Full Disclaimer: This is a long article. I know I have gone farther than the 5 second commercial with bright, shiny lights and dancing penguins, but this does at least have pictures. So go get your glasses and read on…at your own risk….
If the thought of walking out into the pasture, picking up a lead rope, or climbing up into that saddle fills you with dread or anxiety, you are not alone. Fear is a common emotion experienced by men and women and people of all ages. Some people experience it due to past experiences, others are just more prone to it than others.
I think sometimes people treat fear like it’s this horrible little monster eating away at your brain, but the truth is, fear is there for a reason. Horses can be dangerous, heck all of life can be dangerous. But fear is something that I think can be managed and balanced with knowledge and experience. Fear is a very valuable tool – it tells us when we are in over our heads, when we need to get out of a situation, when we lack the knowledge or skill to fill in at a certain moment. Fear was given to us for a reason, and can do wonders to keep us safe.
I also think our society is a bit obsessed with absolute control, and the need for it with horses leads to tension and anxiety based handling. Horsemanship is a bit more like an art form, with a few rules here and there we learn at the beginning, but as our skill level increases, it starts to blend and morph into something else all our own. It isn’t, or in my opinion, shouldn’t be, about total control, but creating this work of art with its own life. That means things change spontaneously and sometimes you go with the flow. Creativity and a relaxed frame of mind, or at least the search for both, help a lot here.
On the other hand, fear can become hard to control, and when it’s not balanced with healthy reasoning can make it really hard for the horseperson to continue learning, growing, or succeeding. Over the years I’ve had students with terrible, gripping anxiety who’d never had an injury in their lives, and students who were vulnerable, unbalanced, and accident-prone, and yet had no fear. I’ve wished I could extract a little fear out of some and give it to others at times, So how do we find the balance?
Here’s a few things to take into account when evaluating your situation:
1. What is your education like so far? Do you feel confident in your handling ability for the types of horses you are handling or wish to handle?
2. What is your physical situation like? Are you strong-ish, in shape-ish, healthy-ish? You don’t have to be Arnold Schwarze-whatever, but you should feel somewhat fit. At least fit enough to climb up into the saddle and flexible enough to get a leg over either side without terrible discomfort to start. Riding is a pretty athletic endeavor, and your fitness level should be matched to the type of riding you expect to do, and to the horse you expect to ride or are riding.
3. What is your understanding of horse behavior? If horse behavior and their lives is a totally mystery to you, spend some time learning about them. Read some books, ask questions, take classes, whatever. To safely maneuver around horses, you need some kind of understanding of what they think, why they do what they do, and how to predict what will happen next.
I am a huge fan of finding a good teacher to help along the way, and I don’t just say that because that’s my job. I am always looking for people more experienced and more knowledgeable than me to help keep me safe and improve my skills.
– Find a horse that matches your skill level and helps boost your confidence. If you are just learning about horses, please sell that 2 year old and find yourself a great schoolmaster. The years of success and confidence it will bring you will be well worth the price, and no matter how pretty the 2 year old is, the fear and lack of confidence you will both experience does not help either of you on your journey to a better education. Ride different horses and handle different horses under the eye of an experienced person who can help you through each situation to expand your knowledge and develop better timing. Challenge yourself but don’t go beyond your ability. If you are not sure how to find a good teacher, see my article here.
– Dedicate yourself to the practice of learning to handle and ride better. Knowledge and experience are some of the best confidence boosters I know of. It does not come quickly at one lesson a week, especially if you are older, unfit, or very nervous. Give it the time you need and be patient. Dont’ expect results immediately, but do expect to put some work into it. Do your research, excercise, and participate actively in your lessons. You can’t really ever pay someone for an education, you have to earn it.
-Learn to keep all your ducks in a row. Pay close attention to your environment, your horse, and what each are telling you. Don’t zone out, assume anything, or take anything for granted. Be in the moment. You can’t really enjoy the experience without being in the moment. One of my favorite ways to calm anxiety and bring myself back to the moment is to sit at the walk and feel each of the footfalls through my seat. Get someone to hold your horse for you if you want in a safe, enclosed space.
– Have a positive expectation for what you want to happen:
For example : I am going to get on my horse. I have everything prepared because I have been paying attention closely, and now I am going to calmly swing my leg up there and he is going to stay and wait for me.
As opposed to: what if he moves?? What if I fall down? What if a bird flies up at the last moment, what if what if what if??
What if’s are best met with preparation, knowledge, and then a good, deep breath or three hundred.
-And last but not least, my favorite and most important piece of advice:
If you are alone, lack the skill, lack the confidence, have gone too far over your head, are positive you are going to get in a wreck, or any other similar situation, put the horse up, go get a cup of tea, think for a bit, call your teacher or an experienced friend, and go back to it in a way that you can succeed. It’s not worth getting yourself hurt over.
Remember that fear can be healthy, but balanced with skill you can gain confidence. Challenge yourself, have fun, don’t stay in your comfort zone but don’t go too far. Easy right?? I’ll let you know when I’ve perfected a magic formula.
Til next time, easy riders.