Fear is something everyone in the equestrian world has felt at some point. Whether it was a brief sensation during a fall, a course of particularly large jumps, or on going, fear is something everyone faces (or doesn’t!) sooner or later. In this article I will discuss fear, and provide some strategies and insight into this sometimes debilitating emotion.
We have all experienced moments of fear during our lives with our horses. Even I have had an almost crippling fear at one point in my journey with horses. The problem is when this fear begins to deteriorate our relationship with our equine partners.
We make excuses not to go to the yard, or to ride. We feel guilt at not being able to do what other people can do with their horses. We face ridicule and judgement from other horsey people. And the fear grows. The more we avoid it, the bigger it becomes.
People often call me when the fear has become to much for them to silently bear on their own. I feel for them, because I have dealt with fear of my own. At one point the idea of riding a horse caused panic attacks, with real physical outbursts of tears and panic, and of course guilt.
Not a lot of people know this about me, but I too have been there. And I found coping strategies to get beyond the fear, and you can too.
So many times people hold themselves at blame for their fear. And other people certainly don’t help. They say “just get up there and do it.” But that is not the answer.
How often has someone fallen off and said “I knew I should have gotten off.” Fear is a very important gauge of what we should or should not be doing. It is there for a reason. The problem is when it becomes unreasonable.
So lets address that. Reasonability. I have to honestly say 9 times out of 10, when someone comes to me because they are afraid of their horse, they have a horse they should be afraid of.
Read that again, it’s important.
I find, particularly here in Ireland, people are far to cavalier and haphazard about riding dangerous horses.
So he doesn’t lead, or tie, or stand to be tacked or mounted, kicks the farrier, head shakes to put the bridle on, up you get! It’s ridiculous.
So step 1, is your horse a safe horse to handle? Is he mannerly, does he listen, is he responsive? If your answer to any of this is no, you really shouldn’t be riding that horse!
The relief this gives most of my clients is palatable. You can feel them relax. When I say, “you know what, your right, you should be afraid to ride this horse,” they take a step towards banishing their fear. They feel justified and not silly.
So that’s where to start. Is your horse even a safe candidate to do what you wish to do? If the answer is no, you need to take what ever steps are necessary to make your horse safe.
Sometimes that means getting professional help, sometimes that means parting ways and getting something more suitable. Only you know the answer to that.
A good friend once said “Cheap horses aren’t skilled and skilled horses aren’t cheap.” And this is sooooo true. You will pay eventually. Whether its through pain, sweat, tears or money, you will end up paying for that free horse.
So if your horse is not safe on the ground, your job is to make him safe. I have written loads of articles, take a look in the “training tips” section for some things you can do to make your horse more obedient, respectful, trusting and calm.
These are the traits of a safe horse. Most horses look to us to be their natural leader, and if we fail, they misbehave. This is certainly not a new concept to most of you, however, most people don’t realise, once you are on their back, they must take a bit of a leadership role.
If you are on the ground, and generally out in front, you are the one “at risk” of danger in the horses mind. You lead, they follow, you will certainly be eaten first. This however changes once you are on their back. Now they think they will be eaten first!
You can see how having an iffy at best situation on the ground deteriorates to unsafe once in the saddle.
Skipping groundwork makes unsafe, unconfident, over reactive horses in the saddle. Fix the ground work. This is a huge issue for starting horses, but that’s an article in its self!
Having a horse that you would be silly to be afraid of is the first step in conquering your fear.
If this is not going to ever be your horse, you have a few options. I personally will never advocate riding bad behaving horses, but some people will, at risk of making their fear into reality, speaking from personal experience.
Option 1, you may need to consider selling your horse for a more suitable match. Option 2, find a horse that is not a danger. This can be a friends horse, a riding school horse, a teeny tiny pony! Anything, just find a horse that doesn’t terrify you before you are even anywhere near it.
Hang out with said horse. No riding, don’t even think about it. Just grooming and carrots and nice. If even that scares you, keep reading, we are getting there.
One of the best techniques I have ever found for getting past my fear is visualisation. Top athletes use it, and it really works. It was the secret for me.
Once you have a horse that is not scary to be around, you start your visualisation techniques. You visualise going to the barn, getting the horse out, grooming, tacking, going to the mounting block, getting on, etc.
You do this until you hit the point that makes you start to feel nervous. Maybe its putting the saddle on, maybe its putting a foot in. Thats where you stop. Finish your visualisation by leading the horse back, untacking and putting him away.
Do this for several days, and feel good. There is no hurry. If you are undoing years of the fear building, be aware it will take time to undo it.
Next, you go to the not scary horse and do what you visualised. Again stopping at the point that makes you feel nervous.
Back to visualisation, this time adding the next step or two, so maybe this time you get on, then off again, horse away. Back to the barn, same thing.
Next maybe walk a few steps, off away. Visualise it, then do it, visualise, then do it. Before you know it, you are back riding and enjoying it. If something happens to set you back, its not a problem. Remember, you have all the time in the world. Go back to what you are comfortable with.
While you are riding, there are a few things you can do to keep things relaxed. Stay focused. This means ride with purpose.
Meandering will let your brain wander, and a wandering brain will seek old habits.
Ride around cones, from one corner post to another, from one tree to another, stay focused on where you are going. Your horse doesn’t know its meaningless busy work, he thinks you are right in charge, like a leader, riding with purpose.
Keep breathing!! Counting is an awesome way to stay calm. Just start counting. I have a friend who sings when she is nervous. Anything to keep your mind occupied.
Most importantly, if things start to go wrong, Get Off!!! You do not have to be “brave”. Being “brave” is not only stupid, but gets people hurt.
Get off and do some ground work. If your horse has to work even more when you get off, he’s going to work extra hard to keep you from getting off.
Work with him until you have your calm horse back. You don’t even have to get back on. He doesn’t know you had a change of plan, as long as he is still working, and you getting off doesn’t give him a break.
If you feel confident enough to get back on, remember to work through the steps just as you had visualised them. If you don’t feel confident enough to get back on, thats ok, go back a few steps and work on it.
As always, I am here to help, either on the end of the phone, or coming out and working with you and your horse to help you get past your fear.
Stay positive, take baby steps, and don’t be swayed by know-it-alls who are not, and can not walk in your shoes.