Most riders who experience fear ride with a tense, rigid body—even while telling themselves over and over to “relax!” The result is a horse that senses that tension and becomes over-reactive. Then, when the horse does spook or speed up, the fearful rider grabs the saddle horn, her body becoming even more rigid as she fights against her horse’s movement. Many times, she even falls off. Not a good outcome.
I talk to hundreds of fearful riders every year, and the majority say their biggest worry is falling off. I tell them they need to learn to let their body go with the rhythm of the horse.
This exercise, where you’re free to concentrate on your horse’s movement as someone else leads him, will teach you exactly that.
Why you need this. It isn’t only about staying more secure in the saddle, though that’s the primary goal. This exercise also helps your horse be happier. Remember giving piggyback rides as a kid? Remember how awkward it felt if the kid on your back got out of balance? You’d have to fight to compensate to stay standing. Your horse feels something similar when you’re unbalanced on his back. He’s already tense with your nervousness, and when you add your rigid body going against his movement, it can make him even more agitated.
Also, many fearful riders seek a false security by holding the reins too tight, resulting in constant contact on their horse’s mouth. Once you become more in balance with the rhythm of your horse, your need to “hang on”—to the reins or the saddle horn—will diminish.
Get ready, mount up. Recruit someone with horse knowledge to help you. Saddle your horse but leave him in his halter with lead. With your helper holding your horse, mount up and place your feet in the stirrups. Square your hips and shoulders, look up and in the direction you’ll be traveling, and take a deep breath.
Sit securely. Have your helper lead your horse forward, first at a moderate walk on mostly straight lines and wide turns. Position your arms as if you’re holding the reins or, for additional help with balance, extend your arms out to the side, as in the photo. Concentrate on letting your body naturally follow your horse’s movements without gripping with your legs. Keep your head up, your eyes forward, your shoulders square, and the small of your back completely relaxed to enable your hips to move freely.
Bump it up. Have your helper increase the speed of the walk, plus begin to incorporate smaller circles and tight turns, plus periods of jogging. As this occurs, resist any temptation to grab the horn. Instead, keep breathing into your abdomen and concentrate on letting your body be one with your horse’s movements—like a centaur! Feel yourself securely attached to your horse through your hips, thighs, and upper calves. But remember—no gripping. Use a mental checklist to remind yourself to relax your calves and thighs, and to release your hips.
Practice like this for 20 minutes a day. If your helper knows how to longe a horse, you can eventually advance to work at an extended trot and even lope on a longe line—still with no reins so you can fully concentrate on your ever-more-secure connection to your horse.
Heidi A. McLaughlin overcame her own eight-year period of fearfulness to write a best-selling book, K.I.C.K. Your Fear of Horses. The Fallbrook, California, horsewoman travels the country teaching her method. Learn more at fearlessrider.com.