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.
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.