Fear of Riding Horses… what causes it and how to overcome it

Fear. Anxiety. Dread. Not words that you want to associate with riding, but there is no doubt that these feelings come up for most of us at some point in our riding lives. I know that there have been numerous times in my life that a bad experience made me down right scared to get back in the saddle. Anxiety is something I see many of my students struggling with as well, and I want to help, because as I have said before, riding should be fun. We don’t pay all kinds of money for riding equipment and horse care, and go out to the barn in the rain and the howling wind, shovel manure, and get covered in horse hair if we didn’t enjoy riding. But when fear becomes a constant, the fun can get sapped right out of horses and riding. Let’s be honest, when you get anxious around horses, bad things start happening. Even if you are great at hiding those internal butterflies from your fellow riders, your horse is picking up on them every minute. Some horses are steady eddies and won’t be affected by your nerves, but most horses will pick up on your nervous energy and start looking for whatever you are afraid of. A nervous rider quickly creates a nervous horse and the combination is not fun for either.

But before you completely condemn your anxiety, consider this- fear can be good, it can be healthy. What I mean by this is a little anxiety now and then probably just tells you that you are growing as a rider. New challenges will stir up the butterflies, and as you get comfortable with the new skill, they will quiet down again.

I love this quote from Jane Savoie, “Fear means you’re growing. Every time you stretch yourself, aim a little higher, or take a risk, you’re going to experience some anxiety. So fear itself is not the issue. Fear doesn’t make you a coward. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. Fear only becomes an issue when it paralyzes you and prevents you from doing something you really want to do. Besides, if you’re not afraid at times, it just means that you’re not stepping out of your comfort zone and living big enough.”

There is another instance where fear can be healthy. Fear may be your intuition keeping you safe. If you are truly pushing too hard, too fast, fear could be your own inner voice telling you to slow down before you get hurt. Riding horses can be dangerous, there is no need to dance around that fact, but as riders we have acknowledged that risk and continue to participate in the sport, so you need to know your own limits and have the courage to challenge yourself without going so far as to set yourself up for failure. That can be a fine line, and an issue where you need to consult logic and listen to your gut at the same time.

Let’s switch gears now and talk about the kind of anxiety that holds you back. This is where you obsess over the same worst case scenario over and over. You feel anxious doing things that used to be comfortable. You worry constantly and read into everything that happens as being negative. This is the kind of anxiety that you need to acknowledge for what it is – unhealthy. Unhealthy anxiety can usually relate to something else that is happening in your personal life. This is one of the best things about interacting with horses – they can tell us a lot about ourselves. Here are some of the most common underlying reasons for unhealthy anxiety that I have either experienced myself or talked about with my students.

Need to be in control – when you work with horses, you need to let go of always being perfectly in control. You are working with and riding on top of another being that has its own feelings and emotions. There are going to be moments when you are not in control and things do not go as planned. Learn to be ok with it because it will happen. Go with the flow. If you were looking forward to working on the collected trot but your horse is spooking in the wind, it’s ok to spend the day working on your walk circles.

Lack of Self – Confidence and Assertiveness – If you have trouble being assertive with friends or co-workers when it is needed, you may also have trouble telling a thousand pound horse to back up and get out of your space. Having “presence” around horses plays a huge part in how well you will be able to handle them, from the ground or the saddle. A person who experiences a lack of assertiveness is also often the type of person who dislikes conflict and wants everyone to just be happy. This usually comes from a place of caring and is a great personal quality; however, when working with horses, there are times when you must set boundaries and correct bad behaviors. By doing this you will have a much better relationship with your horse.

Dwelling on the Worst- Case Scenario – Yes, people have died or been seriously injured in horseback riding accidents. We both know that, but it will not help your anxiety levels to spend time looking for these stories and then re-enacting them in your own mind with your own horse. Visualization works both ways, it can help you focus on positive outcomes, or it can drive you crazy replaying what could happen. Plus, the worst case scenarios we read about are freak accidents. If you stopped participating in everything that had a possible bad outcome there wouldn’t be much left to do. Driving would certainly be out and it’s not half as fun as riding astride a horse.

Stress – In today’s fast paced lifestyle, many of us experience stress on a daily basis, but cumulative stress has many negative impacts on our bodies. Stress not only increases your risk of developing known medical conditions such as high blood pressure and ulcers, but it also keeps your muscles tight and your mind racing. This is something you want to focus on managing daily, not just when you come out to the barn. It is impossible to remove all sources of stress from your life, so instead focus on how you can better react to those stressors. For me, the first step to reducing stress is to relax my body. It’s hard to calm the mind when your muscles are still tight. I go out for a walk or run, or just focus on breathing, which we’ll talk more about later!

While those may be the top four I have noticed, there are many more causes of anxiety, I would challenge you to take a critical look at your own anxiety, when and how it shows up, and where it may be affecting other areas of your life.

Now it is time for the good stuff! What are some strategies that we can use every day to dissipate anxiety and relieve stress? This is actually a topic that I have learned a lot about in the business courses I have taken in the past year. There are several strategies that helped me a lot when I applied them to my riding. I also wanted to go deeper on this so last month I met with Tina L. O’Conner, MS, NCC, a professional and licensed counselor. She shared many new strategies with me and will working more with CRK Training, but more on that later!

For the sake of not being too long winded, here are my top three strategies for relieving anxiety. Breathing is number one for me, and when I say breathing, I mean deep, diaphragmatic breaths that pull the air down and expand my stomach. Counting 1,2,3,4 as you breathe in, holding your breath for the same 4 count, and then exhaling can have a very calming effect.

Second, I use a lot of positive visualization. I picture what I want to happen and how I will smoothly handle an undesirable situation. P.S. this helps a lot from a performance aspect too!

Third, any exercise to practice mindfulness will bring your thoughts back to the present and can stop the negative chatter in your mind. To be with the horse, you must get out of your head and into your body, so you can feel your own emotions and those of the horse. To help with this, make a point of thinking about what you are doing – what are you feeling, smelling, hearing, and seeing? Spend a few moments reflecting on each one to get yourself back in the present moment.

I sincerely hope that this post will help you understand your own anxiety and identify the root cause. I only scratched the surface of how to relieve anxiety and work through fear because there will be another post dedicated to that… actually it will be a video interview with myself and Tina – she has worked as a counselor for many years and is truly an expert at working through anxiety issues. The interview will be posted soon, maybe even next week, so stay tuned!

Until then, leave a comment and tell me – when do you get nervous around your horse, what do you do to relax, and what do you think is the underlying cause of your anxiety? I will go first and share that I get nervous when I feel as though a horse’s mind is “blown,” when they are at that point that they have no regard for even their own safety. At this point, I believe this is a healthy fear, because a horse in this state can be very unpredictable. However, I have also experienced my share of unhealthy anxiety in the past, mostly due to feeling stressed and taking that feeling with me to the barn. Fortunately, I have learned many ways to reduce the stress I feel in my own life and I look forward to sharing more with you soon!

See you in the comments,

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