Anyone who has ridden for any length of time would be dishonest
if they told you they have never felt fear. If you have any common
sense at all, you should have a certain level of “healthy fear”
whenever you get on a new horse. Call it “respect” if you prefer,
but there is always an awareness that the 1000-pounds or so of bone
and muscle you are sitting on is, physically, more powerful than
Horses can jump sideways in the blink of an eye, rear, buck, or
reach speeds over 25 miles per hour in a matter of seconds. They
are also capable of using that physical power to perform incredible
athletic feats like jumping, dressage, cutting, or reining. Our
desire to become partners with our horses in those athletic endeavors
makes us willing to take the risk of being thrown off or finding
ourselves on a panicked runaway.
A bad experience, usually something that could not have been avoided
no matter what the rider did, can turn healthy respect to fear.
Once a rider has been physically hurt in an accidentor even just
really frightened it can take a while to rebuild confidence. The
old rough-and-ready, cavalry-style philosophy promised that if you
just got right back on again, everything would be fine. However,
suppressing fear seldom works. Neither does it help to tell someone
to “just get over it.”
Fear is usually related to the rider’s skill level. The best way
to overcome riding fears is to work on developing a completely independent
seat. An independent seat gives the rider the confidence the he
or she has the ability to ride through just about anything the horse
might do. Riders also need to develop habits that allow them to
stay mentally and emotionally centered in a rhythmic and relaxed
way when their horse becomes excited or frightened. One of the partners
has to stay calm in order to bring the other back to that state.
It is hard to get past your fear when you work by yourself. Finding
a competent instructor who acknowledges your confidence crisis without
either belittling it or catering to it is important. You need someone
who understands how to back up and find the point where you are
comfortable riding and how to help you work forward again from that
point in a logical progression to regain your confidence.
Having the right horse or horses available can also be critical
when you are trying to rebuild confidence. People who are afraid
of riding often have good reason to bethey may have realized that
they are over mounted on their own horse. Trying to work through
fear on the same animal that caused your fears can be very difficult.
We are fortunate here at Meredith Manor to have the luxury of 130
to 150 horses to choose among when our instructors sit down to make
weekly horse assignments for individual students. When we get a
fearful student, we can put them on goldie oldie school horses that
give them a lot of positive reinforcement and gradually rebuild
their confidence by moving them onto horses that take greater skill.
Fear around horses is not limited to riding. Many people feel intimidated
when they have to catch, lead or groom an unruly, ill-mannered horse.
Even if they manage to dominate the horse using a chain lead shank
or other artificial means, they may still have a queasy feeling
because they know they are not really in charge of the situation.
Here, again, a good instructor should be able to help a fearful
student learn how to confidently and safely work around and re-school
a spoiled horse with bad ground manners.
Training methods aimed at making the trainer “dominant” work only
as long as nothing scarier or more dominant than the trainer is
in the horse’s immediate environment. Handling techniques that depend
on chain shanks or war bridles do not result in permanent changes
in the horse’s attitude or true confidence on the part of his handler.
We use a groundwork system we call “heeding” because it teaches
the students to pay attention to their horses at all times and teaches
the horse to pay attention to its handler at all times. Through
consistent handling with rhythm and relaxation from the moment they
enter a horse’s stall until they put him away, they learn how to
develop a rapport with their horses. The goal is to make the horse
feel like the trainer or rider is always the safest place to be
whenever exciting or unusual things happen.
Learning how to approach and work with horses on the ground in
a rhythmic and relaxed way not only keeps the horses calm, but also
teaches the students how to relax and stay calm. Using rhythmic
breathing and rhythmic movements while they groom or lead their
horses becomes a habit they can carry into their riding. The habit
of staying rhythmic with their breathing, their seat, or their reins
when things start falling apart helps both rider and horse relax
and become calm again more readily.
Every rider must eventually face fear and overcome it. Fear is
not something to be ashamed of or to hide. When it happens to you,
find an instructor with the right attitude, the right program of
progressive skill training, and the right horses to get you back
on track again.
About the Author
© 2001-2004 Meredith Manor
International Equestrian Centre. All rights reserved.
As a horse industry professional for 30 years,
Faith Meredith has successfully trained and competed horses through
FEI levels of dressage. She currently coaches riders in dressage,
reining, and eventing at Meredith
Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian