Horses have their own gravity. If you’ve loved them in the past and been pushed away because of an injury or accident, it’s possible you’ll be drawn right back to their beautiful, sleek, powerful sides. Gravity pulls you back even if your worries or fears make you wonder why, even when our biological responses to fear tell us not to go back to a dangerous situation. Here’s a look at why I think horsemen want to overcome the very natural fears that enter in after accidents with horses.
I often wonder why we want to be around horses when horses step on your feet, bite, kick, and buck you off. Have you ever had your foot stepped on by a horse? Been bitten? Been kicked? Have you ever fallen off or gotten bucked off your horse? Have you ever started out on a ride and ended up at the Emergency Room? I ask these questions to rooms full of horse people and just about all raise their hands.
Why do we do this? Gravity. Horses have a power to draw us in, make us learn from our mistakes and prompt us to keep trying.
I do hope that you are never hurt by horses—physically or physiologically. I do believe that if you are conscientious, systematic and methodical about safety, the chances of getting hurt are greatly reduced. I’ve worked with many large riding operations through the Certified Horsemanship Association (a nonprofit organization focused on horsemanship safety and excellence) and seen many of them that have almost zero incident rates. That’s not luck— that’s by design. But I realize accidents do happen. Horses are powerful beings with their own minds and strong bodies.
Let me go on record here: I DO NOT believe that getting hurt should be an expected or accepted outcome with horses. I DO believe that most, if not all, accidents are preventable and no matter how wild and unpredictable we think horses are, if you really analyze an accident, you’ll find a way you could’ve prevented it. I know for myself that when I look at the horse wrecks I’ve been in, they all started with me doing something stupid or going against that little voice in my head that tried to warn me.
Still, even when we make a commitment to safety, things happen. Horses are big and flighty animals and it’s a given that bumps, bruises and scrapes will happen–even in the best of circumstances. And when you are perched on top of a half-ton of live and somewhat volatile horse flesh with a balance of its own and–more significantly–a will of its own, you will on occasion have an unscheduled dismount. I’ve sure had my share, but fortunately I’ve never had more than a few broken ribs to contend with. But that was enough to mess with my head. With my chosen profession and my love of horses, I had to work through the worry.
Biology of Fear
I’ve known plenty of riders who have had incidents with horses that resulted in serious injury– I’ve heard stories that are so horrific that I wonder why the person would ever want to ride again. But amazingly, they do. Gravity.
Our hard-wired biological responses after a traumatic event can be hard to overcome, but overcoming is possible. Our love of horses makes us want to overcome. When an accident or injury occurs, a “fear memory” is lodged in your mind; it’s purpose is to remind you of this injury so it doesn’t happen again. Fear memories are supposed to prevent us from doing a stupid thing again, like reaching out and touching a hot wood stove. But when coming back after a riding accident, sometimes fear memories get in our way of hopping back into the saddle.
Fear memories can not be deleted, but you can learn to manage them. If you were bucked off and hurt one day when you asked your horse to canter, the next time you canter (or even think about it) that fear memory will surface— it’s a biological fact. So don’t let it surprise you and don’t let it take control. Expect the fear memory to surface and have a plan to keep it at bay.
I think it is really important to “intellectualize your fear” after an accident. When enough time has passed and you have healed both physically and emotionally, it is important to thoroughly analyze what happened. What went wrong and what you might have done to prevent it from happening?
Learning from your mistakes and understanding the situation better should help diffuse your fear. If, for instance, you ignored an earlier warning sign, then you can make up your mind to never do that again. Knowledge and understanding of how an accident may have been prevented—and establishing concrete actions you can take in the future to prevent a repeat–will lead to more confidence.
Fear is a powerful emotion and it is generated from a subconscious part of the brain. But you can learn to control your fear. It’s not always easy; it’s something you have to work at, but it can be done. Coming back after an accident will require some work and self-discipline on your part, but I know many, many people who have done it. Their love of the sport, the way of life and the love of their horses seems to drive them to face that fear and create a plan to overcome.
Answer this: Why?
After you’ve had an accident or mishap, it is critically important that you do some serious introspection to determine why you are doing this horse thing. Why are horses important to you and why do you want to keep riding?
These are not easy questions to answer but the answers are critically important to your comeback. You have to decide if horses are pulling you back. You have to know if you are being pulled by their gravity or just think you “should” ride again.
“Why?” is always the most difficult question to answer; how and what are much easier. But there are reasons why you are committed to coming back to riding and it is important to get in touch with those reasons, because of this simple fact: purpose leads to courage. If you can really come to terms with why you want this so badly, then you remind yourself of that purpose when things get tough, your purpose will give you courage.
Plan of Action
Your fear can come back to you like gravity just like your love of horses. Fear has a way of finding its way in—especially if you don’t have a plan to subdue it. When coming back after an accident or injury, it is important to practice mental control. Know that your fear memory will surface— don’t let it take you by surprise or dictate your actions. Your thinking, your body language and your emotions are all connected: mind, body and spirit. When the emotion of fear takes over, your mind devolves into negative “what if” thinking and your posture starts to reflect the emotion too.
Here is the secret key to overcoming your fear– keep your mind operating in a proactive and positive way (plan ahead of time what you will think about or what song you will sing; disallow negative thoughts and replace them quickly). If you think of falling each time you mount up, make a list of all the wonderful rides you’ve had and focus on those memories. Feel those wonderful rides. Make that memory a reality in the present. Make sure your body language shows confidence (sit up straight, square your shoulders– look tough!). By keeping control of the mental and the physical aspects of your being, the emotion doesn’t stand a chance.
A recap and to-do list: Analyze what happened to cause your fears, know what lessons can be learned and make a commitment to safety. Gain a better understanding of why you are doing this; the ‘why’ is your purpose, your “gravity. ” Purpose leads to courage. Finally, make sure you have a plan of action when you ride: practice deep breathing, keep your eyes focused and your mind engaged in a positive direction, and keep your body language strong and confident.
You can do it! I hope your love of horses pulls you back to the fun of the sport.
Julie, Wow, was I ever glad that this very article was the first one of yours I read after “liking” your page, here on FB. I am 51 (newly turned, TYVM) and have always loved horses but never really, REALLY ridden until a few years ago. I took lots and lots of lessons and got to the point where I thought I was ready to lease a horse. I leased the lesson horse I had been riding at a very nice barn here in north Dallas. He was a beautiful, 9 year old, quarter/Arabian and a bit headstrong. could be a bit snotty during lesson time but when one on one in the arena, we clicked like butter. One evening he bolted (after one of those rogue thunderbolts/claps that come with late afternoon, late summer storms) and I could not get him to stop. In the 10 seconds it took to make a turn in the arena, I had visions of myself either flying over his head when he stopped at the other end or or him bucking me into the stands. So, I “let myself off”. I thought I had no other option, I could not get him to stop. Boy did it hurt like heck. Nothing broken except my pride and my spirit and I was scared to death to get back in the saddle after that….now, I have processed, I know I should have listened to that voice that said, ‘hmm, thunder in the distance, you better get off now before it gets any closer”, but we were doing so well and I wanted to go around that arena just ONE MORE TIME. UGH. Now, back to it, 51, I miss riding, I ain’t getting any younger, so researching barns in the area. I hope to one day own my own horse with a little bit of acreage somewhere. Sure I will be nervous to step back in the saddle, but, honestly, I can hardly wait til that day when I hear the “squeak of leather” again. Music to my ears. 🙂
Thank you for posting this article. It’s comforting to know that I am not alone in my addiction to the love of horses. I bought my first horse eight years ago at 53 because I thought he was cute… I’m sure many dominate horses wear this disguise to win over beginners. Needless to say, I have been charged at, stepped on, bucked off and bitten. I’ve had broken bones, bulging/herniated disks yet never blamed this horse for my ignorance. Every time I mount him I breath as deeply as possible, try to think happy thoughts but still succumb to the fear of my last fall, laying flat on my back looking up wondering where his next hoof will land.
I have been through this cycle several times following different crashes from more than one horse over the past 15 years (when I started riding again-and I’m 66 now). I found your CD very helpful, with similar ideas to your current article. I’d listen to it in the car on the way to the barn. I decided that riding was too important to my joy in living to just stop, which meant that I had to deal with the fear. The idea that was most helpful to me was to take on starting to ride at my own pace and only where I felt safe and comfortable, and ignore what anyone else thought I should be doing or feeling. As I regained a little confidence, I’d try a bit more, and each success built on what I felt comfortable doing. I also passed my horse on to my husband when we were ready to get a second horse (we had shared him for years) and looked for and found a really well-trained, mature and solid horse who is willing to try almost anything. My husband’s older gelding looks to her for confidence in a new situation. Thanks for supporting all of us who deal with this issue.
I’m reading this at the perfect moment. I’m 60 and have had my horse only about 8 months. He’s my forth horse but I haven’t ridden much in the past 15 years so I asked a friend to ride him first before I got on. He bolted with her and now I’m very scared to get on him. I would rather give up riding than give up this horse, and I’ve serioiusly considered it. We do a lot of ground work and clicker training for fun, and I might try agility with him. If I never ride him it would be sad, but giving him up for another horse, who could still stumble or go into flight mode or get stung by a bee etc., like what others have described. seems worse to me. For the rider above who is thinking about giving up her horse, maybe she is in the same boat and can find another way to enjoy her horse.
Thank you so very much for posting this. I think that fear of riding should be spoken about and addressed much more than it is. I truly appreciate your sharing your insights and encouragement with us.
THANK YOU JULIE! it is articles like these that helped me so much last year after an accident…which hurt my confidence a lot more than my body!
I appreciate you spelling out all of the emotions….and solutions….and from my accident last year I also learned that although basically my lack of attention and balance caused my fall (from a spook at the walk)….I really hadn’t felt a match with that horse.
My old horse helped me to re-gain saddle confidence and although not looking for another…. a little miracle happened and a super 8 year old mare came my way. My trainer helped me work through the first “suspicious” rides I made on her….and after almost a year now, I think we have a pretty good trust going between us. There are always new things to learn….and…I have since subscribed to Julie’s Horsemaster video series….which re-assures me that I am not the only one going through similar issues.
THANKS AND GOD BLESS YOU JULIE !!!
Thank you for the wonderful article. Personally I think some ppl are hard wired to be horse crazy, just as there are ppl who are instinctively afraid of horses..for no discernible reason. I do NOT enjoy falling off (especially now at 52, don’t bounce at all), however it does happen. Like you said, if I analyze why, it is usually something I shouldn’t have done or as I have gotten older, physical challenges I have. Giving yourself a chance to heal mentally and physically is extremely important. Remembering to breathe and taking it slowly after one of these falls helps me re-gain confidence. Working with your horse on the ground also helps.
Thank you so much for writing about fear. I am 57 years old and own a wonderful Icelandic gelding. He bolted on me on the trail – I did not fall off nor was I injured but I had visions of disaster as it was happening! I have not been able to conquer myfear of going back on the trail with him since. All of your thoughts and guidance on conquering fear is so helpful! Thank you!
I went off my horse and am still healing fracture of pelvis. I know I want to ride . But also know its going to take a lot of ground work and the help of my trainer to do this.
Thanks Julie. You have really great information on fear. Your CD is excellent too. I thought I’d pass on a few things that have helped me. I’m 62 years old now and have osteoporosis. That has gotten me more fearful of a fall. I decided to sell my custom saddle and buy an Aussie saddle-one with a very deep seat. This has boosted my confidence tremendously. I also bought a protective vest. I have been wearing a helmet for years. In saddle shopping, I talked to a younger person who used an Aussie saddle to get her confidence back after a fall, then went back to English once she felt more confident again.
Thank you Julie. I have a sweet Mustang who would never do anything to endanger his rider. He was spooked by idiots shooting deer rifles which sent him into flight mode and left me with serious injuries. Not having health insurance this devastated me financially, which is the major part of my fear in riding again. These idiots with guns are everywhere and there are no safe places to ride in the entire county. I cannot risk losing everything again to one of these target shooters until I can get heath coverage again. Then I will definitely use your suggestions and get back in the saddle, with a few songs in mind, and overcome this. It really helps to have a plan of action to deal with the fear. Thank you for addressing this topic!
All through the summer I am usually alone on my trail rides. After being run away with and bucked off by my mustang numerous times over the years, I took to singing the song “Whenever I feel afraid,” from The King and I to soothe nerves whenever they arose. The words and tune always perked me up and distracted me. And made me happy. When I’d reach the part where I had to whistle, my horse loved it. It made us both glad to be out and got us through the cycles of nervousness which were making us both anxious.
Interesting concept of “gravity”…I guess it’s true…I’ve been riding since 6 years of age…took a break for about 10 years…got back to it at the age of 52…too funny just had to get back again. Took a couple of spills but in all my life have never had any thing break…even recently at 56.
Of course people get too comfortable I think and forget the possible danger that might occur so then, guess what…accident…but all in all there is something that draws me back and I still continue but do ride with a helmet now.
I have managed to stay in the saddle when my horse rodeos – so far – but the fear that I won’t always be that lucky keeps me on edge. I want to help her work through her fears, too, which isn’t easy if I’m not cool and calm. Thanks for the suggestions!
thanks Julie! my horse and I had a terrible accident and I had to have a plate put under my eye…lots of broken bones in my eye socket…..my life saver was hypnosis…it worked! after two years of trying to ride without help I did the hypnosis…best thing I ever did…thanks julie
Thanks Julie. I recently went over my horse’s when we both lost our balance with some pvc poles on the ground. The butterflies and racing heart are there as I mount and first start to ride. Music soothes the soul,never thought about singing a song or listening to music. Time to recharge my I-pod. Thank you.
Thanks Julie, a great article. I have been bucked off my horse about 8 times in the 7 yrs that I have had him. The last time was a little over a year ago. Because of wearing a helmet, thank goodness I have never been hurt badly. But the fear is there still when I ride. I recently started back riding him again (he and I both had health issues) and it has been 14 mos since I rode. Now I try to hum a song while I am on him which keeps me breathing and seems to calm both of us. Thanks again for all your great advice.
Thanks for this post. I fell off my horse at the lope of all things. One thing led to another and off I went. I have loped a couple of times since but its been a while.my body seems to have a mind of its own and I just can’t seem to make it ask for the que. Fear is a terrible thing…this article has helped put things in perspective. Thanks!!
I fell off my horse while he was cantering. He stumbled and down I went! I fractured my pelvis and since then I’ve been afraid to canter I can trot with no fear. But, I just can’t get over my fear. Not sure what to do thought of selling my horse and stop riding. I’m 59 and have bad bones anyway. The thought of not riding anymore is sad. Thanks for listening!
What about just trotting? That’s what I have been doing for years (I’m 57) and last week I finally got up the nerve to canter on my new horse and it has been wonderful. But you can still enjoy horses without cantering, can’t you? I totally agree with Julie to ask yourself why? If you can live without riding, by all means sell your horse. But me? I ride because I can’t imagine life without my horse. And if I could never bring myself to canter again, I would still ride, even if just to walk out on a sunny trail.
I hear you Kimberly. I’m also 59 and started riding again after a fall that fractured my left humerus and frozen my shoulder. I also had issues with a twisted pelvis (from injuries not related to riding. One thing I’ve learned is make sure that your body is balanced and strong on both sides of your core. Physical therapy (specifically myofascial release) has made a real difference and my confidence shot way up. Now I’m cantering for the first time and loving it. Hang in there!
Kimberly, you say you have bad bones. Have you ever heard of the saying, “As you wish?” Claim strong and healthy bones and body. Your mind is a wonderful thing. Enjoy your passion, you have it for a reason. The positive energy your horse gives you is a healing balm:) p.s. look up ‘as you wish’, it is a free book on line and might just change your life:) xoxo