Do you experience fear in the saddle? Are you embarrassed by it? Don’t be! I’m going to convince you that your fear can actually be a good thing.
First, you’re not alone—even though that’s how it always feels. I know, because I’ve been there. I’ve been riding horses all my life, and as a youngster I was fearless to a fault. (In fact, I shudder thinking of everything my sisters and I did, out in the countryside, riding on our own for hours at a time.)
As a mature adult, however, with a child of my own and full knowledge of the risks of riding, I became less bold…and sometimes even timid. Fearful.
And I hated it!
Then, as an equine journalist, I began to learn more about fear. As I did, I made peace with my own fears, which ultimately led to my overcoming them.
Here’s what I learned that helped me. And if you suffer fear in the saddle, trust me…it will help you!
1. Fear Keeps You Safe
It’s true. Fear slows you down and makes you think. The challenge is using that think-time to your advantage, rather than obsessing over what you’re fearful about and amping your anxiety. Use the time instead to figure out the best way to approach every fearful situation.
Plan your rides in advance. Do whatever prep you need (such as pre-ride longeing or round-penning) to establish connection with your horse, help him tune in to you, and assure yourself that you’re in control.
Then, as you ride, stay within your comfort zone, extending the limits of it only gradually over time. Does loping give you the jitters? Then stay at a trot for a while. But trot a lot! Go in different patterns and in different situations, until you feel good and ready to try a little lope. Then go for just a few strides before returning to a trot. Build slowly!
Plunging “courageously” ahead in spite of your fear just exacerbates anxiety and courts the very thing you dread—a mishap. By contrast, progressing gradually lets you bootstrap yourself past your fear, a little at a time.
But won’t you telegraph fear to your horse, and make him fearful, too? You needn’t (see the tip below). And if you’re setting yourself up for a safe, productive ride every time you swing a leg over, you’ll find it easier to “fake it until you make it”—that is, project confidence even when you’ve got a few butterflies, as well.
[BONUS TIP: A handy ‘trick’ for staying calm, relaxed in the saddle.]
2. Fear Gives You Goals
If you’re serious about overcoming your fear, you must map out the incremental objectives that’ll enable you to do so. Start by identifying what you feel completely comfortable doing on your horse. Whatever it is, start there, then plot baby steps toward a bigger objective.
Even if walking in the arena is your comfort point, begin there—with no embarrassment—and work forward. Walk through a range of different patterns, in different directions, at different speeds, over different obstacles. Become a stone cold master at the walk.
Then use the fluency you’ve developed from all your adventurous walking to try a little jog now and then…and keep going.
The keys: Keep it fun. Take your time.
[BONUS TIP: Obstacle work that benefits you AND your horse.]
3. Fear Expands Your Creativity
To keep steadily progressing in overcoming fear, you sometimes need workarounds. Finding them can boost your creative problem solving.
For example, say the fear you’ve bumped up against is going out with a group of other riders. You don’t do it because it scares you, and you can’t overcome your fear because you never do it.
Here’s where you get creative and devise an incremental approach. Ask one friend to come ride with you around your home grounds; repeat until it’s completely comfortable. Then do it with two friends, then three.
Then go back to one, but at a different location. Again repeat until it’s comfortable. Then add more friends, and so on.
Almost any challenge can be broken down into “chewable bites” in this way—that is, if you’re creative!
[BONUS TIP: More examples of creative problem-solving.]
[DOUBLE BONUS: Confidence-building drills to try.]
4. Fear Boosts Your Empathy
Here’s one you weren’t expecting! Being afraid helps you understand others who also experience fear. That makes you a better riding buddy—one who can reciprocate in the skill- and confidence-building endeavor.
It also helps you to fully understand your horse, who as a prey animal is even more susceptible to fear than you are. And when he’s fearful, he’s not just unhappy; he also stops learning. So being aware of his fear-causers can help you plan his training to avoid and/or vanquish them.
This boosts his confidence in you, which in turn ups your trust in him.
And that, ultimately, spells the end of fear for good!
[ESSENTIAL: Details on how trust in your horse will beat your fear.]
[BONUS TIP: How connection builds trust.]