Many riders all around the world suffer from a common ailment: fear in the saddle. This fear is often exacerbated by the faster gaits, or only appears at the faster gaits.
Many of my students explain to me apologetically that they struggle with fear but know they “need to get over it.”
I think there are many layers to this issue, and just telling folks to “stop being afraid” by practicing more is about as useful as telling someone in the midst of a panic attack to calm down.
Furthermore, many teachers of riding can’t empathize with fear (which is lucky for them, since riding is their job, and fear would be a large hinderance). Teaching a fearful student is something many teachers feel frustrated by because their students can’t just “get over it.”
Let’s examine some of the layers of fear in riding, as I’ve most commonly observed. There are countless, of course, but these are the observations based on my own experience.
1- many riders don’t get the benefit of learning to ride on educated, quiet, balanced horses. I don’t mean just the gentle older plunk at the school barn who shuffles along while you learn to post. I mean a horse who’s trot and canter are supremely balanced, and the beginning rider can learn what that balance in the upper gaits feels like while they gain their own bearings.
This is an incredibly rare experience for most of us. The most educated horses are reserved for upper level riding, and those at the beginning stages ride horses who just don’t toss people that often. So riders become accustomed to horses that are heavy on the forehand, kind of dull, and don’t learn to ride with balance, feel, and to have good timing. They learn to just survive on horseback.
Or worse, many riders with less experience are riding horses with little experience, too. This is a very troubling situation I unfortunately encounter quite often: someone who maybe does not realize the precarious situation they are in, on an uneducated horse, stumbling around in the woods together.
Of course in this instance, fear is 100% rational. This rider isn’t prepared to ride the erratic movements of the green horse, and the green horse is not prepared to be ridden by a newbie rider, and in many cases, is not prepared to be ridden by anyone.
- Many horses who are off balance are safer feeling at the walk, but at the canter become quick, worried, and unbalanced. The horse knows that falling is a risk, and they protect themselves through bolting, bucking, stopping quickly, etc. The rider fears these movements and tries to restrain the horse, exacerbating the problem. Many riders seem to intuitively know this, and therefore keep their work at the walk and trot, while feeling badly that their fear is the cause of limiting canter work.
- Instructors who don’t understand the root cause of this fear, or who can’t empathize with it, push fearful riders to practice more cantering. As well meaning as this is, fearfully practicing cantering does not produce relaxed cantering. As we know from our work with horses, just repeatedly pummeling them with fearful stimulus makes them a) more fearful, b) eventually shut down and c) not adaptable or trusting, because they are eventually forced to do what you want to get you to leave them alone. Students, too, need the empathetic training of building the necessary blocks of good riding basics and confidence, and cantering often takes care of itself.
- Accidents, spills, and wrecks. Along with the afore mentioned list, falls are the nail in the coffin. We’re hard wired to remember negative experiences for survival. Horses are this way too. If you had 10,000 good rides and one spill, you forever remember what lead up to that spill, and become deeply suspicious of similar conditions from then on. Understanding that, we can gently and carefully learn to re program our minds, along with the necessary tools to deal with that scenario again. If you fell off because your horse bolted at the mounting block, maybe 10,000 repetitions where you and your horse just learn to breathe together at the mounting block is exactly what you both need.
So how do you conquer your fear?
- Learn the basic and foundational and super duper duper important elements of a good seat. I can’t stress this enough. Get a good, balanced seat and never stop working on it.
It’s not always easy to find access to a school master, but if you can, jump on the opportunity! Taking lunge line lessons on a finished horse can do wonders for your confidence.
Don’t make excuses for your riding skill as if “I’m just a trail rider” or “I don’t show” were a reason to not ride well. Equitation will benefit your confidence, your horse’s confidence, and could save your life.
- Get a good instructor, a therapist, a sports coach, a life coach, or all of the above. Learn to teach your mind how to find a calm center, and learn to feel your horse. Learn to feel your horse’s movement, read expression, and build tools for responding , riding and guiding your horse with confidence.
- Don’t skip out on the training. If you had an accident, get help for your horse too. They can become deeply traumatized by a spill, even if they weren’t hurt. Find some help from someone who can bring your horse back to confidence and help you get back up there with confidence. Get your horse’s canter super balanced. Take all the time in the world. You may need to evaluate how suited for you your horse is honestly.
The cure for fear is honest assessment, preparation, a good seat, and a well educated horse.