By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco
Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how to regain confidence and overcome fear to help you enjoy riding once again.
What do you do if you have ridden successfully in the past but a scary incident or injury replaced fun with fear? I hear from many riders who were once confident and after an accident or a life change suddenly have a new sense of fear around horses.
In moderation, fear can help keep you safe and know your limits. But if fear is keeping you from doing what you like to do, it’s time to make a mental shift and return to riding with goals that allow for small, but meaningful changes.
It’s easy to feel a sense of loss when an activity that you once loved is suddenly a burden to even think about. It’s a grieving process. Grief leads to guilt that you should be doing something more—riding more, visiting the barn more.
Grieving the Fun
If this sounds like you, you have not permanently lost your ability to enjoy horses. Your sense of grief may be unfounded because you still have the ability and knowledge you once had (of course, once healing and doctors’ orders are obeyed if you had an accident). You haven’t lost the skill, you’ve just temporarily misplaced it because fear is overwhelming.
Psychologists often say that fear plus grief equals debilitation. It’s too much to handle the emotions of fear and grief. Remind yourself of what you have done in the past and what you are capable of doing. Read some books about riding or watch videos—say to yourself “I can do that!”
The Plan Against Fear
Fear can be overwhelming and can make you feel like you have lost skills. I know hundreds of riders who say they have worked on their fear and overcome it. To be successful, you have to have a plan, think ahead and work slowly and meticulously on your plan.
How do you put a fear-conquering plan into action? Control your thoughts. There’s a mind-body-spirit connection. One part of the trilogy affects all the others. Once the emotion of fear takes over, there are physical affects in your body and your mind devolves into negative thoughts.
If you allow yourself to think “what if he falls,” or “he’s going to spook,” you’re focusing on the negative. That’s allowing fear to take over. Instead of allowing your mind to pollute, sing a song, or visualize what you want your ride to be like. If you have video of yourself riding in the past, watch that. Or watch a favorite rider and notice how confidently they sit the canter. Get those wonderful images in your mind to replace the negative.
Once your mind is in check, you’ll have more access to consciously direct your body. If your body is stuck in fear, you may subconsciously ride in a forward, hunched and gripping position. Once you can calm your thoughts, you can choose to take a breath and control your posture. If the fear can’t control your mind or your body, it can’t affect your whole life.
When you visit the barn, target the exact moment you become fearful. Start to notice your body’s reactions to even the idea of riding. You may think you’re fearful of cantering, but do you really feel your body shake when you saddle up?
Once you know the point that causes your fear, also identify your comfort zone. You may feel peaceful when you catch your horse, but when you saddle him, that’s the moment fear enters. Stay in the comfort zone as long as you need–for days, weeks or months. Repeatedly walk out to catch your horse then groom and let him go.
Soon you’ll be ready to do a little more—maybe saddle and walk. Just do a little more when you feel like it and celebrate your successes. Small ventures outside your comfort zone will help you move on. Don’t push and always feel okay about staying within your comfort zone to build confidence.
If you have a setback, go back to a known comfort zone and start creeping ahead again. Soon, you’ll find that you want to do more as long as you build up to it in small increments. At some point, you’ll feel your old comfort level and your old confidence pop back in and your desire to ride will return.
Don’t let anyone else prompt you to do more than what you want. Don’t push yourself because of peer pressure.
When you do reach a new level, share with friends and take a moment to praise yourself. Mastering fear is a lot of work; make sure to treat yourself well. Eat right and get in better shape—it will really help! What you do to make yourself healthier, build strength and improve balance, will help your confidence in general.
Pay attention to how you’re feeling emotionally before you approach your horse. If your day is already going downhill, don’t push yourself on your fear-mastering plan. On those days, take your horse on a walk or do some groundwork. If you’re feeling good and the weather is great, those are the days to push yourself a little more and consider stepping out of your comfort zone—and toward your long-term goal of enjoying your horse once more.