All fear is relative. It’s kind of like the children’s saying ”to someone else you are tall.” Well, you can probably bet that to someone else, especially in today’s society, you’re often considered exceptionally brave if you’re riding a horse.
Plus, most horse sports — especially those that involve jumping or going across country — are by any modern cultural definition ”extreme sports.” They aren’t, at least to us, as extreme as bungee jumping, cliff diving or swimming with great white sharks, but they are extreme compared to watching TV, playing video games or even to playing baseball.
Fear is often irrational, meaning it’s not based on any experience. Instead, it’s the result of anticipation, a fear that something unpleasant or even painful may happen in certain circumstances. But whether a rider is afraid because of a certain experience or because of something they expect to happen, fear itself is not easily overcome. And it’s something the rider or their coach must deal with, often every time they put their leg over a horse.
Out Of Control
Among people who do ride, the most common type of fear is fear of falling off and getting hurt (especially if you have a family). It’s an absolutely normal fear, and something everyone (even steeplechase jockeys) experiences to some degree. On a scale of 1 to 100, a steeplechase jockey might be a 2 and a middle-aged beginner might be a 98. That’s why the former gallops to win races at 900 meters per minute several times a day and the latter might be happy to trot around a ring once a week.
Fear of jumping is probably the next-most-common fear. There’s a huge spectrum here, ranging from the paralyzing ”I’d never jump at all, ever,” to ”I won’t jump higher than 2’6” or 3 feet.” This is one reason why horse shows and horse trials offer a range of heights for entrants to jump, allowing you to move up, move down, or stay happily where you are.
But many riders harbor another fear, one that may be overtaking fear of jumping: fear of losing control of their mounts. One reason dressage has grown so quickly over the last couple of decades is that it it’s all about control of every aspect of the horse’s and rider’s mind and body. And that’s done in the comfort zone of a small ring.
Dressage and the other ring-bound horse sports are the most popular because they welcome riders who fret over guiding their horses anywhere not encircled by a fence. They’re anxious about being in the open, of going across the countryside, usually because they fear they can’t predict their mount’s reactions to stimuli and can’t control him.
Anxiety about riding in wide-open spaces has become ever more common as fewer and fewer people have access to anywhere to ride but a ring or small field, thanks to rising population, the necessity of suburban living, and landowners’ reticence about letting people ride on their property.
What Can You Do'
So, how do we deal with these common anxieties, other than buying golf clubs' The most basic answer is to simply ride more. Spend more time in the saddle; spend more time with your horse or other horses.
How do you get over your anxiety about anything' You do it, and you do it again and again until you feel comfortable and then confident. There is no magic bullet. If you truly want to overcome fear, you have to confront it.
But you don’t want to just confront it blindly, without a plan. It usually helps to break fear down into smaller, more manageable, less imposing chunks, and push slowly forward.
If you’re afraid of jumping, because you had a fall or just because you anticipate some kind of disaster, start with poles and low cavaletti (6” to 10”). Develop a feel for softening your hips and back to follow the horse as he elevates from the ground, even if it’s only to step over a rail. This is good for any rider participating in any kind of horse sport, because all riding depends on supple joints and secure, independent seats.
(For descriptions of specific gymnastic exercises, see our articles ”Gymnastic Exercises Can Improve Your Horse’s Performance” [March 2008, p. 18] and ”Rails Are The Building Blocks” [April 2008, p. 16].)
If you’re not afraid to jump, but you are afraid to leave the ring, start by walking around a smallish paddock, just around the outside of the ring, or down the driveway. You could do that alone or with a friend or your instructor. Or you could have a friend who’s a strong rider pony you as if you were riding a Thoroughbred at the racetrack. That way you’ll have assistance controlling your horse, and you can take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the ride.
If you’re afraid of falling, develop a stronger, more independent seat so that you feel more secure in the saddle. Ride without stirrups regularly; have your trainer or a friend longe you without stirrups and reins for few weeks or months.
This will increase your confidence in your ability to sit on a horse’s back, and it will develop your fitness and coordination, working toward the goal of an independent seat.
You can also work on your fitness, an important aspect of riding with an independent seat and, thus, feeling secure. Remember that riding is an athletic activity, and, like baseball, skiing, swimming or tennis, it requires strength, balance, practice and instruction to improve.
If you’re afraid of falling, another good exercise is to practice emergency dismounts at the walk — kick both feet out of the stirrups, lean forward to swing your right leg over the horse’s back and land on your feet, with knees bent, while still holding on to the reins. It’s basically falling off in balance, and you should be able to do it off the right side too. You could even do it at the trot or canter, if you have a trustworthy horse.
Rarely A Straight Line
Basically, you want to build your confidence by doing things you do well and building layers upon that — exactly how you train your horse (and yourself) to jump or to improve on the flat.
Remember, though, that working through fear isn’t usually a linear exercise. You often take three steps forward and two steps back if you have flashbacks or panic attacks because something you’ve done has hit a touchy button. This is especially true if your fear is related to a specific event or accident, like a fall over a certain type of jump. In those cases it’s especially important to be somewhat kind to yourself, to be prepared to accept that you may never be the same again.
And that’s why coaches need to think strategically while working with riders who are fearful. Coaches have to remember that fearful riders can become unglued by making certain mistakes — or simply by making any kind of mistakes. Mistakes can bring back bad memories or can convince anxious riders that they don’t have the necessary ability and that they ’re just an accident looking for a place to happen.
Another element in overcoming fear is having the most suitable horse to ride. This could mean dealing with the difficult subject of selling the horse to find the horse who not only won’t aggravate the rider’s fear (say, of bucking or refusing at jumps) or that will help them be comfortable with or overcome those fears.
Coaches should also think carefully about the exercises they plan for fearful students and set them up with care. They need to be as certain as they can be (considering that we’re dealing with horses here) that the outcome will be successful. They need to think carefully about how the exercise will build confidence in the student’s fragile brain, thus developing their confidence in their coach, which will in turn allow the coach to push them a little farther next time.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor, who has decades of experience in eventing, steeplechasing, dressage and foxhunting. He operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training facility in California. John was editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years and has written two books: ”John Strassburger: The things I Think Matter Most” and ”George H. Morris: Because Every Round Counts.”