to the barn, groom, lunge or turn-out my horse 3-4 times
each week. But I never get on and ride.”
time my horse canters, I freak out.”
afraid of getting hurt and not being able to work or care
for my family.”
riding to be FUN - the way I remember it as a kid.
Instead, all I do now is worry about everything.”
excuses for not going to the barn.”
time I go to a show I throw up.”
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.”
afraid the horse will get out of control and I won’t be
able to stop it.”
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.”
riding has lost its fun. I’m thinking about selling my
horse because I dread going to the barn.”
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
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.
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
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
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
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!
Just About the Ribbons” by Jane Savoie (Trafalgar Square
the Rest of Us” by Jessica Jahiel (Howell Book House, 1996)
the Fear of Riding” by Theresa J. Jordan and Peter De
Michele (Breakthrough Publications, 1996)
Run At A Time” by Barbra Schulte (Center for Equestrian
the Fear of Riding” by Theresa J. Jordan and Peter De Michele
(Breakthrough Publications, 1996), p. 74.