Saddled with Fear

In this exclusive report, a lifelong horsewoman opens up about several painful falls and how she conquered her fear of riding to get back in the saddle. Plus: Twelve steps to overcome your own riding fears.

I gotta pee. Again. The sun is shining. The air smells sweet. Shady is saddled, warmed up, and waiting. My friend and horse trainer, Mark McKinnon, holds the reins. He’s being patient.

“Are you going to get on this horse, or not?” he asks.

I’ve already run back to the house twice to retrieve some last, crucial item, lip balm, gloves, and to use the restroom. Still, I hesitate.

I’m afraid. But it’s more than just fear; it’s frustration, self-admonition, embarrassment. This is not me. How did I get here?

From Saddle to Dirt…
My favorite photo of myself is a picture with my dad. I’m about 9 months old sitting on a horse. Dad has the old mare by the lead. What you don’t see, unless you know where to look, is my mom holding me up there.

I think of that photo as a metaphor for life: We all need a good leader when we first start out, and somebody to hold us up now and then.

I grew up on horseback, roughshod and reckless. I was fearless, rambling over trails and non-trails on a steady stream of horses that came and went over the years. The last thing I ever worried about was falling off.

But in my late 40s, I had a series of run-ins with gravity. The first was a fluke. A cat jumped onto a horse I was training, dug his claws in, and held on. The mare shot out from beneath me, and I landed flat on my back, breathless, but undented and undaunted. However, once that mare knew she could unload me, she did it again just because it was fun. For her.

Something happens as you get older. You realize that the ground gets harder, your reflexes get slower, and flukes have a way of repeating themselves. So for the next two years, I didn’t get on a horse. I wasn’t afraid; I just had other stuff to do.

Finally, I got up the nerve to start training a young mustang. He was doing well until I eased onto his bare back. As he launched me into a short but speedy flight path, I realized in that endless split second before hitting the ground that this was gonna hurt.

You could hear my left knee scream as the ligament tore loose. My knee swelled up like a soccer ball, only in prettier colors. I was on crutches for weeks and in physical therapy for months.

…And Back Again
Mark is one of those horse trainers who expects more out of horses than anybody else, and gets it. When he took my Morgan mare, Shady, for training I was thrilled. When he delivered her home, I thanked him and promptly turned her out to pasture.

Whenever Mark asked if I’d ridden Shady, I had an excuse ready. Truth was, I just didn’t want to get on a horse. I’d lost my nerve.

Fortunately, I hadn’t lost Mark’s friendship. I finally admitted to him that I was afraid. Turns out, that’s the best first step you can take to conquer your fear.

“Afraid? Of what?” Mark asked, as if I’d admitted to being afraid of cotton candy.

I was afraid the horse would inexplicably bolt, or burst into a bucking spree, or spook into traffic, or roll down a mountainside, or fall on me, every scary thing I could imagine.

More immediately, I was afraid that putting all my weight on my injured leg to climb into the saddle might re-tear the ligament, or cause the knee to buckle or explode into flames.

Mark wasn’t buying it. He was holding the reins to a well-trained horse in a nice, soft round pen.

My mind raced. I’m not ready. I haven’t done enough physical therapy. I’m out of shape. My boots are too tight. I gotta pee.

Then it hit me. All you can do is the best that you can do at this very moment. If you wait for everything to be perfect, you can wind up waiting so long you never get back on the horse. Sometimes good enough has to be good enough.

Out of excuses, I grabbed the saddle horn, stabbed my toe into the stirrup, and slowly rose into the saddle. The knee was fine. Shady didn’t budge.

“I didn’t think you’d do it,” Mark said.

The View from Up Here
You know this. The view from 15 hands high is awesome! There I was, looking out, over and down on the world as I remembered it. Mark was saying something about getting her moving, putting my heels down, lowering my hands, blah, blah, blah.

“Just let me sit here a minute.” I tell him it’s to get my balance, but really, I just want to savor the moment. I am on my horse.

Mark watched me ride. My balance was iffy and my seat didn’t come back as I’d assumed it would; that will take time. But after a few minutes, he was convinced I wouldn’t topple off. He mounted his horse, a young, green colt, and off we went on my first trail ride in years.

Partway down a hill, Shady’s neck started to get shorter and her step swingier. It took a moment for me to realize the saddle was slipping. I turned her sideways across the trail.

Up until that point, my inner mantra had been, “Stay on the horse, stay on the horse, whatever happens, stay on the horse.” But there I was, sideways on a hill with a loose cinch.

Suddenly, I was worried about my knee again; if I got off, could I get back on? That’s when I heard it, my voice hollering at Mark up the trail. “Help!”

Yes, I asked for help, and the world didn’t come to an end.

Mark tightened the cinch, and we rode on. A little while later, a flock of wild turkeys silently scuttled ahead of us. I pointed them out to Mark and then his colt saw them, too, at which point they time-traveled past Shady and me in a split second. Shady spun a hasty retreat, but I stayed on.

Think Positive
Things didn’t go perfectly, but at least I learned I could still handle a couple of trail bloopers. Still, I questioned what I’d done right and what I’d done wrong, and most importantly, whether I could do it again.

Some say the best way to conquer fear is to envision the worst that can happen and deal with it in your mind before trying in real life. With my imagination, that isn’t a comforting thought. Turns out it’s not great advice for normal people either.

Myron Thurber, PhD, LMHC, is a counselor, physical therapist, and neurotherapist in Spokane Valley, Washington. I spoke to him about my fears. He told me that to overcome ingrained fear, it’s important to understand the brain’s role.

“When we look at the way the brain captures a traumatic event, it’s stored with no specific indicator of past or present, no delineation of real or imagined,” he explained. “Part of the brain is constantly searching for a match with previous trauma, so anytime the horse fl inches at a fly or looks at you funny, or the trail looks kind of off, or your balance is a little bit different, that part of the brain will start in the same physiology, [so you’ll experience] the same feeling that resulted in the trauma. So right from the start, it already feels traumatic.”

It gets worse. “Animals are very intuitive,” he continued. “Your horse senses your fear response and begins to distrust your ability and reacts to that. You begin to feel it’s not worth it.

“The recovery process involves resetting a baseline that preceded the trauma,” Dr. Thurber continued. “Remember what it was like before the accident. And most importantly, remember the feeling that preceded it. Be aware of what you want, and focus on that.”

In other words, think of the best times you’ve had on a horse, and let your brain re-register what that feels like. The sun on your face, the rocking rhythm of your horse’s body, the scent of woods and leather and horse, the sound of hoofbeats.

By letting the part of the brain that doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined soak up the good feelings as opposed to dredging up things that could go wrong you retrain your brain how to react to the thought of riding.

“Take it step by step, starting from where you are right now, and ending with where you envision yourself to be,” said Dr. Thurber. “For instance, say, “What I’d like right now is closeness with this animal, to feel that and have it reciprocated back. Now, I’d like to work in tandem with this animal, and be as one, feeling the rhythm.”

As you progress, up the ante, ” ‘How can I now challenge myself to do something beyond this, something that is a product of our cooperative effort?’ That might mean riding over more challenging terrain or picking up the pace,” he said. “Don’t expect everything to come back the first time like the Man from Snowy River.”

“Like visualization?” I asked.

“Add the emotionality of it,” he said. “Think about how it feels in your body. There is something so therapeutic about moving with this large energetic force and being caught in the stream of its energy. To feel that and to place it and to own it is a lot more than just seeing yourself sitting on an animal.”

Dr. Thurber reflected on my ride. “You chose a beautiful day when you already felt good. You had a companion with you; that brings in conversation and a relationship, all of which moves you past the initial fear response.”

Interestingly, it’s often easier for a beginning rider to get back on after a fall or bad experience. Often all they need to do to “reset the baseline” is get back on. Experienced riders can find it harder.

“When you’ve had great experiences, then a really bad experience, the range in the difference of the high and low can be very painful,” explained Dr. Thurber. “Sometimes, you have to be able to look at it and say,I can’t shoot to be very high today, but what I can shoot for is acceptable.’ Sometimes people find it too hard to get back on, because they know it can’t be as good as their best experience.”

The Challenge Beyond
Knowing I wasn’t ready for anything too challenging, Ride Two would follow a gentle, winding path through breathtaking old-growth cedar. Destination: Upper Priest River Falls in north Idaho. Easy. Never mind the “beware of bears” signs. I’d wear a knee brace this time, on the off chance I’d have to dismount.

Mark started off at a brisk, coward-shaking trot for the first mile and a quarter to the trailhead. Then it would be miles of leisurely strolling through the tall timber.

If you’ve ever ridden through old-growth, you know the spell it casts. Ancient cedars tower and lean through misty, light-shattered shadows. Deep, damp moss undulates over every deadfall, boulder, and depression like a green, wavy sea. Purple mushrooms taunt the imagination, ferns fl oat, sounds are muted. I felt like a pixie in wonderland.

About two miles in, a swiftly fl owing stream crossed our path. Mark’s horse stepped in gingerly and drank. Too chicken to ride across, I led Shady to the other side.

You know the old saying, “A coward dies a thousand deaths…” Well, I’d lost count, but I was pretty sure that’s low.

All that moisture created mudholes and water crossings. We came to a bridge the first, I learned, of about 20, wet, long, narrow, railless, slick, slippery bridges, some with steep dropoffs, some at an incline, and a couple with turns and/or a step in the middle.

All thoughts of how great I was doing were drowned out by the clattering of metal- shod hooves slipping and grappling for traction. I was scared spitless.

This is where riding with a trailworthy companion is priceless. Mark waited as I dismounted and walked over the first scary bridge, then the second. By the third, he was threatening to leave me to the bears.

For me, it helps immensely that my patient riding buddy is also just a teensy bit pushy. Most of my friends would’ve let me walk all the way or even turn back. Not Mark. He’s ridden over far worse trails and knows how to handle himself and his horse. My fear was no match for his confidence.

“You didn’t come all the way out here to walk,” said he. “Get on your horse.”

We came to a washed-out bridge where the horses have to step up onto a culvert then down into the water where it cuts a steep gash. Mark’s horse stepped up and then down into the current with a cursory sniff. Shady? flew. After that “bridge” Mark assured me if we came across anything scary-looking we could turn around. Oh sure.

Afraid? Of What?
All the way up, we’d been following mountain-bike tracks. Mountain bikers can be a hazard, because they can come out of nowhere, silently zipping out of the woods at high speed, and then slam right into a horse and rider or spook the daylights out of both.

When we finally encountered these cyclists, we found they were the nicest, most thoughtful people you could hope to meet seven miles out on a wilderness trail. Each in succession got off his or her bike and slowly walked past the horses. If I’d gotten their names, I would’ve sent flowers.

“Watch out for the bridges,” they warned, nervously. “Very slippery. The worst one has a corner in the middle, with a step.”


“Do you want to go back?” Mark asked. “I’ve made it this far, I want to see the waterfall,” I barely heard myself say over my inner voice screaming that there was no way back without going over all those bridges.

By the time we got to the falls, I was all in. I wasn’t nearly in good enough physical condition to walk back out, as much as I wanted to. I’d had enough trouble keeping up with Mark on the hike up to the waterfall, over a trail even he thinks is too difficult for the horses: a 12-inch-wide track, 80 feet down to the river on one side, a rock face up the other.

As I contemplated what life in the woods with the bears would be like, Mark announced that we had only about three hours of daylight left. Due primarily to my hesitancy, it had taken us more than 3 hours to get in. We got out in two.

I insisted on walking over the twisted step-bridge, towing Shady and slipping all the way. She’d had enough of me and was being a pill, so we switched horses, after which of course, she acted like an angel.

Shady and Mark set a quick pace, picking up a fast trot on the more level stretches. High, narrow, slick bridges passed beneath our horses’ hooves, mud holes vanished in our wake, steep dropoffs evaporated in the fading light.

None of it seemed so bad the second time through. We made it to the trailhead without a single dismount and with daylight to spare.

Back at the trailer, Mark admitted he didn’t remember the trail being in that bad of shape, except for where we hiked to the falls. “Nobody told me you’re supposed to tie up and walk the last part.”

“Were you ever afraid?” I asked.

“Afraid? Of what?”

And looking back at what I’d just done, I began to see his point.

12 Steps to Overcoming Fear
Step 1. Admit your fear, first to yourself, then to a competent riding friend or instructor. Saying it out loud is freeing.

Step 2. Thoroughly immerse your brain in sensually rich, positive thoughts of riding. Think back to how you felt before you fell or were injured in an equine-related accident.

Step 3. Don’t cheat yourself by trying something you’re not physically fit to do. Get in shape, first. If your balance is off, have your eyes checked. If you’ve been injured, wait until your doctor clears you to ride.

Step 4. Choose a well-trained, seasoned horse. (If you’ve fallen from a horse, it does not have to be the same horse.)

Step 5. Choose a safe location to start. A round pen with soft footing is ideal.

Step 6. Be sure all tack is in good, safe working condition and is properly fastened.

Step 7. Get comfortable. Allow no nagging distractions. Wear a brace or protective gear, if needed. Consider wearing an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified helmet on every ride.

Step 8. Once you’re in the saddle, sit quietly. Give your mind a moment to revisit Step 2.

Step 9. Ride with a competent companion in a familiar, positive setting, at your own pace.

Step 10. Ask for help if you need it.

Step 11. Avoid difficult obstacles at first.

Step 12. Don’t overdo it, and don’t be destination-driven.

Rhonda Massingham Hart is the author of Trail Riding (Storey Publishing) and former editor/publisher of The Gaited Horse magazine. Mark McKinnon is a veteran farrier, horse trainer, and trail rider. They both live near Deer Park, Washington.

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