Question: I’ve had a couple horse accidents and now have some fear issues I’ve never had to overcome before. How do you help people through their fear of horses and riding?
Answer: Some level of fear around horses is perfectly normal and to be expected. After all, they are 1,000-pound animals capable of spontaneous violent reactions at any moment. Fear is actually a good thing; it is a survival response that keeps us alive. Everyone has a fear of horses on some level, but when that fear begins to impact your enjoyment of horses, it is time to get some help.
Riding instructors everywhere are faced with fearful students, whether we recognize it or not. Whether you teach children or adults, beginners or advanced riders, recreational or competitive riders, fearfulness in riders is quite common in all arenas. One thing I have noticed from teaching Fear Management clinics all over the country is that people struggling with fear issues come in all shapes and sizes. You will find fearful riders in all categories of age, gender, ability level, profession, experience, education and training.
When dealing with fearfulness around horses, whether it is in your students or in yourself, it is important to go through a process that allows you to understand the origins of your fear, recognize the signs and symptoms of fear in your body, learn to look at your emotions objectively and develop a recovery plan that allows you to manage your fear more effectively.
One of the first and most important steps for riding instructors dealing with fearful riders is to recognize and acknowledge their fear and let them know that it is OKAY to be afraid. Often simply acknowledging a person’s fear and empathizing with them is enough to make them relax a little. At times, it is helpful for instructors to let students know that sometimes you are afraid too and that you are not going to force them to do anything they don’t want to do.
The second step that we work on in fear management clinics is to “intellectualize” the fear so that each individual has a clear understanding of where his or her fear comes from and the affects it has on her body.
There are two basic categories of fear: post-traumatic fear and general anxiety. Post-traumatic fear occurs after an accident that resulted in physical or emotional injury. Unfortunately, this is very common in the horse world and the most important consideration when dealing with post-traumatic fear is to be sure the person has had plenty of time to heal, both physically and mentally. That old theory of, “Jump right back on the horse you fell off of” should be thrown out the window. The chances of causing further injury are far too great. A rider that has been injured should not return to riding until he is ready; no one else has the right to rush him.
General anxiety is the type of fear based on “what if” scenarios. The people dealing with this type of fear essentially talk themselves into being afraid by imagining every thing that could go wrong. Often, as we get older and the pressures of life increase at the same time our ability to bounce back from small injuries decreases, we fall victim to general anxiety. “What if my horse falls down? What if he bucks me off? What if I get hurt? Who will take the kids to soccer? How will I keep my job? Who will take care of the house? Etc. The important thing to realize when dealing with general anxiety is that you can control the thoughts in your mind with mental discipline and replace them with more positive thoughts. More about that later.
Once a person has a better understanding of her fear and its origins, it is easier to step outside herself and look at her emotions more objectively. Also, I find it is helpful to know the reactions that fear causes in your body: dry mouth, sweating, nausea, hot or cold waves, tingling sensations, vertigo, shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, trembling or shaking, fear of dying, fear of losing control. It is helpful for people dealing with fear issues to learn to objectively observe their own emotional reactions so that they can recognize the early warning signs that tell them when the fear is boiling up.
Another important step in dealing with fear is to take a closer look at why you are doing this to begin with. Is it because you have a true passion for horses or because someone else wants you to do it? It is important to know who you are doing this for, because if you are doing this for someone else, it may not happen. These are difficult issues to face, but necessary nonetheless. It is important for riders to know the true purpose behind their pursuit, because purpose leads to courage. Staying in touch with your purpose throughout the hard times will give you an extra boost.
Now we can set about developing a recovery plan that will help the person learn to manage their fear more effectively. First, we need to define the individual’s comfort zone. Specifically define the things that the person is comfortable doing around horses; the things she can do without being afraid. For everyone it is different. Some people have fear issues on the ground around horses, while others are only afraid on the horse’s back. Some people are just fine at the walk and trot, but cantering sends them into a panic. Some are okay in the arena, but frightened out on the trail. As you go about your normal routine, pay close attention to your body and your emotions and define the exact moment at which the fear begins. That is the moment when you have left your comfort zone.
Once you have discovered your comfort zone, you will make a plan to take small ventures outside your comfort zone, with the help of an instructor, always returning back to comfort. Maybe you are perfectly comfortable catching the horse, grooming him, cleaning his feet, but as soon as you go to the tack room to get your saddle, the butterflies start. You have just left your comfort zone. So for however long it takes, you’ll come to the barn, groom your horse, put the saddle on, then take it off and put him away. In time, saddling the horse will no longer cause butterflies and you will have expanded your comfort zone. The next step may be to saddle the horse, then take him to the arena and longe him, then put him away. Once that is within your comfort zone, maybe you will mount, then dismount and put the horse away. Then maybe walk once around the arena, and so on as you gradually expand your comfort zone.
Using this plan to stay within your comfort zone as long as you want and then taking small ventures outside the comfort zone will gradually expand your level of comfort around the horse. It is important for instructors, riders, friends and family to realize that only the individual can decide when to take a trip outside the comfort zone. Sometimes the gentle encouragement from an instructor will help, but the individual is in total control of the time frame. Pressure from others will only serve to impede the individual’s progress.
Along with the recovery plan, we need to work on “acting skills.” With mental discipline, a fearful rider can learn to over-ride the negative emotions by learning to control the physical symptoms of fear with breathing and eye exercises and learn to replace the thoughts of fear in her mind with more positive thoughts and images.
The physical symptoms of fear, the dry mouth, shallow breathing, and butterflies in the stomach can be controlled through abdominal breathing. You can actually learn to control your heart rate by taking deep breaths and breathing out fully thorough your mouth, using your abdominal muscles. I suggest people struggling with fear around horses practice this skill, not only when they are around horses, but at any time that they have a startle and feel an adrenalin rush.
The eyes are the keys to our soul and one of the first things that happens when we choke up with fear is that our eyes shut down and lose their focus. By keeping your eyes open and alert and taking in information, you can over-ride the panic in your brain. Have riders look up and notice things in their environment, i.e., big willow tree, pretty bay horse, woman with yellow jacket. An instructor can help by holding up fingers and having the student look at her and say what number she is holding up, again and again. Learning to keep an active focus with your eyes is a tremendously important skill for learning to deal with fearfulness.
The third acting skill to work on with riders learning to cope with fear around horses is to have them play an internal video in their brain and learn to have faith in the positive outcome. I recommend that students pick out a rider that they want to be just like. It could be someone at your barn or your trainer or a famous rider like David O’Connor. Study that rider so that you can play an internal video clip in your head and imagine you are that person. This is a technique that competitive riders use and it often leads to a blue ribbon.
Picturing the positive outcome in your mind and having positive thoughts are paramount. Your brain can only handle so many thoughts at one time and if you allow the negative thoughts of “what if” to pollute your mind, you will never get rid of the fear. On the other hand, if you replace those thoughts with thoughts of a positive outcome, you will banish the fear from your mind.
Finally, it is most important when dealing with fearful riders to improve their riding skills, their knowledge of horse behavior and awareness of safe practices. Along with all the mental and intellectual components of dealing with the fear of horses, it is important to improve skills as well. Working with an instructor to improve balance and control in the saddle as well as control from the ground will help a fearful rider gain confidence. Knowledge + Skill = Ability. Always using safe practices like wearing a helmet, knowing the danger zones around the horse and acting accordingly will lead to greater confidence as well.
Final words of wisdom for riders dealing with the fear of horses is to take your time, take all the pressure off yourself, make sure you eat right and are well-rested and do not forget to celebrate your success along the way.