Step Your Way Out of Fear

A reader shares the plan that helped her overcome her anxieties and get back in the saddle.
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I was paralyzed. Doubt clouded my mind; fear buzzed through my body. I found myself startling out of sleep at night. There were days I dreaded getting out of bed because I knew the battle against fear would begin—and I’d be exhausted before lunchtime.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Deborah Linne The author with her gelding Compass.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Deborah Linne The author with her gelding Compass.

What terrible experience caused this anxiety? What frightful ogre? It was Compass, the the love of my life, a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse with a goofy personality and a foal’s baby face. Later I’d learn my 8-year-old gelding had been suffering painful back problems in silence for almost a year—before deciding one day that he’d had enough.

I hopped on him that day, not suspecting it would be different from any other easygoing Sunday-morning ride. Then, Compass pinned his ears, roached his back, and threatened to send me flying. As I felt the power and anger welling up in his body, I knew instinctively what a 1,200-pound bundle of muscle was capable of—and it terrified me.

Though I wasn’t launched out of the saddle that day, the threat of it launched me into a spiral of fear and self-doubt that took me months to overcome.Conquering that fear took determination and persistence. One tear-filled day, I decided that if I wanted to get back to living my passion, I was going to have to work for it.

Here’s what I learned in the process.

Feel It, Figure It Out
Fear is a cycle. Left unchecked, it multiplies, and before long you’re fearing the fear itself. Fear is a potentially valid, helpful emotion. When we face something we think might harm us, our bodies release a wave of hormones that revs our hearts, tightens our muscles, and accelerates our breathing—that well-known “fight-or-flight” response meant to keep us safe. This isn’t a bad thing if we acknowledge and validate the fear.

Fear becomes “bad” only when we don’t use it to determine what, exactly, is causing our distress, then find a way to move beyond it. I had to learn, for example, that just being near my horse was causing me fear. As often happens, even though the initial, legitimate danger had passed, my body was responding physiologically to something that was no longer a threat.

Follow Through
Make a plan to overcome your fear. I had to get my horse healthy again, so his back wouldn’t hurt; figure out how I could interact with him to build my confidence; and find people to help me work through my fear. Therapists, friends, co-workers—special animals all can contribute to a pathway back to confidence. Stress-reducing techniques such as yoga, centered breathing, and mindfulness also help.

For me, actually working the plan was the hardest part. I can jot on paper and chat all day about how I’m just going to “saddle up without even getting on” today, but even that little task seemed monumental when the moment arrived.

The solution? Break the steps down into their smallest component parts, no matter how silly or minute they seem. This week, just brush the horse. Next week, consider the saddle. My first few times up on Compass, I just sat there while my husband led him around. I felt ridiculous, like a preschooler on a pony ride. But it was something I could manage.

Have Faith, Keep Going
Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn from each setback, and commit to “failing until you succeed.” Ask yourself, as I did, “Is my fear more important than my passion?” If the answer is no, keep going.

How long will it take? I can’t tell you that, as everyone is different. But if you believe, if you sprinkle a little pixie dust on yourself and continue to make each little leap, eventually you will prevail.

Just yesterday I trotted on my horse at a pace that produced every fear response in me. Only this time…I was also giggling hysterically. I realized then my biggest fear had become my greatest freedom.

I was on my way, and with time and patience, you can be, too.

Deborah Linne of Fort Collins, Colorado, is an avid reader, writer, and horsewoman, with four children, three horses, and other animals.