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Fear of Riding?

Where riding-related fear comes from, how trust beats it, and how you can develop that trust.

Groundwork is an important part of building trust in your horse.
Photo by Cappy Jackson

Does fear keep you from enjoying your horse as much as you'd like? If so, you're in good company. We asked H&R readers, via two online forums, whether they ever grappled with fear issues, and the response was an overwhelming—and often perplexed and frustrated—yes!

"I'm a good rider on a good horse, and I'm still a nervous wreck," confided one reader. "My horse tosses his head or speeds up a little, and I have a panic attack."

From another: "It's as if I got into my late 30s and just lost my nerve. Now, I'm the one who spooks at the slightest hint a horse may shy. What happened to me?!"

Fearfulness. Among middle-aged women especially (more on that in a moment), it's widespread and often chronic. Left unchecked, it can drain away the pleasure our horses otherwise bring us.

We're going to explore what causes that fear, then explain how trust, plus the skills and knowledge you develop as you gain trust, can drive it away—for good. There's science behind the mechanism that enables us to become more confident; we'll explain how you can take advantage of it.

Ultimately, if you invest the necessary time and effort into developing a trusting relationship with your horse, you almost certainly can attain (or regain from your youth) the confidence that makes riding a joy.

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What Did Happen to Us?
Many factors can cause even once-bold riders to become fearful around horses. These include:

  • Wrecks. Especially if you're injured, the trauma of a horse-related accident can have a lingering impact on your confidence. You're prompted to think, "How many more of these do I want to have?" observes Edmund Acevedo, PhD, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's department of health and human performance. And the answer—zero—causes you to begin to hang back.
  • Empathy. Even if you've never had a wreck of your own, you're aware of others' mishaps, more so now than ever in this age of cyber-sharing. "By the time you're 50," notes Jack Lesyk, PhD, director of the Ohio Center for Sports Psychology, "you've seen people get hurt and heard of all sorts of things going wrong. You've been accumulating knowledge of the negative." And if you're empathetic at all, these mishaps can bother you almost as much as if they were your own.
  • Aging. We naturally feel more vulnerable as we age. "There are psychological and mental changes that begin to occur," says Lesyk. "Reflexes are not what they once were, and we're aware that bodies break and don't mend as well as before." Add to the equation your family responsibilities, plus that "‘having to go to work on Monday' reality," and you naturally become more guarded—and thus more prone to fear.
  • Gender issues. Women, in particular, are more prone to fearfulness as they age. "Many who never had phobias before may develop them when they get beyond 40," says Larry Beutler, PhD, a professor at Palo Alto [California] University's Pacific Graduate School of Psychology. "The cause may be partly hormonal, but it may also reflect a social pattern prevalent among women. They may retire early or not have worked outside of the home, and this lessened exposure to new environments may make them more vulnerable to fear." Women are also especially prone to osteoporosis (brittle bones), which may add to their other age-related fears of increasing vulnerability.
  • New data. Many of us grew up blissfully ignorant about head injuries. By contrast, "today we know a lot more about traumatic brain injuries in all different sports," notes Jeanine Moga, a social worker at the University of Minnesota's veterinary hospital. And, not surprisingly, "as we become more aware, we tend to become more cautious."

How Fear is Overcome
The causes of fear may be daunting, but they can be overcome, given enough effort over a sustained period of time. Your first step, say experts, is to reframe your fear. Rather than thinking of it as something that's holding you back and embarrassing you, regard it as a tool that enables you to identify the limits of your comfort zone, plus helps you stay safe as you work to expand that zone.

Think of it this way: You don't avoid driving a car even though you know that automobile accidents do indeed happen (a lot of them, in fact, every single day). You simply do everything in your power to drive safely and reduce your risk of a crash.

Your fear, then, can actually help you stay safe as you begin to learn how to overcome it. And your secret weapon in overcoming fear? The development of trust. Feelings of trust actually help drive feelings of fear out of your brain. We don't know exactly how this occurs, but a 2005 brain-imaging study at the National Institute of Mental Health discovered that the fear-processing circuitry in the human brain appears to be short-circuited by the brain chemical oxytocin—often referred to as the "trust" hormone. The brain scans revealed that this trust hormone quells the brain's fear hub, the amygdala, in response to fear-inducing stimuli.

So, by extension, the more trusting you feel of your horse, the less likely you are to feel afraid of him. Trust doesn't just happen, of course, the way, say, love might. You can love your horse to pieces, but still be afraid to ride him.

After you've done what's necessary to develop a genuinely trusting relationship with him, however, you'll have accomplished several things: instilled respectfulness in him, improved your human-equine communication skills, and learned how to predict—and deal with—his most likely behavior.

Reduced to an equation, it would be this: Trust overrides fear; systematic training + enough time invested = trust.

Posted in Basic Schooling, Beginner Rider, Behavior, General Training, Riding & Training | 6 Comments

6 Responses to “Fear of Riding?”

  1. myhorsetails says:

    I used to barrel race; now I am 62, have pretty bad back & hip pain so I can’t really “hang on” or cue with my legs. Seem to have less balance too. Also twice I have had a horse fall while trail riding; fortunately nothing broke, we were both fine but sore & bruised. My horse has done nothing wrong on the trails but I feel vulnerable & start to worry even when he starts shaking his head a lot, knowing I can’t hang on like I used to or get after him a little to behave. After reading this article, I will try doing more with him on the ground, try to build more trust in each other. I do lunge him quite a bit since I can only ride at a walk.

    • It helps to get to a pain specialist and make yourself more comfortable. The more you hurt, the more you fear hurting more. It’s a vicious circle.
      Knee pain and then hip pain almost stopped me riding. First I got a knee replacement, then several years later, a hip replacement. I’m 64.
      I trust my horse. He’s kind and very patient with me, but he’s still a horse, not Gandhi:-) Being in decent physical shape gives me confidence to continue riding and assume the risk.
      Always wear a helmet. A protective vest is also a good idea. Injury from getting dumped on the trail into a pile of rocks is mitigated by having a helmet and vest on your body.
      IMHO riding at the walk is excellent for both you and your horse. There’s so much you can teach each other at the walk: shoulder-in, haunches in, half-pass, leg yield, turn on the haunches, turn on the forehand, walk pirouette, the list goes on. Your horse becomes a better ride and you have much better control and communication. When and if you decide to take the next step into some trot work, the skills you confirmed at the walk carry forward.
      One last thing, and so very important I should have mentioned it first: find yourself a competent, patient, sympathetic instructor. Perhaps one whose specialty is Dressage. He/she can help immensely to overcome your fears. I always feel braver and more confident when I have my instructor helping me along.

  2. Judy Jordan says:

    I appreciate this article because I am needing to overcome my fear of being on trails. I was never afraid of riding trails until I bought my 5 year old gelding and experienced a mishap on every trail ride. My horse and I were a mismatch, because we were too much alike, not enough confidence. He needed a strong, experienced rider to instill confidence into him. We were fine together in an arena because it was predictable, no turkey, deer, strange shapes. I could ask anything I wanted there. I am close to 60 and because it took at least a week to get over most falls, I wanted to play it safe. He is with a new owner and a much older and quieter horse is looking better and better to me.

  3. Thanks for this article with many great ideas. Here’s a different kind of idea for those who are open to alternative, permanent methods to attain fearlessness in the saddle. Emotional release techniques have been used for years to completely clear the fear of both the rider and the horse. I’ve successfully used them on previously abused, shy horses at a rescue ranch, privately owned horses and a few riders, including myself (age 58) who’ve been dumped. I started using EFT: Emotional Freedom Techniques in 2002, but newer, faster methods have been developed since then. Best of all, you can teach yourself how to use them!

  4. lizzy says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who has fear while riding, I’m 64, still trying to trot, took along time to get my nerve up, because its a faster pace..the thought of a canter really scares me, my instructor/friend says its easier cantering….OMG..is she kidding, she is an excellent rider., and says the only way to do it is to practice practice, we do the ground work first, not a problem,,just the speed, and the bouncing! I have fallen several times in the past also..sometimes I think I’ll nerver achieve my dream…

  5. [...] fear comes from and how to overcome it, check out Horse & Rider’s online article, “Fear of Riding.” Tagged calm your horse, fear of riding, overcome fear, stay-calm exercise, timid rider | [...]

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