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 Overcoming Fear - Becoming A Confident Rider by Martha McNiel

“I go to the barn, groom, lunge or turn-out my horse 3-4 times each week. But I never get on and ride.”

“Every time my horse canters, I freak out.”

“I’m afraid of getting hurt and not being able to work or care for my family.”

“I want riding to be FUN - the way I remember it as a kid. Instead, all I do now is worry about everything.”

“I make excuses for not going to the barn.”

“Every time I go to a show I throw up.”

“I usually ride in the arena, where I am comfortable. But the whole time I am criticizing myself for being too afraid to ride out on a trail, which is where I really want to be.”

“I’m afraid the horse will get out of control and I won’t be able to stop it.”

“I usually make excuses to avoid trail rides with friends. Occasionally I will grit my teeth and go. But my heart is pounding every step of the way and I am miserable. Last trail ride I got off and walked back to the barn in tears.”

“Somehow, riding has lost its fun. I’m thinking about selling my horse because I dread going to the barn.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you ever thought or said any of these things? If you have, come on in and join the club - you are not alone!

Overcoming fear is something almost every equestrian faces from time to time. Horses are large, potentially unpredictable and dangerous animals. But some riders, for a variety of reasons, struggle with fear and anxiety a lot more than others. Few sports have as many dedicated participants who struggle with being afraid of their beloved, chosen sport as equestrian sports. Fearful riders come in every age, gender, size and ability level. They include riders from every equestrian discipline and level of training. 

Equestrian fears usually originate from two distinct sources: posttraumatic fear and generalized anxiety. Posttraumatic fear develops after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic incident or accident. Not every rider who is involved in or witnesses an equestrian accident will develop posttraumatic fear. Some riders seem to “bounce back” from devastating accidents with few long-term effects. Other, more fearful, riders will struggle with crippling fears after a seemingly minor incident. Generalized anxiety develops in the “what if” section of the brain. No actual incident has occurred, but the fear is always of what might occur. What if my horse bolts and I cannot stop him? What if my horse spooks at a cow? What if a barking dog chases us on the trail? What if my horse bucks me off and I get hurt and cannot care for my children? The “what if” possibilities are endless and can be paralyzing.

In general, adult riders struggle more than child riders with fears and anxieties. Adults have experienced more of life, have lost their child-like innocence and sense of invulnerability, and have heard many more horror stories of riding accidents and dramatic falls. Adult riders have competing demands on their time, energy, finances, and bodies. No matter how much they love riding, adults also have to think about family responsibilities and relationships, the demands of a job, and how the bills would be paid, in the event of a serious accident.

In addition to their worries and an increased awareness of their own mortality, adult riders often have to deal with stiffer, less flexible joints; bones that break more easily; increased body weight; decreased muscular strength; slower reflexes; a lower general level of fitness; and old or prior injuries. These physical realities may increase an already anxious rider’s fear level.

So, you know you are an anxious rider. If you aren’t an anxious rider yourself, you probably know several other riders who are (even if they have never admitted this out loud to you). Many adult riders are deeply ashamed of and embarrassed by their fears. They are reluctant to talk about them or to get help, and so they suffer in silence, while making excuses to avoid riding. So, what is an anxious or fearful rider to do?

First of all, be patient with yourself or your anxious friend. Learn to recognize and reward your progress. The steps to successfully overcoming fear are usually small and may feel painfully slow. The newspaperman H. L. Mencken is quoted as saying, “For every complex problem there is an easy answer, and it is wrong.” There are no easy or simple answers to overcoming fear. But there is hope and success for those who are determined to conquer their fears. Listed below are a number of tasks that may help you to overcome your fears and become a confident rider.

1.) Determine your Equestrian Goals. What are your goals? Why do you ride? What do you want to do with your horse this year? What are your long-term goals? Ultimately, your personal goals and motivations should determine everything that you will or will not do with horses. There is no good reason to be involved with horses unless you genuinely love and enjoy them.

2.) Define your Equestrian Comfort Zone. What things are you comfortable doing around horses? Where does your comfort zone end? Many adults set unrealistic goals for themselves and try to accomplish too much, too soon. Successfully overcoming fear always begins well inside a rider’s comfort zone. Start by determining the horse-related activities you are very comfortable with (such as catching, haltering, grooming, tacking up your horse, ground work, etc.). In the beginning, it is strongly suggested that a fearful rider work only within her Comfort Zone. Repeatedly challenging yourself to work outside your Comfort Zone usually results only in reinforcing fearful reactions and unpleasant emotions, and will not move you in the direction of your goals (to enjoy riding and not feel afraid). Later on, when you are ready, you will work to increase and enlarge your Comfort Zone with activities that meet your goals (cantering on the trail, team penning, jumping, etc.).

3.) Enlist your Equestrian Support Team. Fearful and anxious riders will rarely overcome their fears alone. The more support a fearful rider gathers, the more likely she is to successfully overcome her fears. Possible members of an Equestrian Support Team include: a supportive riding instructor or trainer; a sports psychologist or psychotherapist; a physician or other medical professional; experienced, confident horsey friends and riding partners; a supportive spouse, partner or good friend; and friendly horse/riding clubs and organizations. Some well-meaning riding instructors add to the problem by refusing to allow their students to voice or talk about their fears. This is not the style of riding instructor I would recommend for a fearful rider, who needs to be able to talk about and verbally process her fears. A little empathy and understanding can go a long, long way.

4.) Learn to determine a Good Risk from a Bad Risk. The difference between a good risk and a bad risk varies considerably from rider to rider. Good risks may increase your fear level, but they can also be tremendous opportunities for personal growth and development. Good risks usually have a relatively low possibility of serious injury and they move you in the direction of your goals. Bad risks may also increase your fear level, but they may be dangerous and have a much higher possibility of physical injury or danger. Bad risks are also not related to what you want to do with your horse. Your goals, dreams, and personal motivations for riding will ultimately determine the kinds of risks you will or will not choose to take. There are no “objective” right or wrong answers when it comes to evaluating risky activities, because the decision-making criteria are very subjective and personal.

5.) Get to know your body’s fear response. When you are afraid, what happens in your body? One of the first steps to controlling fear is identifying and becoming aware of your physical response. Some common bodily responses to fear include: dry mouth, sweating, “butterflies” in the stomach, nausea, “rubbery” legs, shaking or trembling, chest pressure or pain, tingling sensations, dizziness, tearfulness, eyes looking down or losing focus, shortness of breath, “racing” thoughts, inability to focus or concentrate, and the fear of losing control or the fear of dying. When you are afraid, pay attention to where and how you experience fear in your body.

6.) Wear a helmet. Every time, every ride. You never “forget” the girth, do you? Then there is no excuse for “forgetting” a helmet. No matter which equestrian discipline or activity you are participating in, a properly fitted, ASTM/SEI-approved equestrian helmet is the single most important piece of personal safety equipment available today. A helmet may save your life and your future, in the case of a fall or serious accident. Knowing your wonderful, unique brain is well-protected will give you one less thing to worry about when you ride.

7.) Learn visualization and imaging techniques. Two wonderful sources of information for visualization techniques specific to equestrians are Jane Savoie and Barbra Schulte. Both of these women are internationally-known competitors (Jane Savoie in dressage and Barbra Schulte in cutting), instructors, coaches, authors, and speakers. Jane Savoie’s newest book “It’s Not Just About the Ribbons” and Barbra Schulte’s audiotape series “Mentally Tough Riding: A Training Course” contain extensive descriptions and information about mental imagery and visualization for equestrians. Their websites are listed in the resources at the end of this article. Visualization and imaging skills require time, practice and disciplined thinking, in order to be effective.

8.) Learn to think rationally. Rational, realistic thinking will take you far. Irrational, unrealistic thinking will devour your fun and make you miserable. “Irrational thoughts are absolutist. They demand that you must, should, or have to do or be something, or else you are an absolute failure.” Learn to identify and stop negative, unrealistic self-talk when it starts. Irrational thoughts take one bad ride, day or incident and expand it into you are a bad rider in general, your horse is a bad or dangerous horse, or you are a failure as an equestrian and as a human being. This kind of negative expansion is not based in reality and will not help you to achieve your goals in riding.

9.) Learn to identify your Fear Arousal Level on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being relaxed and almost asleep; 10 being blind panic or fear of dying). On this scale, 2-4 are the Comfort Zone. This is a very calm and comfortable place to be, and no challenge or growth is taking place. This is the place to retreat back to, when you are feeling stressed. 5-7 on the Fear Arousal Scale are the Learning Zone. Things are interesting and challenging enough to keep you awake and on your toes and reaching outside your Comfort Zone, but you are not frightened. At 8-9 the stress level is too high for effective learning to take place, and fear or panic are beginning to set in. At 10 the rider is frightened for her life, is in a blind panic, and may be out of control with fear. The Fear Arousal Scale is a very useful tool to use individually and with your riding instructor. Learn to talk about where you are feeling on the Fear Arousal Scale, and plan to decrease the arousal level (lower the stress) if you get above a 7.

10.) Improve your riding skills. Most fearful riders benefit tremendously from taking additional riding lessons on the basics of riding a horse. These lessons should be with a patient, caring instructor who enjoys working with timid adults. Lessons on the basic mechanics of riding and controlling a horse, balance, and understanding a horse’s movement will help a fearful rider to relax and feel more in control in the saddle. Ideally, these lessons should take place on a calm “schoolmaster” type horse.

11.) Improve your fitness level. Start with abdominal strength. Work up to 100 curls every day. The abdominal and oblique muscles control your position in the saddle and help you to stay with your horse when he turns quickly. Strong abs make you a stronger rider. Increasing over-all fitness, strength and flexibility will usually increase a rider’s self-confidence in the saddle.

12.) Look and act like a confident rider, even if you do not feel like one. “It is easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting.” The physical positions of keeping your eyes up, chin up, and smiling send signals to your brain that you are in control and confident, even if you do not feel that way emotionally. Look and act like you are confident and eventually you will feel that way.

13.) Evaluate the horse you own or usually ride. Are you a good match for each other? Many fearful riders are riding horses they should not be riding. They are over-horsed and intuitively know that, but do not know how to change the situation. If you are not sure whether you and your horse are a good match, enlist the aid of a knowledgeable horse professional to help you. A professional opinion may give you the courage to overcome your fears and work successfully with your current mount, or the courage to say good-bye and find a more suitable mount to help you achieve your equestrian goals and find the fun again.

14.) Make a plan. Start within your Comfort Zone and plan baby steps to move you in the direction of your dreams and goals. The most effective plans will usually involve regular riding lessons or instruction, sessions with a sports psychologist or psychotherapist who is experienced with equestrian issues, and mobilizing your entire Equestrian Support Team. Clinics specifically designed to help riders overcome fear issues can be particularly effective in helping fearful riders to get back on the “fun” track again. Overcoming Fear clinics are offered by DreamPower Horsemanship in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Goodnight Horsemanship School in Poncha Springs, CO. Websites for both are listed in the Resources at the end of this article.

In summary, there is hope and help available for anxious riders who want to overcome their fears. Successfully overcoming the fear of riding and becoming a confident rider most often occurs when a strong Equestrian Support Team is enlisted and utilized, and a thoughtful, realistic plan is in place. Here’s to your future as a Confident Rider!

Recommended Resources:

Books:

  • “It’s Not Just About the Ribbons” by Jane Savoie (Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2003)

  • “Riding for the Rest of Us” by Jessica Jahiel (Howell Book House, 1996)

  • “Overcoming the Fear of Riding” by Theresa J. Jordan and Peter De Michele (Breakthrough Publications, 1996)

  • “Cutting: One Run At A Time” by Barbra Schulte (Center for Equestrian Performance, 1998)

Clinics:

Websites:

1.”Overcoming the Fear of Riding” by Theresa J. Jordan and Peter De Michele (Breakthrough Publications, 1996), p. 74. 

      
Martha C. McNiel is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a NARHA Registered Therapeutic Riding Instructor and EAGALA Level 1 Certified. Martha is a Professional Member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA), the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). She is also a member of the Backcountry Horsemen of California and the Aromas Hills Trail Club. Martha is the Founder and Director of DreamPower Horsemanship, a NARHA Member Center providing Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy and Therapeutic Horsemanship classes in San Martin, CA. She has had articles published by the Bay Area Equestrian Network, Horse-Guide.com, USPC News, NARHA Strides, and Paso Fino Horse World.

Copyright Martha McNiel © 2004. All rights reserved. The above article is the property of the Author, and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way without permission.

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