Overcoming Fear: What Can I Do To Help Overcome My Fear Of Riding?

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Question:
Hello,

My daughter has a 5 year old Thoroughbred/Percheron mare that when she was riding last winter in the indoor. The snow slid off the roof and the horse bolted; she fell off and didn’t get hurt. I’m her mom and I see how it affects her emotionally. My daughter is 19 and has been riding for 11 years. She needs help with how she gets past her fear of her horse bolting again. She has worked on groundwork with her mare. When she rides her you can see a change in her. How does she deal with this trust issue?

Thank you,
Alice

AND

Hi Julie!

Just love your show on RFD-TV! You do an excellent job of explaining and I appreciate the way you give a reason as to why certain things are done in a certain way. I’m a gal in my mid 50’s and just getting back into riding…found a great trainer and have a wonderful lesson horse. However one time when I was riding in the indoor arena, “Bo” spooked…I did the tensing, the holding of the breath and all of that. Now I am very intimidated to go into the indoor arena. I have no real reason to fear Bo–he’s never done anything to put my safety in question. In fact he’s gone out of his way to keep me safe and make my rides enjoyable.

Are there any books out there that explain in length to get me over this fear/intimidation thing I have going on? I enjoy my lessons so much and have a sincere love of horses. I don’t want this to haunt me from here on out! My trainer is very respectful of my fear factor. I feel the need to read up on it on my own and do my level best to work thru this issue. I don’t want it to get out of hand and interfere with the whole process!

Thank you for your time and help!
Carmen

Answer:
Dear Alice and Carmen,

I was struck by the similarity of your two questions, so I hope you don’t mind if I answer them both at once. In fact, I get numerous questions along these lines each month. Fear is a very prevalent issue with horse sports, but unfortunately it is seldom discussed or addressed.

Fear is a perfectly normal emotion—one that all animals experience—and it is an important emotion that helps keep you safe. Without a healthy dose of fear, we would do really stupid things that might result in us getting killed. People that seemingly have no fear tend to get chosen early by natural selection and get killed before they have a chance to pass on their crazy genes.

Fear becomes a negative attribute when it begins to impact your enjoyment of life and/or control what you do or do not do. Most people dealing with fear of horses or riding have developed this fear either by having a bad incident (post-traumatic fear) or from the general anxiety that builds as you get older and have more life pressures on you. Whether your fear stems from post-traumatic stress or general anxiety, there is much you can do to keep the emotion in check and regain balance in your life.

First, I think it’s important for people to “intellectualize” their fear. Learn more about the emotion, where is comes from, the physical symptoms and how it affects your behavior. This way, you’ll know what to expect when you put yourself in fearful situations and you’ll be able to look at the emotion more objectively.

Next, you need to develop a specific plan for managing your fear when it rises to the surface and for expanding your comfort zone around horses. This may take some time and the people around you may need to develop some patience, but by taking it slowly with horses, you can build your confidence tremendously. There are specific instructions for developing your plan in my audio and book on fear.

It’s also important to address some changes in your lifestyle that may help you in this journey. First, try to connect to a deeper sense of purpose of why you are doing this—purpose leads to courage. There’s a reason why you are going to all this trouble to be with horses; do a little introspection to define your purpose so you can remind yourself of it when things get rough.

Make sure you eat right and are well-rested, not stressed out, when you tackle the horse thing. Get in better shape—the act of improving yourself will lead to more confidence and the extra fitness will help in such a physical sport as riding.

Finally, it’s useful to learn some specific techniques for coping with fear. The three things that I teach people to do, in the moment, are to keep your eyes focused and taking in information (so your mind remains active); use deep abdominal breathing (which counter-acts the shallow breathing and breath-holding which fear induces); and be aware of your body language.

Our mind, body and spirit—or the mental, the physical and the emotional—are all intertwined. When you are emotional, it is reflected in your body language. Conversely, if you use your body language to make it appear as though you are very confident and sure of yourself, it will have an impact on your mind and emotions. If you allow your mind and your body to cave into the emotion of fear, the emotion will over-take you. Of course, your body language also has big meaning to your horse, so you always want to make sure you are presenting a calm and confident picture to him as well. Never show your fear on the outside.

There are other articles on my website on this important subject and I also have a book and an audio CD on building confidence. The book is written by myself and four other authors and is called, Ride with Confidence!. The audio CD is meant to be motivational and inspirational—to listen to on the way to the barn. It is called, Build Your Confidence with Horses, and many people find it to be very helpful.

The bottom line is that there is a lot you can do to regain control of your emotions and get back to enjoying every moment you have with your horse. I know hundreds of people that have had success using these techniques and happily, I get emails from them too! Good luck on this journey and please let me know how you do.

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Overcoming Fear: My Horse Doesn’t Respect Me & I’m Scared To Correct Him

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Question: Hello,

I just found your website and think it’s great. I have a 15-year old gelding – appaloosa/Clydesdale cross, Copper. My problem is that I am not confident enough to follow through with things that I ask him to do. This happens mainly when I ride him – he’s lazy and doesn’t want to go, or doesn’t want to go in the direction I want to go. That is partly because I don’t have a lot of experience with horses, but mostly because I saw Copper buck someone off that he didn’t like, and I don’t want that to happen to me! I know that he knows that I am fearful and not the dominant one. I just don’t know how to turn myself into the leader in our relationship, and get that confidence so that he will listen to me, and do what I ask. He is also generally a spooky, jumpy horse, which doesn’t help. Do you have any kind of step-by-step ideas that I can use with him to have him listen to me when I ride, without compromising my safety?

Thank you,
Jill

Answer: Jill,

The problems you are having with your horse are not at all uncommon—I see them in every clinic I do. There are two issues to consider here: raising your confidence level and becoming a respected leader for your horse. While they are clearly related, I think you’ll have to deal with them as separate issues.

As for the confidence issue, you need to do some introspection and come up with a plan to control your thoughts and develop more confidence. This process is outlined very clearly in my audio CD, “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” and in a book called, “Ride with Confidence,” authored by myself and four other authors. I know hundreds of people that have followed the recipe and had great success in overcoming their fear. Once you have your emotions in check, you’ll be able to work through the issues with your horse.

Because of the herd nature of horses and the linear hierarchy that exists within the herd, horses are very keen to your level of confidence and intention. He knows, probably better than you, that you aren’t willing to reinforce your commands and discipline him if needed. Therefore, he cannot possible see you as his leader.

Once you have issued a command to a horse, it is imperative that you enforce it. Otherwise, you are training him to be disobedient. If you are incapable of enforcing your commands, it is better that you do not ask your horse to do it to begin with because every time you ask and fail, you are further convincing him you are not in charge and his opinion of you worsens.

There are dozens of articles in the Training Library on my website that talk about this issue. You need to examine all of your interactions with your horse to discover the less obvious things you are probably doing on a daily basis to undermine your own authority with your horse. Remember, horses gain dominance by controlling resources (food and water) and by controlling the space of subordinates and controlling their actions. If you look at your interactions closely, you’ll find many instances in which you are giving away your authority.

The most effective way to establish leadership over any horse and to gain his respect is through ground work. I hear lots of people say, “But I’ve done that and I still have problems,” and what I know is that they’ve done it inconsistently, not systematically or ineffectively. It is not enough to just run a horse around the round pen; you have to know what behavior you are trying to affect, what the desired response is and how to get it.
I have two videos on this subject: Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. They both show step-by-step exercises for establishing a productive relationship with your horse. In each video I work with several different types of horses so you can see their different reactions—although the process is always the same. You can order online or by phone at 719-530-0531.

If you work through these obedience issues on the ground first, it will give you greater confidence in the saddle and also your horse will be less challenging, since he will come to respect you as his leader and to respect your authority. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have some expert help along the way—a trainer or instructor that can help you discipline this horse and guide you through this process.

Good luck and stay safe!
Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Overcoming Fear: How To Be In Control And Feel Safe

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Question: Hi Julie,

I am a beginning rider, and have been taking lessons twice a week for about three months now. I have wanted to learn to ride since I was a little girl so this is a dream come true for me (I am 37 now). Initially I was very nervous approaching the horses, but more frequent visits have helped. I’m no longer afraid to get on the horse, but after we’ve walked around the ring a couple of times the horse will start testing me (either that or I’m not giving good cues but she parks at the barn and sidesteps across the ring). I end up yanking on the reins to get her back on track. Then I get tense and the whole thing makes me frustrated and I want to give up. I don’t want to jerk the horse around by the mouth to teach her who is boss but I can’t make her do what I want if I don’t. She is a 9-year old mare and an experienced trail horse. I want to move to faster gaits, but I can’t even get her to trot around in a circle. The men I ride with are naturals and don’t understand why I can’t just get on and ride. I can’t just “get on and ride” because I know I can’t control the horse and that makes me very anxious. I know if I could gain confidence through experience I could relax because then I would feel safer, but I can’t do that if I have to fight the horse every time. I wrote to you because I have read many of the articles on your web site and I think you are brilliant. I hope you can help me realize my dream of cantering across a field unafraid. Thank you so much.

Rachel

Answer: Rachel,

You have a lot of different issues in your question and they are all very common issues that beginners everywhere are dealing with. I will attach another Q&A that I just wrote along the same lines (Gate Gravity), which may help you with your issues of control.

Without fail, the biggest mistakes I see people make when having control issues with a horse is two things that come instinctively to the rider but are the worst things you could do for the horse and only exacerbates the problem.

The mistakes are:
1. Pulling back with both reins at the same time,
2. Turning the horse in the direction he wants to go and then circling him back.

When the rider feels like she is losing control of the horse, she instinctively pulls back with both reins, sometimes with a turning motion. When the horse feels that much pressure on his mouth, he locks up, leans into the bit and generally does the opposite of what you want– if you want him to slow down, he speeds up, if you want him to turn right, he turns left. It is known as “running through the bridle” or “running through the shoulder” and are common responses of the horse when he feels steady and unrelenting pressure on both sides of his mouth at the same time. This horse becomes very defensive of his mouth and sticks his nose out and begins to feel to the rider like he has a steel pipe down the middle of his neck.

Sadly, this horse is often labeled “hard mouthed,” like it is his fault. In my opinion there is no such thing as a hard mouthed horse and I have never yet found a horse that could not be rehabilitated to become a very light and responsive horse, and we get a lot of these horses in training. Also, I have seen many school horses learn that all they need to do is get the rider riled up emotionally so she freezes up with both reins and then the horse knows he can have his way with the rider and go where he wants. When you lock up into a tug o’ war with the horse, he will always win because it becomes a pound-for-pound race.

Always try to use your reins one at a time and in rhythm with the horse, in a pulsating or dynamic fashion, not a static white-knuckle pull; always be quick to offer the release. Learn to ride through problems, not lock up on the reins. Your horse mirrors your emotions so when you feel frustrated, you horse is feeling the same thing. Try to keep your emotions in check. Some horses learn that all they have to do is challenge you a little so that you get emotional and lock up and then they know they can do anything they want.

When turning right, first slide your hand down the right rein, then slowly pick up on the rein toward your chest, releasing with the opposite rein. The slower you move your hands, the softer the horse will become. The outside rein should be totally slack– do not try to turn with that rein too, because as soon as you start pulling with both reins, the horse stiffens and you lock up. Keep the horse moving forward in the turn by reaching forward with your hands and closing both your legs on the horse’s barrel in a pulsating fashion. Don’t pull BACK on the rein to turn, that will interfere with his forward motion; gently lift the rein up or to the side.

The second problem is that when the horse becomes nappy and will not turn in the direction you are asking, most riders will give up before the horse does and turn the horse the other way, planning to circle back around to that spot you wanted to go to begin with. Although it often works long enough for you to get the horse positioned where you wanted him to begin with, you have just trained your horse to be disobedient by letting him turn the way he wanted to go and he most certainly will do it again. In the horse’s mind, he only knows he got to turn the way he wanted; he will not make the association of having to go back to where you wanted because too much time has elapsed in his brain. He was rewarded for refusing the rider.

The other problem you mention is with confidence on your part, which exacerbates the control problems that you have with your horse. This is a huge issue and I guarantee there are thousands of people out there that know exactly how you feel. There is an article on my website on dealing with fear that should be helpful for anyone. There is also a book coming out soon called “Ride with Confidence!” in which I am one of five contributing authors. The book is being published in England and should be out this fall and I think it is going to be a good one. I’ll be sure to publish it in my newsletter when the book is available.

One of the most important components when dealing with fear is to surround yourself with understanding, empathetic and supportive people that can help you reach your goals. Also, you should pick the company that you ride with carefully. If you do, you’ll gain confidence more quickly, with more good experiences. I hope you can find a riding instructor or friend to help you work through this control problem. Read through all my Q&As because you’ll probably find other issues that relate to the problems you are having. Don’t worry, you’ll get there, just be persistent.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Overcoming Fear: Coping With Fear Of Horses

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Question: Julie,

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

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.