Overcoming Fear of Riding, Part I
I think most riders will experience some level of fear at some time during their riding history. The degree, duration and situations may vary but some level of fear go hand in hand with horseback riding, as it should. Riding CAN be dangerous! Riding accidents DO happen. So the goal of writing this article is not to eliminate all fear. Some fear is needed to keep a rider vigilant toward safety and common sense. The fear I am hoping to help a rider overcome in this article has to do with ungrounded fear. The kind of high anxiety that keeps a person from enjoying their horse in what a reasonable person would consider to be a relatively safe horse and situation. I will share some strategies that worked for me, years ago, after a riding accident and share tools to that I have found help reduce anxiety.
A Little History About Me
First of all, I am just an every day rider. I am not a super athlete, nor do I profess to be exceptional in my riding skills in any way. I just love horses and enjoy going trail riding or putzing around my little farm. I got in trouble many years ago riding a green horse and then had to overcome pretty significant panic attacks and anxiety as I got back to riding. I do know I never wanted to stop riding so I stumbled forward and got thru it.
Jump forward again several years and I found myself battling another kind of anxiety. I sought counseling and worked thru that and in the process learned some techniques and strategies that helped in life outside of riding. Jump ahead again (I know, I'm old!! LOL)
I worked for a while as an equine specialist in a counseling center and began to learn about the horse as a therapeutic animal on a professional level. I already knew horses were therapeutic for me but now learned more of the science behind why they were that way. I became interested in how the body responds to trauma and how our bodies have the ability to stop the generalized anxiety and panic using our breath and relaxation techniques. I had counselors try to use that in counseling sessions but it never really made sense to me until I put it together with some knowledge of the mind body connection during a conference at Eastern Mennonite University's STAR program teaching resilience and trauma awareness and how I have always felt better being around horses. Things clicked after a series of Somatic Experiencing sessions and a course in Natural Lifemanship . I connected with the feeling in my body I had during Somatic Experiencing in a relaxed state to the feeling I have when riding and learned how to recreate that off the horse in times of high anxiety. It was profound for me and to say it was helpful is an understatement. I also was able to see how I had learned years before how to release the tension in my body while riding my very green arabian mare in order to calm her. That ability, I feel very likely, kept me out of a horse wreck multiple times. Obviously, it is not a cure-all if you are in an extreme situation or your horse is untrained or inexperienced and something sets off their natural instincts. That is where the 'good fear' should kick in (before you mount up) and tell you what situations you can realistically handle with the horse you are riding so you can act accordingly!
Before you Start, Use the Right Horse
Let me interject at this point some assumptions:
This advice assumes you; 1. know how to ride. You don't have to be an expert or super athlete but you can maintain a reasonable balanced position in the saddle and understand how to cue a horse correctly. 2. Your horse is NOT green broke, and is reasonably trained and of a decent temperament for riding. 3. You understand horse tack and how to fit it properly to a horse. 4. The horse you ride is pain free and in decent health. An older, slightly arthritic horse is fine and maybe even preferred for this stage in your riding but the horse needs to be comfortable in doing what you ask. There is no sense to try to work on your own fear if your horse is not properly suited to help you gain confidence. If your riding skills need brushing up, as soon as possible, sign yourself up for good riding lessons. Your fear may be well founded in your intuition letting you know you are not able to communicate correctly with the horse you are riding if you are riding a horse too sensitive or high energy for your skill level. It's not fair to that type of horse to receive mixed messages from an unbalanced rider. Nor is it safe for you to ride a horse like that. 5. Wear the proper safety equipment (ex. helmet).
The ideal horse to gain confidence is an older, well trained, quiet horse who is patient, tolerant and has more 'whoa than go'. A too forward horse, even one well-trained, can be off putting to an anxious rider. If this does not describe your horse, consider borrowing one from a friend, leasing, adopting a good senior horse or using a quiet lesson horse for the following exercises.
Good Fear vs. Bad Fear
Good fear, as I stated earlier, is our friend that is there to keep us from doing stupid things. Good fear alerts us to real danger. Bad fear is anxiety that is not based in the reality of the situation but instead is from the 'what ifs' our anxious mind keeps throwing at you or just a generalized anxiety that buzzes thru your body like a current of electricity. Your horse can and does feel that in you. Which is okay because you have anxiety. No sense in feeling shame in that. It is what it is. The horse best suited for you is one who is tolerant of that and does not feed into it. An anxious rider and a sensitive, react or green horse is not the combination you need. Okay, enough of my harping about that!
While off the horse, spend some time studying horse behavior and body language while horse is at liberty. Even if you think you know all this just take the time to camp out by a herd of horses and observe. Learn or review how to 'read' if a horse is relaxed vs. nervous. Make note of the ways you can tell whether he is calm or high energy, on alert, aggressive, fearful. Notice ear position, body language, posture, gestures etc. How do the horses different ear positions relate to the horse's attention and/or mood? How do the different levels of head and neck position relate to the horse's state of mind? What about the tail, feet, body. Consider journaling your observations. The mere act of handwriting information helps to assimilate it as a non- emotional memory. See these resources if you are interested in knowing more:
Next step in preparing is to take your horse in hand into a new area or something slightly out of his comfort zone. Be reasonable in deciding where and how to do this. Have help if this is appropriate. The idea is to observe the horses body language and behavior and to control from the ground to bring horses attention back to you. If this is a difficult task, it may be an indication that the horse is not of the right level of training or experience to help you overcome your fear. Learning how to handle a horse properly in a stressful situation from the ground is a necessity. Brushing up on your ground skills will be a great benefit to you and your horse. Do this first if you have trouble in keeping your horse's attention on you. In the process of working with your horse in hand with ground work you may eliminate your riding anxiety.
Learn how to do a 'body scan' while off the horse to recognize areas in your body holding tensions. Practice using your breathing to bring relaxation to the areas in your body you hold stress. Learn more here on steps to a body scan. https://www.mindful.org/7-steps-to-relax-your-body/. If you practice recognizing where you are holding tension in your body and are able to release it, this will be of immense help to you on horseback. You will also find that once you are able to consciously release that tension in your boy, your anxious mind will begin to be less anxious.
Another very helpful tool for releasing tension and anxiety are breathing exercises. You can read more here:
As you practice this off the horse, it will benefit you while riding.
Another excellent resource is Centered Riding by Sally Swift. This book is a classic for riding instruction. The techniques are helpful and visuals are memorable. I found the helium balloon visual and exercise particularly helpful when riding my green horses and Iater to help in stressful riding situations to calm me and the horse.
Overcoming the Fear of Riding Part II