes -- once the brain has started down the frustration path, the neurons fire in such a way to look for other frustrating things.  No real shocker there. Once the path is started, the brain has 3 options – follow the path to rage, jump to the parallel ‘fear’ path, or interrupt the path.

As trainers, of course we want to get off the frustration path, so we have to be interrupt the path.  Since frustration triggers increase heart rate, blood pressure and muscular blood flow, it will impact our ability to control our aids, significantly reducing our effectiveness as riders.  So we need to get off the path, and we’ll discuss how in a minute. But first let me convince you that you need to get off the path, even though, as trainers, that seems like the opposite of what we have come to believe is “good training.”

This, of course, go against common horsemanship. We have all heard that stopping when things aren’t going well is a bad training decision (letting the horse get away with it).  But letting things build is a worse training decision.  Horses learn by repetition, so if you take a walk break when it isn’t working, then go back with a better neuro-brain path firing and do GOOD repetitions 10 times, that is going to do more good in long-term training than one time pushing through the frustration and risking a really, really negative experience that you then have to fix.

Plus, since I showed earlier that frustration comes from the animal center of your brain, the logic center of your brain can start the cascade, but once it gets going, the neuropathway stays pretty much in the animal brain. It doesn’t check in with the logic centers of your brain. So your logical brain is saying “this isn’t working, we should do something else” but your animal center of your brain keeps hitting repeat, and it’s like an ink line that your brain keeps going over and over, making the line thicker and deeper.  Breaking that line is easy when it is one ink line thick. When it is wide and dark as if it were made with a paintbrush, it’s much harder to break.

I also want to point out again that this brain cascade bypasses logical thought.  Think of the rider who is clearly frustrated, and then hits her horse. Would that person hit a horse under normal situations? Of course not. Did she plan to hit a horse? Nope. But her brain’s wiring, in frustration/rage cycle, made that hit without checking with the logic sensors of the brain.  Often, ironically, with the logic center of her brain going “yea, that’s not going to work.”  So then she gets to feel guilt and shame as well.   

Why does the brain do this? Because thinking is slow, and a million years ago, when a human was  physically trapped by something trying to eat him, quick, strong, frustrated and rage-induced reactions kept him, and therefore our species, alive. 

A simplified way to look at neuropathways  is my ink line analogy from earlier. If you draw a line in ink, it’s a line. But if you keep drawing that same line, over and over again, the line gets thicker and darker.  Brain paths work that way too. If one fires once in a while, it’s just a thinly-followed pathway.  But if the brain goes over the same neuro-path pattern over and over again, it becomes a well-worn path.  This is how we develop habits. 

Like a habit, breaking the path when the path is still a thin line is much easier than breaking the cycle once your has rigidly gone over it and over it and over it in the last 10 minutes. But in order to break that pattern while it is still a thin line and before frustration has become a habit, we have to recognize the signs of the line being drawn in the first place.  Which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Common signs:
              Tone of your self-talk
              Emotional build up
              Sudden change in heart rate/body temp

Just to make this even more difficult, remember that the neuropathway for frustration/rage are in the animal brain. So your horse is wired to feel frustration, and make that jump from frustration to fear (flight behavior) or frustration to rage (fight behavior). 

Then there’s an added phenomenon that happens in the natural word – synchronization.  It makes fireflies blink in the same pattern, and in herds, when one herd member goes on alert, they all do. They do it because the heart rates sync. This happens with humans too – In Spain, they did a study using heart rate monitors on fire walkers. The heart rate of the fire walker and their friends/relatives who were observing synched. Onlookers who didn’t know the walker, their heart rate didn’t line up. 

Same thing happens to horses and humans.  According to a 2009 study at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, again using heart rate monitors, showed synchronization.  When riders were told that an umbrella would open at a particular part of their path, their heart rates went up in anticipation.  And so did the horse’s heart rates, despite the fact that the umbrella didn’t open. 

As horsemen we know this, we talk about horses ‘sensing our fear.’ Turns out it is real. Think about a fearful student getting on a steady schoolmaster, and the schoolmaster soothing the rider.  So it works both ways.

Now remember that raised heart rate is one of the physical signs of both fear and frustration.  So once we get on that cycle, not only is our brain wanting to stay on that cycle, our mount’s brains do too, and they are encouraging us to stay there as well.

So our best tool to prevent frustration buildup becomes technique called “prepared but flexible.”  To be prepared but flexible, we need to not only recognize frustration, we need to know what triggers frustration in us.

Getting back to Pokeman for just a moment, another interesting component of “frustration” as a fight move, characters don’t come with “frustration”—it is a learned move.  Think back to your competition career. First season, everyone is just happy to be there, and wow, I even got a ribbon!. Second year, yea, not so much. Your expectations, based on your education, have raised the bar, and increased your tendency to be frustrated.

As the old adage goes, forewarned is forearmed, so let’s look at common frustration triggers:
              Restricted motion
              Lack of access to resources        
              Outside stressors
              Performance anxiety

When I look at the internet for tools to help frustration, it gives me lots and lots of sorta-but-not-really-helpful advice, from “take a deep breath” to “change your expectations.”  I don’t want to change my expectations, since that may lower my results, and let’s face it, I want a productive training session and a high score.

So my personal, keep-the-red-hair-in-check method for staying out of the frustration neuro cycle is to first look at my goals and decide how easily those goals could lead to frustration.  Then I plan 2-4 different paths to reach that goal.  I set up several check-points to see if I’m on the best path – in a training session, that will be a walk break. In a show plan, I’ll re-think the plan mid season to see if unforeseen elements have derailed my plan. But having a plan to flex my plans helps me feel less restricted, literally or proverbially.  In other words, plan the work, plan to adjust the plan, work the plan, adjust the plan, lather, rinse repeat.

So, like any skill, we have to practice it. Pick some goals, make a list of plans, routinely check for physical signs that the brain is getting frustrated, and adjust often.



  1. A very thoughtful and useful post - thank you! (unfortunately the bibliography text is black characters on a brown background - near zero legibility...)