When the Horse You Love Scares You
Being with your horse should be fun. But if you’re frightened of him, you dread going to the barn and look for excuses not to ride.
How can you overcome this fear when your horse scares you, and get the joy back?
Get into the habit of visualizing yourself as a confident rider and horse owner.
In his excellent book, With Winning in Mind Lanny Bassham writes that it’s vital to set up a new self-image which directly conflicts with your old fearful habits and attitudes. He advocates writing a Directive Affirmation to ‘reshape the mind’ and become the person you want to be.
Putting Pen to Paper
The Directive Affirmation
Define your goal in the present tense, as if you’ve already attained it:
e.g. “I am very confident around my horse”
Fix a reasonable time limit:
e.g. three months from now
Write down the pay-back from reaching that goal:
e.g. “I ride my horse with confidence in competitions.”
Outline your plan for achieving the goal:
e.g. “I go through calming exercises before riding. I aim to go outside my comfort zone a little more each day, record every ride and read my Directive Affirmations every day.”
Put copies of your Directive Affirmation in prominent places where you’ll read it several times a day.
Bassham explains that “there are only two possible outcomes. Either you will become the person you want to be or you will stop reading the affirmation. It is that simple.”
Having used this system to get over fear of my own horse, I can attest to the truth of this.
Your long-term goal is ‘to not be afraid of your horse,’ but to achieve that you need short-term goals.
Venture just a little outside your comfort zone each time you ride or handle your horse. You’ll see below that I told myself ‘to do one courageous thing a day.’ That’s not taking you way outside where your safety area, but it will stretch you a little bit daily and make you feel good about yourself.
For example, maybe you’re afraid to ride alone. Make yourself feel more comfortable by wearing a back protector, putting a neck strap on your horse and having a friend/instructor watch you. But each time you ride, have that person leave you alone, for longer and longer periods, until you’re going solo. Eventually you won’t need that vest or neck-strap.
Keep a Log of Your Rides
Record your daily progress, which Bassham calls a Success Analysis: “write down anything you did well ….. This forces you to be positive about your sport and your performance.”
In her excellent book, Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse Tonya Johnston uses the same principle in her Post-Ride Notes.
Combining features from both books, I devised the following log and filled it in before and after each of my rides while learning to overcome my own anxiety.
(Items written in italics are those which change with every ride.)
Date: March 17th Weather: Cool and very windy
My Mood: Nervous My Horse’s Mood: Calm
Pre-ride Preparation: (i.e. your unchanging routine to help get ready to mount your horse without panicking)
Deep breathing – in the barn – on the mounting block – in walk
Reading my Direct Affirmation
Telling myself I’m a good rider
Solution Oriented Attitude:
I have the skills to meet the challenge
Note: I recommend listening to an uplifting piece of music on the way to the barn, as Daniel Stewart suggests in Pressure Proof Your Riding. This will put you in the right mood while you deal with your fear, then become your victory song once you are confident!
You can sing while you groom your horse, or recite a helpful Bible verse. And of course, you’ll be visualizing a perfect ride!
I can focus my horse on his work
I’m getting good at shoulder-in (my tool for when he tries to spook)
Negative Thought Stopping Cues: (permanent cues to snap you out of negative thinking)
Words: “Go forwards!”
Image: Kelly (my previous quiet horse, now deceased)
Go quietly through four trot poles without leaping over all of them and bucking
Ride back to the barn past the line of trees swaying in the wind without worrying that he’ll spook
He rushed through the poles, but I stayed calm and made him walk over them
He was very ‘up’ because of the wind, but I got him to focus on shoulder-in and leg yields
Highlights: (This section must include at least two positive statements. No negatives!)
He was testing me, but I stayed firm and quiet in the saddle
He was naughty coming back to the barn and I felt as if he was going to rear. So I got off, intending to lead him back.
Then I remembered my resolution: “Do one courageous thing a day” and got back on.
He was antsy, so I drove him forwards without stiffening up J
He walked quietly back to the barn. Hurray! J
Once you concentrate on the good things instead of the bad, you’ll be amazed at the number of highlights and smiley faces your logs contain. When you get rid of the negative self-talk you allow yourself to be a competent rider.
I was able to get back on my horse that day because I’d been reading my Directive Affirmation morning, noon and night, and filling out the Post-Ride Notes for a couple of months.
Soon afterwards, I forgot to go through my mental routine – I didn’t need it anymore!
The same thing will happen to you.
Here are some practical riding tips to increase your confidence.
- Ride your horse purposefully forward, with transitions between gaits, changes of direction and circles to keep his brain – and yours – occupied.
- Ride with other quiet horses to calm you both down.
- Practice the following in the arena so they become a ‘comfortable default’ for both of you in real or perceived emergencies:
- one rein stop: teach this to your horse on the ground, first, so he sees you as his leader and respects you when you use it in the saddle.
- shoulder-in: your horse brings his head and shoulders off the track, and cannot buck, rear or bolt. But he’s still moving, so he doesn’t feel restricted and panic.
Don’t stay stuck with your fear. Using mental and physical tools you can become confident around your horse and enjoy him again.
Resources & Further Reading
With Winning in Mind by Lanny Bassham
This book applies to all forms of sport and provides invaluable psychological weapons for overcoming fear.
Pressure Proof Your Riding by Daniel Stewart
This book is a mine of useful tips for reducing stress in competitive riders, but also applies to the non-competitor.
That Winning Feeling! by Jane Savoie
Aimed at all riding levels, this book will truly boost your self-confidence.
Think Like a Horse He has valid points to make if you can get past the way he says some things! J