When it comes to the joy you find in riding your horse, or in pursuing an aspect of riding, has your romantic bubble burst? Is fear, or some sort of anxiety, now a big, troubling aspect of you horse-life?
If so, you’re not alone. As a psychologist who specializes in helping equestrians, I’ve learned that fear (and its low-grade form, anxiety) is one of the major problems that all riders have to deal with. Maybe you fear being injured, or losing control of your horse. Perhaps you’re even afraid that you might have to replace your horse with a more manageable one. Maybe you’re afraid of failure—or of disappointing others. Possibly, your big fear is having to admit that horse ownership isn’t as you’d fantasized it.
No matter its source, your fear is an emotion that’s interfering with the enjoyment and satisfaction you hoped to get—or once had—from horse involvement. And chances are, you’d like to get the fun back.
I can help. I’m going to assume you’ve come to me for professional help in how to cope with your horse-related fear or anxiety. Then, assisting you as I would a paying client, I’ll lead you through the 10-step process I use to help other riders gain control over their fear. By the time our “session” is finished, you’ll have a set of useful self-knowledge tools, and will be ready to begin deconstructing the fear that hinders you.
Under ordinary circumstances, we’d meet in my office, and I’d ask you a series of questions designed to help both of us understand your problems, and what you want to accomplish. I’d take a detailed set of notes, for both of us to use in helping to shape a solution.
In this case, though, you’ll have to take your own notes, so have a pad and pencil ready as we begin. (Resist the temptation to keep track of your answers in your head; the actual process of writing will help you gain understanding of what’s happening, and gaining that understanding is the most important thing you can do in dealing with any problem.)
The questions I’ll be asking will require some introspection on your part; to help spark your thought processes, I’ll provide examples of answers from three other riders. Let’s begin.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY FEARFUL SITUATIONS. Write down all the situations you find to be fearful, being as specific as possible.
- Rider #1: Afraid to ride horse in groups, especially in open fields, or on narrow trails.
- Rider #2: Afraid to ride at trainer’s arena, after horse bucked me off there.
- Rider #3: Anxious when riding in public, especially at shows when friends or relatives attend.
This step will help you begin to clarify and narrow down what you need to deal with; only by doing this will you be able to break your fearful situations down into their component parts, and work on one part at a time. That process will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by the total task of riding “with other riders,” “in an arena,” “or in public.” After specifying their fearful situations, most riders realize that the majority of their riding actually is within their comfort zone, and that helps to increase confidence.
STEP 2: IDENTIFY FEARED OUTCOMES. Write down what you’re afraid will happen, if your feared situation actually were to occur. Be specific about the outcome that you fear, “I’m afraid of not being able to control my horse” is too vague.
- Rider #1: Horse might be excited by other horses. Might lose control of horse, fall off, be badly hurt, miss work, get behind on payments, lose farm. (Note: It’s not unusual to have many feared outcomes!)
- Rider #2: Trainer might get angry at me for not having horse under control. Could make me cry in front of him. Might be a start of another fight with spouse over whether I should keep horse.
- Rider #3: Might be criticized for not living up to previous performances, and feel inadequate. Might get stressed out trying to entertain “family groupies” and ride poorly. Might not win.
You may find this to be the most difficult of the 10 steps; many riders do, because it requires them to admit, or to acknowledge, just what they fear will happen. This requires soul searching, and the ability to look fear in the face, and can be a frightening experience. Current fears often trigger memories of previous fearful, unpleasant situations that we’d rather not remember. (Many riders tell me that their greatest fears aren’t physical fears, but emotional ones!) Nevertheless, without this acknowledgment, you may continue to keep your deep fears buried, and thus be unable to deal with them effectively.
Goal Setting: Basic Principles
Established properly, goals can provide you with a map of what you want to accomplish. For your goal to serve that purpose, state it in a way that achieves these objectives:
- Make your goal specific, and make it measurable. A goal such as “I want to be less fearful” is vague, and difficult to measure for progress; a better goal would be, “Each time I ride my horse in an open field, I will maintain control of him through proper use of my reins, legs, seat, and voice, just as I do during arena rides.”
- State your goal in positive terms, citing what you will do, not what you won’t do, or don’t wish to have happen. Otherwise, your subconscious mind may hear “don’t” as “do”, and you’ll end up doing exactly what you don’t want to occur.
- Make your goal realistic. For example, it’s unrealistic for you to expect to never experience fear; it is realistic to expect to learn how to manage fear.
- Put your goal in writing. The process of writing helps you to be specific and clear about just what it is you hope to accomplish.
[READ: Confidence Building Exercise]
STEP 3: DO A REALITY CHECK. Write down what you think are the realistic chances that each of your feared outcomes will occur.
- Rider #1: Current horse is difficult to control, so there’s reasonable chance he’ll run away with me out in the open. But he’s sure footed on narrow trails, so chances that he’d tumble over edge are low.
- Rider #2: Have ridden horse regularly at home since incident at trainer’s, and haven’t been bucked off, though horse has been difficult to control. So, it’s unlikely I’d be bucked off again at trainer’s, but control is a legitimate concern.
- Rider #3: Friends and parents have never said anything but encouraging statements about my performances, so it’s unlikely they’d express disappointment about future efforts. But since their presence always makes me anxious, chances of feeling stressed out at shows is high.
If you determined that chances of a feared outcome actually occurring are slim to none, this alone may reduce your fears. But chances are high that an outcome will occur, you’ll need to learn how to do things differently, in order to reduce the odds. For instance, Rider #1 could take steps to establish absolute control of her horse in an arena setting, before venturing back out into open fields. Rider #3 could reduce her show-time anxiety level by requesting that her friends and relatives not attend her events, until she’s able to ride without stress in front of the general public.
STEP 4: IDENTIFY YOUR “FEAR WORSENERS”. Write down what situations or occurrences make your fear worse, or heighten your anxiety.
- Rider#1: Riding in groups with unpredictable horses; slick, slippery footing on steep trails.
- Rider#2: Taking lessons when unfamiliar people are watching me; having my horse be a brat before I even get on him; riding after a bad day at work.
- Rider #3: Having my dad pressure me with “go for that blue” before a class; being in a class with big-name riders.
Knowing what’s made your fear worse is a key step, for two reasons. First, it enables you to identify things you can avoid doing, and second, it gives you a chance to try something different.
These ideas may seem obvious, yet I frequently see riders—especially motivated, determined ones—doing the same things over and over again, in the mistaken belief that trying harder will somehow make a difference. However, the answer simply might be that you need to ride only when footing’s good, to schedule lessons for non-work days, or to re-interpret your parent’s comment as support instead of pressure.
STEP 5: IDENTIFY “FEAR REDUCERS”. What, from past experience, have you found reduces your fear?
- Rider #1: Having time to longe horse before riding; riding during good weather, when trails are dry, and footing is solid.
- Rider #2: Nothing! I’ve never been afraid before, but now that I know I can be bucked off by my horse, the emotion’s got me paralyzed. But, I guess talking about my fear does help a little.
- Rider #3: Competing in events I know my horse and I are good at.
By taking this step, you give yourself a chance to build upon past successes, and to take proactive measures, such as building in enough time for pre-ride longeing, or being selective about the classes you enter. When it comes to you, you’re the expert; once you’ve identified your fears, you can use your known fear reducers to your advantage.
STEP 6: IDENTIFY “SELF-CARE” MEASURES. What things that you do to take care of yourself have a positive effect on your ability to deal with your fear/anxiety-producing situations? Include anything having to do with relationships.
- Rider #1: Clearing my mind of non-riding problems before I ride.
- Rider #2: Going for a brisk walk before I ride; discussing with my trainer what we should work on that day.
- Rider #3: Spending some time before I show, remembering all the details of my last successful ride.
Many people believe the answer to dealing with fearful situations is solely a matter of improving their “riding” skills. Yet what you do to take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally, has a direct effect on the level of riding success and enjoyment you’ll experience. Areas for you to consider include sleep, weight and flexibility training, aerobic exercise, relaxation techniques, dealing with non-riding issues that cause stress, and nurturing of relationships.
STEP 7: IDENTIFY EARLY WARNING SIGNS OF FEAR. How do you know when you’re afraid? Write down the physical signs/feelings/thoughts you experience.
- Rider #1: On nights before planned rides, I have trouble getting to sleep.
- Rider #2: Got a knot in stomach right before getting back on horse; now feel same knot whenever thought of riding lessons occurs; have nagging thoughts that perhaps I’m not ready to return to lessons.
- Rider #3: Mind and body both seem to be going 100 miles an hour; can’t sit still, want to grind teeth.
It’s important for you to identify the early warning signs or fear, because fear is easiest to deal with when it’s caught in the initial stages, rather than waiting until it’s full blown.
For example, it’s much easier to deal with a little voice in your head that whispers, “Do I really want to do this?” than with one that shouts, “You’re going to make a fool of yourself! Don’t take another step!” When your early warning signs kick in, immediately take action, by employing your fear reducers and self-care measures (identified in Steps 5 and 6), as well as by avoiding your fear worseners (named in Step 4). You also may wish to use some sort of further-study techniques I’ll highlight in Step 10.
[READ: Sit Securely to Counter Fear]
STEP 8: STATE YOUR LONG-TERM GOAL. What’s your long-term goal with your horse, as it relates to your fear or anxiety? (Note: Before you undertake this step, review the basic principles of goal setting on the previous page.)
- Rider #1: My goal is to be able to ride in a group of 20 or more riders, over terrain that includes open fields and narrow trails, while enjoying my horse, other riders, and my surroundings.
- Rider #2: My goal is to be able to ride in my trainer’s arena, and to feel confident and in control, regardless of what I attempt to do.
- Rider #3: My goal is to feel as confident riding in public as I do when riding at home, even if friends and relatives are there watching.
Your stated long-term goal serves as a marker to keep you on track. You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating: You can’t reach a destination unless you know what it is.
STEP 9: STATE YOUR SHORT-TERM GOALS. Write down short-term goals that’ll help you reach you long-term goal.
- Rider #1: Begin all rides with longeing sessions and “control check”; ride with close friend on narrow trails; lope across open field with complete control of horse; ride with two friends who have quiet horses on trail ride that includes open fields; etc.
- Rider #2: Call trainer to discuss horse’s at home behavior since arena incident; schedule appointment for trainer to come observe me ride horse at home; get program of exercises to improve control of horse; schedule lesson at trainer’s arena, in which I’ll only perform same control exercises; etc
- Rider #3: Show at non-rated show in classes I feel most comfortable in; only have best friend accompany me to non-rated show in which I plan to compete; ride in regular lesson with family watching; etc.
Short term goals are your stepping stones to achievement of your long-term goal. They should include regular, doable activities that move you in a positive direction; they should start out being relatively easy, then progressively become more demanding. The more steps you have, the better; by having numerous short-term goals related to dealing with your riding-related fears, you can feel good about each accomplishment, and keep yourself motivated and focused
STEP 10: PUT IT ALL TOGETHER.
Now, take a few moments to review what you wrote down in Steps 1 through 9. This will give you a better understanding of the “big picture” as it related to your fears, and may help you further refine your short-term goals. That’ll give you something you can begin to act upon today, in the process of managing your fear.
You also may wish to further investigate the field of sports psychology, either by consulting with a specialist in your area, or by checking out such resources as those listed in “Where To Learn More,” above. By learning how to employ such techniques as imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, mental rehearsal, breathing techniques, use of positive affirmations, and other cognitive and behavioral techniques, you’ll add even more skills to your “no-fear tool kit,” and will be able to conquer your fear, and ride on.
A licensed psychologist with over 25 years of experience, Doug maintains a private practice in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where he works with athletes, other individuals, and families. He’s the 1994 national champion middle weight endurance rider, and is the first man to have both ran and ridden the Old Dominion One-Day, 100-Mile race. He’s also the author of three 60-minute audiotapes that apply sports psychology specifics to riders. “I drew my riding nightmare,” says freelance illustrator Nobee Kanayama, a graduate of the Art Center, College of Design, in Pasadena, California. “It’s a psychological representation of how sharp fear can be, and how it can make adults curl into the fetal position.”