In part I of this series, we talked about some resources and tools, building up to the actual riding experience. To review I had asked you to do some observing and journaling of your horse, or horses in general, at liberty, to study body language and herd interactions. I will refer back to this exercise in a bit. We also discussed the importance of choosing the right horse to gain confidence on and the importance of groundwork. I also shared some links to breathing exercises to help with anxiety and asked for you to practise those prior to mounting a horse in order to have easy recall to use when riding.
Overcoming Fear of Riding Part I
Ted Talk How to Use Breathing to Control your State of Mind
Now it is time to get on your horse. Here are some tips prior to mounting.
Set yourself up for small successes. Think 'short and sweet' in the beginning.
Practise good safety measures- ride in an enclosure with proper tack and a good horse. (covered in part I.)
Have someone on the ground, at the horse's head. Even if you don't need someone, it is helpful and I will refer back to this further along.
DO NOT build up the expectation that you will get on, and suddenly be anxiety free and back 100%. If you could do that, then you don't need to read this article! Allow yourself this time to do what you need, so you can put this behind you properly, and move on.
The scope of this article is not to give correct mounting/riding instructions so the assumption is you know how to do this correctly and safely.
*Mounting the horse can be a trigger point for many because accidents do happen and you, as the person mounting, are in a vulnerable position. Please, if you need to break the mounting into small steps it is even more important you have someone at the horse's head. Don't skip that step. If fully mounting is too much, break it down into small steps.
If mounting is not where you feel anxiety, you can move on to the phase in which anxiety is a problem. The advice can be used regardless if you are fully mounted or not. Obviously, if you are in a full gallop, in an open field, you don't have much time to practise much of anything so adapt this to suit your situation but do it in a way that allows you a chance to work thru the following steps.
Now you are at the first step and likely anxiety is building. That's okay and gives you a chance to use this method and become familiar with it. In part I we talked about Body Scans which are a way to systematically 'scan' or review your body from toe to head and feel for the tension in your body. You were asked to try this out beforehand off the horse so now it should be relatively easy for you to find your tension spots and breath relaxation into them. Consciously relax your muscles. You want enough muscular tension so you don't sit like a sack of potatoes on your horse, but your muscles are not gripping or hard. Soft, flexible muscles are the aim. Now add to that the breathing exercises you practised. We talked a bit in Part I how regulating your breathing will help regulate and calm your mind. Plus, we've all heard from our riding instructors how horses feel our breath when ridden and can feel when we HOLD our breath. This can signal a sensitive horse to fear. Use your breath to calm you and your horse.
Another resource I had mentioned was Sally Swift's book, Centered Riding. In one of the chapters, Sally describes imagining feeling of a helium balloon in your abdomen. Her recommendation was to rise the helium balloon when asking your horse to walk or pick up its pace and lowering the helium balloon when asking your horse to stop of slow down. This helium balloon visual and body memory has been invaluable for me. I have practised this and have used it often to help a hot, green or nervous to be calmer. The other imagery used in Sally's book is that of a tree with your upper body tall and your legs long and deep in the stirrups, imagining roots growing from your legs into the ground. This I believe also calms you and your horse. It is imagery that helps facilitate the feelings of being grounded and center.... calm, alert, relaxed but adaptable.
Now that you are on the horse and using your tools of body scan, imagery and breath, utilize your person on the ground. Verbally go over the horses state of mind, looking at his body posture, ear position and other cues as your ground person gives feedback and validation on what you are seeing. It could go something like this:
Rider: Star's head is low, in a relaxed position with ears occasionally pivoting to the side as he tunes in to my voice, no signs of tension or irritability in horse, horse's breathing is deep and even, tail is quiet, standing evenly on all 4 feet.
Ground person: Yes, I see that Star is relaxed as well. From here I can see his eye's are half closed and he gave a big sigh a minute ago.
This reinforcement from your ground person helps to solidify your 'reading correctly' of the horse and his mood. I am sure many of us have had to field questions and concerns with people new to horses what the horse's movements mean. It is easy to misinterpret (and the learning in this area is ongoing) but when a person's anxiety is high, an ear flicker or foot stomp can send them thru the roof when (hopefully) is not because the horse is about to lose it, but is because your anxious mind is on high alert for danger not in proportion to the situation.
Keep it Short and Sweet and End with Success
Continue on to riding in whatever capacity that is suitable for you with a mind to find the balance between pushing beyond the anxiety but not get to overwhelm. If your first session is you mounted the horse and stay on for 5 min. and used your tools to reduce anxiety but to do more would overwhelm, than you did end with success! Its not necessary to get on and ride at the level you were prior to be successful. If you could do that you wouldn't need this article. What you want to do is learn to reduce your anxiety and push a bit at the edge of your comfort zone and build on that. Slow will get you there faster.
Reaching for.... Boredom!
When I needed to regain my confidence after a riding accident years ago, I found boredom to be a great goal. I know that sounds odd...but I did what I could and built on it like I describe above. I found when I began to have the inklings of boredom, I knew I was ready to progress and was well on my way to putting the anxiety behind me. Boredom became a good marker for me to know when I was ready to move on. It is impossible to feel bored and anxious at the same time!
Putting it behind you....
I have since learned to welcome fear based on reality and know that is a good thing. I don't ever want to ride fearlessly because that is really riding recklessly unless you are a high level athlete in upper competition. Or so I imagine. :) I guess I just want to say, there is no shame in feeling some fear. That can be your intuition keeping you safe.... so don't beat yourself up for feeling fear now and again.... and don't assume if you feel fear again you will fall back into an anxiety ridden mess. There is no need to fear feeling fear. Just think it thru and see if it is rational fear that needs to be listened to or anxiety that is your mind on high alert due to any of a number of reasons that may not even relate to the horse. As in most things in life, look for the middle ground.
Thank you for stopping by! I hope you found this to be helpful.
As always, I wanted to invite you to my home page to view my horse paintings,custom gifts and pet portraits. http://www.horseartonline.com
Many happy trails to you!