5 Fear Busters for Riders

Expert strategies to help overcome fear and restore your confidence--and sharpen your effectiveness as a rider.
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Expert strategies to help overcome fear and restore your confidence--and sharpen your effectiveness as a rider.

Practice your breathing technique at a standstill and at all three gaits. | Photo by Alana Harrison

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Is fear keeping you from enjoying riding as much as you'd like? Has a past trauma or the onset of middle age shaken your confidence in the saddle? Does your anxiety cause you to feel embarrassed or ashamed?

You're not alone. Dealing with fear is one of the most popular equine Q&A topics around, and it's nothing to hang your head about. Horses are big, strong, unpredictable creatures; as clinician and author John Lyons says, fear is often simply "common sense in disguise."

Whether the cause of your fear is real (a dangerous horse) or imagined ("what if" scenarios cluttering your mind), the fear itself is a clear indication you feel uncomfortable with the situation at hand--and that's something you need to address.

Here are five double-duty fear busters--they'll boost your confidence, plus help you become a better rider overall.

(And, for a look at the science of overcoming fear, see the May 2010 issue of Horse & Rider magazine. To order this issue or other back issues, call 877-717-8928.)

Fear Buster #1: Breathe for relaxation and focus.
How it works: Deep, rhythmic breathing calms and centers you. It's almost impossible to feel anxiety without holding your breath or breathing shallowly--the natural responses of fearful riders. Proper breathing also reassures your horse.

"How would you feel if your horse held his breath?" asks Sally Swift in her first book, Centered Riding. "Frightened, most likely. And that's the way he'd feel if you held yours. You can breathe a horse to quietness." And yourself to increased confidence.

How to do it: Practice, practice, practice so that your breathing is habitually steady, rhythmic and coming from your diaphragm--the muscle that crosses the inside of your body beneath your rib cage. If your abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe, you're using your diaphragm. If only your chest moves, you're not.

"Polish your breathing technique using a yoga or Tai Chi video," suggests Jessica Jahiel, clinician, author, and moderator of Horse-Sense, a popular online Q&A forum for horse owners. "Then, practice breathing properly all the time--at the table, at your desk, in your car, as you watch television. Do it whenever you're upset or angry or startled. Make it a habit to react to surprises with deep breathing." To remind yourself, post "belly breathe!" notes on your computer, dashboard, refrigerator, TV, tack box and other logical spots.

"In the saddle," Jessica continues, "practice at a standstill and at all three gaits. Find a rhythm that corresponds to your horse's strides and imagine that you're releasing any tension you may be feeling each time you breathe out."

Bonus benefit: As it does for any active sport, proper breathing will increase your ability to focus, concentrate and perform to the full extent of your skills and ability. (Plus, it's good for your overall health.)

Fear Buster #2: Reprogram your "trigger point" (that is, your response to fear-inducing situations).
How it works: By focusing your attention on something constructive, rather than on your fear, you're able to remain proactive, rather than simply reacting to the situation at hand.

"When something happens--say, your horse spooks--it triggers several automatic responses in the fearful rider," notes Peggy Macy Martin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in helping riders overcome fear and anxiety. "Your anxiety level rises, your pulse quickens, your breathing stops, your hands tighten on the reins, your body stiffens and may even hunch forward in a fetal crouch. By learning to trigger different responses instead, you reprogram yourself to remain confident and functional in situations you used to find frightening."

How to do it: The instant you feel something trigger your automatic fear responses, begin to substitute positive actions, recommends Peggy. "First, take a deep breath and grow tall in the saddle. Visualize the air sinking all the way down into your belly as you stretch your spine up.

"At the same time, direct your eyes on your riding goal--not down at your horse's head or neck. If you're riding a straight line, focus on an object directly ahead of you, to help you stay on track. If you're riding a bending line, look in the direction of your horse's movement," she says.

To help your brain accept these new responses (sitting up, looking ahead) in place of the old (clutching, holding your breath), try something innovative: Lift the toes of one foot, inside your boot, and set them back down, then do the same with your other foot, and continue this "silent toe tapping" in an alternating pattern until your anxiety passes.

"No one knows for sure exactly why this works, but 'bilateral stimulation' of this sort helps to dissipate emotional distress," says Peggy, who offers this kind of therapy in her own private practice (oakzanitaranch.com). "When you tense up out of fear, one part of your brain has hijacked the rest. Bilateral stimulation--in this case, alternating toe taps--can help break up the negative feelings, so you can program in your positive responses instead."

Bonus benefit: You'll be able to use this same reprogramming technique to quell pre-show jitters, making it easier for you to ride effectively in competition.

Fear Buster #3: Ride with intent, using a bend-and-stretch exercise to engage and relax your horse whenever his attitude or actions make you fearful.
How it works: By focusing your horse's attention on you and the task at hand, you keep him too preoccupied to be naughty, which, in turn, lowers your anxiety. "This approach is preferable to patting or caressing your horse to soothe him, which he may interpret as a reward for his fractious behavior," says Jessica Jahiel. "Instead, put him to work on an exercise that will relax him and, when he complies, then reward him."

How to do it: This strategy overlaps with #2. When you feel your horse tensing up, or you sense that he's about to, "sit tall, take a deep breath and continue to breathe slowly," says Jessica. "At the same time, ask your horse to bend smoothly to the left for a few steps, as though you were intending to circle left, then straighten him and ride him absolutely straight for one step, then ask him to bend smoothly to the right for a few steps, then straighten again, then bend left again, straighten and continue on in this fashion."

As your horse responds, praise him and give him more rein, to encourage him to stretch his neck forward and down. "This loosens his neck and back, which will relax him emotionally," says Jessica. (Note: This part of the exercise works best if your horse is wearing a snaffle bit.) "This strategy short-circuits the classic feedback loop--where your horse startles, which causes you to tense up, which makes him more anxious, which makes you more anxious, and so on."

Bonus benefit: You'll improve the coordination and subtlety of your cueing, and enhance your ability to feel and anticipate your horse's actions.

Fear Buster #4: "See" and speak success, using the proven methods of visualization and self-talk.
How it works: By replacing negative self-talk and mental images with positive ones, you reprogram your mind to make the most of the skills and confidence you do have. Then, over time, success begets success, and your confidence blossoms.

As licensed psychologist Richard Jontry points out, these types of mental skills are no longer considered "far out"--they're mainstream. "The U.S. Equestrian Team, professional athletes, and professional sports teams use these methods routinely," he notes. So can you.

How to do it: Start by identifying your negative self-talk--expressions (voiced or internal) such as, "I can't do it." "I'm afraid!" Or, "I'm going to get hurt." Whenever you catch yourself making such a statement say, "Stop!" and then offer yourself a positive message instead. According to Doug Lietzke, a licensed psychologist and endurance rider, effective messages are:

  • personal ("I" statements);
  • positive ("I'm strong and balanced," not "I won't get dumped");
  • present tense ("I know exactly what to do if my horse misbehaves," not "I handled him well yesterday");
  • and true ("I'm well-prepared and ready to ride," not "I'm the boldest rider in the world").

To make the most of your positive self-talk messages, use them whenever you think of it, as often as possible throughout your day.

For visualization, create a "mental video" in which you experience yourself riding the way you would like to. Equestrian performance coach Barbra Schulte suggests you begin by sitting in a comfortable chair, away from all distractions. As you listen to calming music (no lyrics) you've recorded in advance, tense and then relax each part of your body to bring on a relaxation response.

After about 3 to 5 minutes, your music should change to something you find powerful and stirring--perhaps the rousing soundtrack from your favorite movie. Let your emotions rise, then visualize yourself riding your horse boldly and with confidence. Imagine every detail of how you look and feel, using all your senses. Hear the wind in your ears as you lope a pattern. Smell the tanbark in the arena. Feel the warmth of the sun on your back. Above all, experience the exuberance that comes from riding without fear.

Ideally, "play" your video twice a day, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. With time and practice, you'll be able to call up the images from your video while you're riding whenever you need to replace nervousness with confidence and enthusiasm.

Bonus benefit: Once you've mastered self-talk and visualization to bolster your confidence, you can use these same tools to improve all aspects of your horsemanship, ease pre-show nerves, and perform your best in competition.

Fear Buster #5: Get physical, using strength and flexibility training.
How it works: By improving your strength, flexibility, and balance, you'll up your security in the saddle, which will bolster your confidence in your ability to stay safe.

"There's a direct correlation between balance and strength," says Terry Orcutt, a sports physiologist who was Team Horse & Rider member and reiner Al Dunning's personal trainer for seven years. "Moreover, a strong, fit rider is an efficient rider; she can relax and still be in control. A weak rider must use more muscles, has a slower response time, and sometimes over-responds to compensate.

"Plus, horses can sense strength, power, and control," he adds. "They know intuitively that a strong, fit rider means business. As a bonus, physically fit riders worry less about falling, because they know they're less likely to injure themselves if they do fall."

How to do it: Start small and build. If you begin by making abdominal crunches an every-other-day routine, you'll quickly notice a marked increase in your "body confidence" while riding.

"In the saddle," explains Terry, "your balance comes from your core muscles--your abdominals. If your abs are weak, your balance is compromised, which can lead you to be constantly over-correcting your position. Your horse can feel this subtle uncertainty in your posture, and he'll respond with uncertainty of his own."

Once you've made crunches a part of your life, add push-ups and gentle stretches. Then, you can expand your repertoire to include other strength-enhancing moves, using weights, resistance bands and/or exercise balls.

Your best bet is to work with a personal trainer for a few months to learn proper technique and develop a routine that matches your needs. But if that's not possible, plunge ahead anyway. There are countless books, DVDs, and Web sites to guide you. (Find many equestrian-fitness books and DVDs at www.EquineNetworkStore.com.)

Bonus benefit: Strong, fit riders are better riders--period. For one thing, their cues are more precise and effective. "It's the same as for any athlete," says Terry. "I once heard it said of a football player, 'He has very soft hands--because his hands are so strong.' It's identical for riders--strength enhances finesse."