I’ll admit it, I’m a nervous rider. Sometimes I’d like to pretend I’m not, sometimes I’d like to forget my fears, but unfortunately, ignoring the problem really doesn’t lead to a solution. When a horse shies, or bolts, or spooks, or even occasionally gets a bit excited and speedy, I panic. I clench, grab up the reins, am unable to think, and typically hold on for dear life until I can manage to stop the horse.
I can’t say for sure when this issue developed, or the exact cause, but over the years it seems to have gotten worse. I’ve had a few particularly nasty falls in my riding career, but they have been few and far between, and don’t compare to some of the stories I’ve heard in my many years in the equestrian community. My fear doesn’t extend beyond the saddle either, I have no issue dealing with unruly and wily horses from the ground, it really doesn’t faze me. When in the saddle though, well that’s a whole different issue.
Recently I’ve switched riding disciplines (from hunter/jumper to dressage), switched barns, and switched the type of horse I’ve been riding. It was a big change, and it’s been a steep learning curve, but a beneficial one. Simply because I’ve finally had to come face to face with, and finally start working to overcome, my riding fears.
I think that’s been my problem up to this point, and I’m sure it’s a situation many other riders have faced. For many years my fears were simply placated because, when coaches discovered my nervous habits, I was given the slow and studious lesson horse that wasn’t going to cause problems. While at the time I thought this was fabulous, I now realize that this really wasn’t helping this issue. Since switching to the barn I’m at now, I’ve been riding horses that would be traditionally labelled ‘hot’.
The mare I started with was quite the learning experience. She was a bit stubborn, and while not necessarily malicious in nature, she’d butt heads with you on occasion, fight you in the saddle, and would occasionally spook, sidestep, and throw out a small buck or even a small rear. For a confident rider, these minor issues were easily dealt with and avoided, for a nervous rider like me, it was unpleasant. I was always nervous, preparing for the worst, and it had a significant effect on my riding. I was trying to learn a new discipline, an entirely new way of riding and kept hitting a wall simply because when the mare spooked I’d freeze up, causing her to spiral into a worse episode of panic. Now, almost a year later I am glad for the experiences I went through while riding this mare, because after riding her for months I soon learned how to not only predict a moment of spookiness, but was able to more calmly (and productively) deal with the issue.
For a while though, it was definitely a challenge, but it was simply because I had never been properly taught how to deal with and ride through those types of episodes. In the past I was simply allowed to ride horses that I was comfortable with, never giving me the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone. While I understand the reason why this happened a lot (I was happy, it was safer etc etc etc), I feel there really is a need to push students to break out of that zone of comfort and learn how to deal with the episodic outbursts that can happen while riding. Being properly equipped with the skills to deal with rearing, bucking, spooking (etc), not only means for a safer ride (for horse and rider) but it just instills so much confidence in the rider, and makes learning much easier. Horse spook, they freak out at shadows, at birds, at the sound of the wind, it’s in their nature. Yes some horses are more prone to it than others, but even that fat and plodding pony can still have a moment where he turns tail and heads for the hills, and if you’re not ready (if you don’t have the skills to cope with and resolve the issue), not only can injury occur, but it’s going to lead the development of fear.
Now I regularly ride a lovely old gelding who, while typically considered an ‘easy’ ride, spooks and shies at just about everything if he gets the chance. Coloured flags and banners on the arena wall, creaks and groans of the building, sunlight, dirt kicked up by his hooves, everything is an object of terror. While for some this may sound like a frustrating ride, I’ve actually come to love him and his episodes because I’m learning to be a far more assertive rider. I’m learning to ignore my own fear and push him past his. While I am by no means cured of my riding fears, they are slowly becoming less prominent. With time (and trust) I’m learning that if I sit deep, use my strength and stay focused I can move beyond those fearful moments and make something productive of an experience that used to leave me unable to function (or eating dirt).
While this approach may not work for everyone, I feel like sometimes you have to challenge yourself in the saddle. By simply accepting the state you’re at you’ll never progress, never learn something new. Sometimes when I’m dealing with horse that is running from his own shadow, or being flighty because the snow coming of the roof is causing an awful ruckus, I still get nervous and tense up, but I’m getting a lot better at letting go and not focusing on the scary stuff. When it’s over I can look back and be proud that I tried to push past it, tried to deal with it, and have come out of the experience with strategies for dealing with that situation (when it happens again, cause we all know it will), in a far more productive (and calm) manner.
Clearly facing your fear (no matter how unpleasant it may be at times), is far more effective than avoiding it. Not to mention moving past it is a huge confidence boost!
So to all those other nervous riders out there, you’re not alone, and with time and the right support (having a great coach and a great horse to ride always helps), that fear can be overcome. It’s amazing what you can achieve with a little determination, and how great it feels to realize that you’ve helped your horse get past his own fears by dealing with your own. I’ve found now that I am less fearful, I pay less attention to the things that caused the horse I ride to spook, and now he tends to spook a heck of a lot less.