Question: Hi Julie,
I have been riding for about 2 years. I’m 53, and although I have been around horses (started my daughter riding @ 4-5 yrs old, own a race horse) have always been terrified of horses, yet love them. I want desperately to ride well. Lately, I have been “stuck”; cantering sends me into a panic. I try, and yet I freeze, I can’t focus on steering or keeping him going, all I can think is stop! I think my instructor, patient as she is, as well as the barn staff have written me off, and are losing patience with me, (and I don’t blame them). What should I do, how do I combat this and get past it? Do you run intensive, submersed horse clinics to overcome debilitating fear? Or recommend one? Please help!
Answer: Dear Sue,
Fear and lack of confidence are more common in riders than you think. In fact, most people that have been around horses have dealt with this issue at some time or another. Let’s face it; they are big, scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. I’d be more concerned about someone who said they’ve never had any fear around horses. Fear is a natural emotion and it’s one that keeps us safe—keeps us from doing really stupid stuff. But when fear begins to impact your enjoyment or begins to control what you do and do not do, it’s time to take action.
It always amazes me how many people want so desperately to ride and be with horses, in spite of their over-powering fear or after a bad accident or injury. There is a deeply rooted passion there that keeps you motivated even though the fear is sometimes crippling. That is why it is always important to think about why you are doing this—what is your purpose? Passion? Fulfilling a life-long dream? Enjoying an activity with your spouse? Whatever your purpose is, you need to define it and embrace it. Purpose leads to courage.
Canter is certainly the most fear-inducing gait and at just about every clinic I do, there are people that are fearful of the canter. That makes sense because if things are going to go wrong, it is likely to be at the canter. So your fear is perfectly understandable. Since canter is the closest thing to the flight response that we ask our horses to do, sometimes it can trigger undesirable behavior. So before you ever tackle the canter, make sure everything else is going well—your horse is responsive and obedient, you feel ready, the footing is good, the situation is right. I always tell my riders: Never get in a hurry to canter—it will happen when you are ready. If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it.
There’s an old saying in horsemanship that says, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” In other words, you can accomplish much at the trot and unless and until your horse is working really well at the trot, there’s no point in asking for canter. The same things goes for you—if you work on improving your riding skills at the trot, it will prepare you better for canter. So work on posting and sitting trot; do lots of transitions—collected trot, extended trot, collected trot. Trot figures like circles, serpentines and figure 8s. You may even want to start working on lateral movements, like leg yielding at the walk and trot before you tackle canter. When you can do all these things confidently, the canter will be easy.
When all the stars are aligned and you feel like it’s ready to tackle the canter, I can share a few things with you that may help. First, make sure you know and understand the canter cue, so you can be clear to your horse. When you haven’t cantered a horse for some time, he isn’t thinking about a canter cue and so he may go into a fast trot instead of a canter. If he does, slow him down firmly and immediately ask for canter again, as if to say, “wrong answer; try again.” Repeat until he canters on cue. Once he realizes that you actually want him to canter, the cue will get easier.
Make absolutely certain you do not pull back on the reins when you cue for canter; in fact, you’ll want to reach up toward his ears as you cue him. One of the first things that happens in the canter departure is that your horse’s head will drop down as he launches himself into the gait—if he hits the bit at this moment, he will think you do not want him to canter. This is a HUGE source of problems at the canter; people are pulling back without realizing it, especially if they are nervous about it. It is a very frustrating problem for the horse because you are punishing him for doing what you asked him to do.
I suggest working on the canter in the arena, but only cantering a few strides down the long side of the arena at first, transitioning back to trot in the corners. The turns are harder and you are more likely to lose balance in the turn, so staying on the straight-away will help. Also, I’ve noticed that nervous riders will do okay on the first few strides but the longer they go, the worse they ride. So if you’ll just canter a few strides, then stop, then do it again, you will probably accomplish more. Gradually increase the distance you canter. Remember to breathe!
Some riders and/or horses will do better cantering out on the trail with other horses than they do in the arena. Often it is easier to get the horses into it and they will canter along naturally with the other horses. I have used this technique many times with nervous riders and we will generally canter on a slight uphill slope so the horses are working too hard to act up in any way. But you have to know your horse before trying this out on the trail; some horses will be better while others may be worse.
The biggest mistake people make in trying to ride the canter is to lean forward, thus closing your hip angle, which causes you to be thrown up and out of the saddle with each stride. To counter-act this, you need to sit well back, with your shoulders even slightly behind your hips. The canter involves a motion similar to pushing a swing—your shoulders come back as you push with your seat. So before you ask for canter, always remind yourself to sit way back and push the swing. Fear will make you want to perch forward in the fetal position; try to remind yourself to sit extra far back to counter-act this tendency.
One more thought on working up the courage to canter—try it first in a Western saddle. Even if you plan to ride English, getting confidence with the gait will be easier in a Western saddle since you have to the horn to hold onto if necessary and a little more support than in an English saddle. Take all the help you can get. Once you gain some confidence, you can switch back to an English saddle.
My video, “Canter with Confidence,” will give you all the information you need to cue, ride the canter, understand leads and all the way up to flying lead changes. Knowledge will help your confidence. I also have a new video coming out in September which is a compilation of Horse Master episodes dealing with real horses and riders that are working on the canter, from cueing to slowing down the canter to lead changes.
For anyone dealing with fear of horses, it is important that you do not allow others to push you into something you are not ready to do. There is no law anywhere that says you have to canter a horse. When you are ready and you want it to happen, it will. If you don’t canter—so what? It is also important to surround yourself with supportive people and share your goals and your plan with them and let them know how they can support you. I have written a lot about rebuilding confidence, so there are many articles in my Training Library that will help. I also have a motivational audio called “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” which you can download from my website (or purchase the CD). Many riders have found this to be a very useful tool in overcoming fear. Listen to it on the way to the barn.
By the way, it is your instructor’s job to be patient, keep you safe and help you attain your goals. You are not beholden to her and her staff—they are beholden to you. Don’t worry about them and don’t let anyone else pressure you or frustrate you. You are doing this for you—not for them. Don’t worry about what others think; surround yourself with people that are supportive of your goals. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they are!
I have heard from hundreds of riders who have used my techniques to overcome their fear and learn to enjoy horses with confidence. You can make it happen but you have to work at it—have a plan, know what you are going to do when you feel fearful. Because of the mind-body-spirit connection, if you cave into the emotion, it will overtake your mind and body. If you have the mental discipline to think positive thoughts and control your body language (looking confident even when you don’t feel that way), the emotion cannot take over. Don’t ever give up! You can make this happen. I know you can.
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