Overcoming Fear: Fear Management

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Question: Hi Julie,

I learned about you from a friend in the barrel racing community. I am a 42-year-old woman, a dyed in the wool horse lover and owner, someone who will never again feel fulfilled without a horse. I lost my first horse to a horrifying bout with colic, one minute he was there the next he was gone, despite the efforts of some of the best equine surgeons in New England. I had this horse for ten years, I learned to ride on this horse and while I had some silly falls, they were just that– laugh at your mistake and get right back up and go on. When I found myself alone I began to ride the horses of friends and my trainer again. I was confident; I was a good rider with a good seat and hands. During this time my trainer acquired a five y/o Hanoverian gelding that caught my interest. I began to ride the horse, he was green-that was obvious- but I liked him and purchased him after several months. Despite my continued grief, this new horse and I fell into a training lesson program similar to what I had with my old horse. Then the trouble began…rodeo bucking at the canter depart, I lose my balance and fall-hard. After the third experience, I ended up in the hospital for three days and out of work for 6 more weeks. Severe damage to my lower back that would eventually require surgery. I had to sell the horse-best for him and me-I made certain he got an excellent home in the area with a fancy jumper barn (I am a dressage/pleasure rider) where his talents would be used to their greatest advantage, he continues there today with an excellent record. I on the other hand spent three years in medical hell-and the longer I stayed away from riding the scarier it got-I am having a panic attack just writing about it. Well, not being really smart I purchased another horse, a 6-month-old Hanoverian colt that had all the right moves and was very quiet and agreeable. My trainer and I finished raising him and he was backed two years ago. I am back in the saddle, riding after my trainer works through any issues, I ride the walk and am sick and scared to death the entire time. Let me emphasize that he is perfectly behaved under saddle, some playful spooks and that is it. The trouble is my mind; I spend the whole day wondering what horror could possibly happen to me, and believe me I can think of the absolute worst! I NEED HELP! I love this horse, I want to ride this horse, I want to keep this horse. Can you help me?

Desperate! Thank you in advance!

Answer: Dear MSF,

The frustration and grief you must be feeling comes across very clearly in your email. I am attaching an article I wrote that may be helpful for you (see “Coping with a Fear of Horses” on my website). There are a couple points that I want to make. First, there is an equation in psychology that says “fear + grief = debilitation.” What this means is that you cannot deal with both those emotions at the same time; it is too overwhelming. The grief comes from the sense of having lost something you once had and cherished, not only your beloved horse but also the ability to ride without fear.

You have to understand and believe with all your heart that you still have the same ability that you once had. You have just temporarily misplaced it. Set aside your grief and focus on dealing with the fear. Now I realize that is much easier said than done, but if you think about it and focus on it you can do it. I know dozens of people that have.

There are quite a few tools at your disposal to help you manage your fear. First, read this article and give considerable thought to its contents. It is important that you understand your fear, what type of fear it is, where it comes from, what the effects on your body are. This will give you the ability to “intellectualize” your fear and take an objective look at it.

Next, there are some very specific tools that you can employ. The most important are your eyes and your breathing. If you can learn to control both your eyes and your breathing, you can hold off the other physical effects of fear. Learn to keep your eyes focused and taking in information in your environment and practice deep abdominal breathing so that you can learn to control your heart rate.

Another important tool is your body language: fake it! Try to keep a confident demeanor going all the time, whether you feel that way or not. Because your mind-body-spirit are all interconnected, if you can control the physical component (your body) it will do much to help you control the mind and spirit.

Mind control is also very important. The “what if” scenarios that pollute your mind is known as general anxiety. You CAN control the thoughts in your mind. You can only think about so many things at once. If you work to control your thoughts so that you are thinking about a positive outcome or focusing on what you are doing or even thinking about the words and melody to the song you are singing, your mind won’t spiral down into the negative thoughts.

A couple more thoughts: some people have told me that they have had success with hypnosis. You’d want to see a sports hypnotist. Also, I recently reviewed an audio called “Hacking with Confidence” which is an audio on self-hypnosis. I do not know how useful either one of these would be for you but the latter helps you get in touch with your biomechanics and learn to relax your body when needed.

A book called “Ride with Confidence!” just came out and I am one of five contributing authors. I think it is a pretty good book. You can order one from my website or by calling (800) 225-8827. I have also just completed an audio on the subject which will be released in November and will be available on my website or by calling the number above.

Meritt, you can do this. I know dozens of people personally that have. Read the article and think about everything in it. The important thing is to set small goals and surround yourself with people that are supportive of these goals. You’ll get there. It won’t be easy but it can be done. Good luck to you and let me know how it goes.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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