Ask Julie Goodnight:
Question: Ms. Goodnight,
I recently read your article regarding fear of horses. I have a unique problem related to fear and hope you can help. I was in the round pen and I was thrown off and I broke a few ribs. I didn’t know I had broken anything at the time. I got right back on and continued my training—I was trying out for a mounted patrol unit. Later that day, I rode again and two days later I rode for about five hours. My instructor knew I was a little shook up so he gave me a very well trained horse to ride in the arena. I failed miserably. I’m normally very comfortable on horseback through the walk, trot and canter. I became really nervous around other riders. I was really worried about my horse getting spooked. We were all beginners at this time. The fear got so bad I had to drop out. I can honestly say it was the most disappointing time in my career. There may be a chance to rejoin the group. I need to get over this fear because I doubt I will be given another chance if I fail this time. The failure was due to my fear not my skills. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks for your time, Mark.
Thanks for your question and although you are unique in many ways, I think there are lots of people that can relate to what you are going through. You are experiencing many different types of fear: post-traumatic, general anxiety and performance anxiety. That’s a lot to try and cope with.
I have had the opportunity to work with many mounted police officers, some of whom came to the mounted unit with little or no previous riding experience. Most people cannot relate to riding being a part of your career (adds another level of pressure) nor can they relate to the fact that your riding ability is paramount in your ability to perform your job well and in some cases, may save your life. These factors require that you are focused, calm and balanced and there are many things you can do to control the emotion of fear and achieve this ideal performance state.
I have a book and a motivational audio CD on the subject of fear. They will help you understand the emotion, its causes and affects. In particular, you will learn through the articles, book, and audio some specific exercises you can do to control the emotion instead of the emotion controlling you. Specifically, learn to keep your eyes focused and engaged, looking around your environment and taking in information (think about the job you will be doing); learn to control your breathing, using deep abdominal breathing that will help you learn to control your heart rate (you have to practice this off the horse); learn to control your body language and look confident even when you don’t feel that way (an important principle for all law enforcement personnel); and finally, learn mind control tricks that will help you stay focused on the positive outcome. Because your mental being, your physical being and your emotional being are interrelated (mind-body-spirit connection), if you can control the physical and mental, the emotion doesn’t stand a chance.
You need to take some lessons and ride to build your confidence up before you participate in the try-outs again. You have put yourself under a lot of pressure, especially since this is related to your career. The more pressure that is on you, the more your performance anxiety will rear its ugly head. Get some good riding practice time, with a horse and/or instructor that is confidence inspiring to you, so that your skill comes back. Once you are feeling pretty good about riding again, it is time to tackle the try-outs.
Not too long ago, I got a letter very similar to yours from a man that was 81 years old, in the Calvary in WWII and a rancher all his life and after a recent buck-off and broken ribs, he was fearful about riding for the first time in his life. But by working on it, he was able to overcome his fear of getting back on the same horse that bucked him off.
Finally, you have an important purpose that you clearly feel strongly about. Purpose leads to courage. If you have the riding skill and your purpose is clearly defined, you will find the courage you need to succeed in the try-outs. You can do this, but it may take time and will definitely take some effort on your part. I wish you the best of luck and I am sure with your commitment, you’ll make the mounted unit.
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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I know you are soooo busy. Just drop me two words of encouragement. I need you! I have a 16.2 hand TB that after having the greatest relationship with for 2 years I am now petrified to ride. I even think about going on the trails and I can’t breath. Nothing happened…I mean yes I have fallen off of him but that was a year ago. He spooks so easily and I just get sick to my stomach when I ride him!! He spooks and I work him through it but I still can’t gain any confidence.
Which book of yours do I need to read? What mantra can I say? I can’t sell my horse. I have to ride! It makes me cry when I think about it. My husband let me quit my job of six years so that I could go to the barn every day. In two years I went from not having a horse to having two horses and running a boarding stable with a partner. And now I am supposed to tell my husband that I am too afraid to ride?? Or maybe my boarders the next time they want me to lead them on a trail ride?! And the thought of going on a ride by myself makes my heart stop right in my chest. What is wrong with me?
Point me to a book….a food…body armor…something that will make this go away. I used to not think twice about attending your clinics on fear. Now I find myself wishing I had soaked in every word like I did with your others.
Please help!! I will wait breathlessly until you find the time to reply. I need you!!
Frustrated in Ohio
Answer: Dear Frustrated,
I am so sorry to hear that you are struggling with this fear issue. It is important that you have faith in the fact that you can do some specifics things to help manage your fear and that if you work on it, you can resolve this issue and get back to enjoying your horse like you used to. The key words here are that you will have to work on it. I know many, many people that have had similar experiences and have had success managing their fear, once they have committed themselves to action. There are a few ideas that I have for you that may help. Both my book, Ride with Confidence!, and my audio CD, Build Your Confidence with Horses, will help you a lot in understanding the emotion of fear, identifying the nature of your fear, making a plan to overcome it and learning some real-life skills that can help you deal better with the emotion. The book is very helpful for dealing with the fear of riding and also for dealing with fear and anxiety in any area of your life. I am one of five contributing authors to this book so there are many different approaches and techniques, including human psychology, equine psychology, hypnosis and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP Sports Psychology). The audio CD is both instructional and motivational and is especially useful for listening to on your way to the barn because it has reminders of the physical and mental things you can do to contain and dissipate the emotion of fear when you feel it welling up.
Now, to address your specific situation, I have some thoughts for you and some suggestions. First, from reading your email, it sounds to me like you have had a drastic change in your confidence level, without being able to pin it on something specific like an accident or injury. This is not at all uncommon but it begs the question, is there something else going on in your life, either related to horses or not, that may have caused this change?
Sometimes people may experience trauma or anxiety in other areas of their life and it can manifest with horses, but until you address and resolve the original issue, you may not have success with the horse thing. For example, I had a woman in a FM clinic that had never had any fear of riding until she and her daughter became victims of a violent crime and after that, she was mortified to ride. We could work on the horse issue, but she also needed to come to terms with what had happened to her through counseling and processing.
I encourage you to take a hard look at the “big picture” of your life and invest in some serious introspection. The book and video will guide you through this process but you’ll have to put some earnest thought into it; it may help to talk with someone like a counselor, friend or pastor. Obviously you are embarrassed and ashamed of having fear and keeping it to yourself is one of the worst things you can do. You are feeling pressure from your husband and from your clients, but it is quite possible that the pressure is originating from you and not them. The fact of the matter is that for the most part, no one really cares whether you ride or not or what emotional issues you are dealing with. Besides, most people have fear of horses themselves. It is an extremely prevalent issue amongst horse enthusiast but sadly it is seldom discussed. In my seminars on fear of riding at horse fairs, the room is always jam packed with people, all of whom are greatly relieved to see everyone else there; people of all ages, genders, abilities and experience. I think it is important for you to “come out of the closet” with your fear and tell those close to you about it so that they can support your plan and help you meet your goals.
Surround yourself with people that are supportive of you and share your plan with them; avoid contact with the people that are making it worse. Again, the book and audio will guide you through this process. Maybe you want to start a private club with some of your boarders that may be struggling themselves with this issue and work through it together; I bet you’ll have more members in your club than you would think.
Another thought I had when reading your email was that this horse is not really what you need to be riding right now. A Thoroughbred is a tough ride for any one; they are volatile and emotional animals, which is totally exacerbated with a fearful rider. Think about it, we have been breeding these horses for centuries to run fast and have a strong flight response; spookiness comes with the territory. Because horses are herd animals and prey animals, they are programmed to take on the emotions of the other horses in the herd. If you become frightened, the horse easily recognizes it, because a huge part of your body is connected to him; it is natural for him to become frightened too. Thus you have the snowball effect.
I am not suggesting that you get rid of the horse, but I do think it would do you a world of good to ride a more reliable horse for as long as it takes to rebuild your confidence. Spend some time riding a reliable horse so that you can remind yourself that you are a competent rider and perfectly capable of handling whatever your horse can dish out. Find a way to get some hours in on a solid mount on which you can rebuild your confidence and remind yourself that you actually love to ride. Consider taking some Dressage or Reining lessons on a finished horse and learn some new theory while you build confidence. The horse is a critical part of the equation. You must ride a horse that builds your confidence, not zaps it.
And speaking of the horse, there are some positive steps you can take to resolve the spooking issue with your horse. If you make a commitment to his training, you can teach him not to spook or to spook in place. There are a few Q&As on my website on despooking that will help you think through the process and you may want to be on the lookout for despooking clinics (you can always go without a horse and audit and still learn plenty, sometimes more than you would with a horse).
Like with any bomb-proofing process for horses, you always start on the ground. Hopefully this will make it a little easier for you to keep your confidence up. Study my articles and develop a training plan and devote a few minutes everyday to despook your horse from the ground. You’ll teach him to face his fear and then to have the courage to actually approach and even touch the frightening item. You can make a game out of this until your horse is eagerly facing and approaching, since he is rewarded for being a brave horse.
As his confidence builds so will yours. Eventually you can take the same training plan to the saddle and go through the same process with you on his back. Making a plan, taking action and putting your mind and energy into training your horse are actions that will not only help your horse, but build your confidence too. Having a plan of action also keeps your mind from becoming polluted with thoughts of fear. There is more on controlling the thoughts in your mind in the book and audio. There is a lot of action you can take to resolve this issue. Now it is up to you to “get off the pot.” Please let me know how it goes. Good luck and keep the faith. You CAN do this.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
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