Overcoming Rider Fear

Come with me for a moment, relax, and turn on your imagination! Now, picture in your mind the best equestrian you know – the one you most admire or even envy. What is it that makes them the best? Maybe they turn incredible times at barrel racing, they may be upper level dressage, perhaps they can rope a steer and turn him in just a few seconds, or they are perfectly balanced while jumping, or maybe they are just so relaxed and confident while riding the trail that you just can’t help but admire them. It doesn’t matter what their specific strength is, this is your ideal rider.

Now think about the picture, the setting of them riding a horse. Detail the thought in your mind. What do they look like riding – their facial expressions, their posture, their physical focus. What sounds do you hear? The breathing of their relaxed, calm horse? Their own quiet, deep breaths? The thud of perfectly cadenced hoofbeats? The creak of leather, a quiet swish of a tail? And what does the scene feel like? The rider and horse are perfectly balanced, rider deep-seated and secure. They have light finger pressure on the reins, legs and hips moving with the horse, smooth impact at each footstep. Do you have the scene in your mind?

The truth is, you can become like that rider. That particular person may have more experience in training or have ridden longer than you have, but they have the same basic physiology that you do. The limits to your performance, be it behavior or achievement related, is what you tell yourself. You can become that rider.

It all starts in your mind. Our thoughts generally affect our emotions, and that becomes an energy, which becomes an action. This is true with our relationships with horses, as well as the way we approach our entire life. It is therefore important to be completely integrated in your approach to riding. Your thoughts should be clear and precise about what you are doing and what you want to achieve. Your emotions should be in line with your thoughts so that you are not sending conflicting messages to your horse – you should expect and visualize success, so that you are able to respond appropriately emotionally. Your energy should be positive, and your actions clean and decisive.

1 – Visualization of a successful performance is a key element in your ability to actually perform that well during the actual event. Pretend that you are an actor or actress playing the part of a confident, relaxed, competent and successful rider. How would you act? Where would you hold your chin (up!), your shoulders and heels (down!), your hands (relaxed). How would your voice sound? What would the expression on your face show? How slowly would you breathe, how firm and quiet would your heart beat? When you’re working with your horse, become this person. Identify with them. Forget all about your own personal hang-ups, worries, anxieties, and other unnecessary issues. Be, in your mind and with your horse, the person that you want to be.

2 – Focus on the very best. Do you remember the very best ride of your life? How about a day unrelated to riding, in which you felt safe, secure and comfortable? Dwell on those feelings, make the feelings brighter and larger in your mind for a couple of minutes. Enjoy remembering how that felt. You can bring forth the same feelings of confidence in your body now by thinking about how much you are going to enjoy being a successful equestrian, however you have defined that personal goal. It is possible to ruin a great performance by focusing on how it feels to have a BAD performance, in the same way. If you focus on the good, you are setting yourself up to attain it. Your mind is the rudder for your actions!

3 – Repeat after yourself – come up with a phrase that you run through your mind to remind yourself of your strength, your goals, and the fact that horses are fun! For example, “My horse and I are a team, and we’re having a wonderful ride!” Even something that simple can help keep your mind in the groove to stay out of your body’s way in a great performance!

4 – Imagine that your horse can hear every word that you are thinking. Remember, you are your horse’s leader. You are the source of his confidence and feeling of security and safety. Your horse is a sensitive animal, and they become discouraged easily… so you have to make sure that you only use positive words in your thoughts, that you are upbeat, and that you believe in him! He can hear you… now what were you thinking?

SAFETY FIRST! Be aware of your surroundings, of the way your horse might perceive situations, and minimize any dangers by using smart horsemanship.

Remember to breathe – horses and humans both take about 12 breaths per minute when relaxed. Synchronize with your horse! Breathe from your belly, not your shoulders. Breathing releases tension and removes toxins from your bloodstream. It oxygenates your brain allowing you to think more clearly and be more receptive. Deep breathing will actually let you become calm.
– Breathe in for the count of 3 – deeply in hale through your nose, expanding your lungs to fill your chest and belly.
– Hold for a count of 3, and tell yourself in a strong, quiet, confident mental voice “I feel calm and in control now.”
-Exhale gently through your mouth for the count of 3, letting your upper body relax as you do so.

Focus your vision. Stress and fear cause our vision to lose focus and that ALLOWS our brain to panic. When you start to become nervous or apprehensive, make the definite, conscious decision to SEE everything. Notice detail in regards to your horse, your tack, your hands and body posture, your breathing, the environment. Pretend that you may have to report everything that happened to an interested friend later. See everything!

Think like your horse to understand his perspective. He doesn’t think like a human and he is not capable of doing so, but you are able to consider life from your horse’s viewpoint. Until they stamp the word “Suzuki” or “Harley Davidson” on his side, he has a right to his own point of view, emotions and attitude. Realize that he is not worried about yesterday or tomorrow, he is concerned primarily with the situation that the two of you are in at that very moment. Remember that his response to fear is generally “fight or flight”; if he is fighting against you or trying to escape, is it being caused by his fear? Is there anything you can do to help make him more comfortable and relaxed?

Consciously relax. Your hands, arms, shoulders, back, neck, seat, legs. Your horse can feel a fly land on his skin, he can certainly feel if you are tense, or confident! Square your shoulders, raise your chin! Be the confident leader that he can follow.

Smile like you mean it – it changes your intent! No one is forcing you to work with your horse most likely, you are doing so because it is your choice. So why not enjoy it?

And the biggest tool in the toolbox – accept responsibility! Whatever happens, do not blame your horse! You are the human leader, you are calling the shots, not the other way around. You need to accept responsibility and fix things that go wrong, to set yourself and your horse up for success. Your emotional control over yourself is far more important to your success as a team than is tight physical control over the horse himself!

And finally, remember the words of the inimitable John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.”


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