Horses

Dealing with Fear as an Equestrian

This is a hard post to write because it’s hard to admit that I’m afraid. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right? So here goes. Hi, I’m Julia and I’m afraid of getting hurt while riding.

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I used to read posts on Facebook and other equestrian forums about how to deal with fear and I could not relate AT ALL. I loved riding. I was dying to ride. I would ride anything. For my first horse I bought a 5 year old thoroughbred that came off the track just a few months before. I was green. He was green. It was a disaster waiting to happen. And yet, nothing bad ever happened. I’ve had him 10 years and only come off him twice. I’ve jumped, ridden trails all over the place, ridden with other, crazier horses, encountered motorcycles, FedEx trucks, barking dogs, bicyclists, honking cars, and many other things that could have ended in an emergency room visit. I wasn’t afraid though. I stayed calm through spooks, crow hops, and bucks, and I wasn’t afraid. It was all part of riding horses and I loved riding horses.

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Baron, my wonderful, safe horse.

My next horse I owned for two years and came off only once. I wasn’t the best rider, but I was competent by that time. I still had very little fear. I knew eventually I would fall, because everyone does, no matter how well you ride, but I didn’t live in fear of the next time.

I’m not sure why I didn’t come off more than I did. I think I was mentally tougher back then. I stayed calm and therefore the horse stayed calm. I hadn’t come off enough times to have a fear of coming off. When things got squirrelly, I didn’t immediately kick into fear mode. I assessed the situation and did what I could to stay on. It wasn’t an emotional experience. It didn’t have feelings of dread attached to it. In my mind I wasn’t playing a soundtrack of “Oh my gahhhhd, I’m about to get thrown and it’s going to hurt when I hit the ground!”

The next horse I rode for about a year and a half was unpredictable and had a rearing problem. That was her go to move, although if that didn’t work, she wasn’t above bucking. I lost track of the number of times I came off her. It was a lot. I am proud of not coming off her more than I did. I sat some pretty awful shenanigans and remained in the saddle, rode through it and ended the ride on a positive note. But sometimes I came off, because sometimes she completely surprised me and sent me sailing over her head wondering how in the hell I ended up airborne.

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She was pretty, though.

It wasn’t until after I gave her away that I realized how afraid I was. I would ride other horses and realize I was afraid of coming off. These were nice, good horses that don’t play dirty tricks like bucking you off at a Christmas parade with zero warning for no discernible reason. Why was I afraid to ride horses I knew were safe, or as safe as horses can reasonably be?

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Nutty mare in a rare happy moment.

The answer lies in brain science- neural pathways. Neural pathways are like roads inside your brain. They could even be thought of as shortcuts. They’re similar to conditioned responses (remember Pavlov’s drooling dogs?). Does a certain smell remind you of Christmas and make you feel happy? Does a certain song remind you of your ex-boyfriend and make you feel sad, even though the break up happened long ago? That happens because your brain formed a neural pathway relating one thing to the other. Gingerbread = Christmas = Happy. If you don’t want gingerbread to remind you of Christmas, you’ll have to build a new neural pathway. Let’s say every time you smell gingerbread, someone punches you in the face. Before long your brain will no longer produce the happiness chemicals when you smell gingerbread.

I had so many bad experiences on my last horse that my neural pathway associated with riding completely changed. My neural pathway now looks like this: Riding = Falling = Fear. I am riding what is probably the safest equine on the planet now, and I’m still afraid because my brain was conditioned to feel that way. Fear is not logical because it comes from chemicals in your brain, not a rational assessment of facts. I know logically that I will most likely not be seriously injured while riding my mule, but that doesn’t change the fact that my brain produces stress hormones every single time I get on her. The only way to change that is to burn new neural pathways.

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Burning new neural pathways on my mule, Ellie

The way that is done is simply having enough good, safe rides that my brain begins to produce dopamine again (the happiness chemical), instead of cortisol (the stress chemical). I am building a new highway in my brain. “Riding = Fun” is the billboard on that new highway.

If you’re dealing with fear and you find it frustrating and hard to understand, that’s because it’s completely illogical. It’s not you; it’s your brain! These are things that are working for me in re-wiring my brain for confidence.

1. Get back on as soon as possible if you fall off. You know the George Morris quote about getting back on unless you’re going to the hospital? That’s not just about being a bad ass. It’s about ending the experience on a positive note so that your brain doesn’t have a chance to pave a pathway of fear. You have to quickly replace that fear with relaxation. On the other hand, if you’re riding a nut job of a horse and coming off all the time, move on to #2.

2. Ride a safe horse. This is by far the most important. Don’t continue to ride a horse that is too much for you to handle. I came to that conclusion after a year of banging my head against the wall with my last mare. She was too much for me. Sure, I made some progress with her, but at what cost? She scared the crap out of me! She turned riding from bliss into terror. Riding is supposed to be fun. Get yourself a horse that you can have fun with and feel safe on. If that means you have to buy a 22 year old draft cross that would not canter unless there were an actual mountain lion nipping at her heels, then you write that check and bring that old girl home.

3. Stack positive experiences on top of each other to build new neural pathways. Every single time you have a safe, fun ride, your brain builds a stronger association between riding and relaxation. Ride as much as possible in a way that makes it easy to relax, even if that means all you do is walk around a round pen or an arena. What do you feel safe doing? You should do that over and over and over and over. The brain learns by repetition, so repeat that fun ride. Eventually you’ll be able to build on that and move up to something more challenging. If you had a bad fall while jumping and now you’re freaked out by it, go back to something easy like a crossrail or a 2′ vertical, whatever seems easy to you. Use the easy things to build your confidence before you try the challenging or scary things again.

4. Decide if you’re in the right discipline. Look, eventing isn’t for everyone. The thought of galloping full speed ahead toward a solid obstacle makes me want to puke. I’m not made of the stuff that eventers are made of. Maybe you’re not either. That’s okay. Try lots of different things with your horse and settle on one that doesn’t scare you so bad you want to hurl.

5. Assess what riding means to you. I knew a lady once who decided to get into horses. She bought a couple well-trained trail horses, a fancy trailer, all the best tack, and was camping and riding all the time with her friends. She got thrown out on the trail, went to the hospital, and even though her injuries were minor, she never sat on a horse again. She sold the whole kit and kaboodle and that was it for her. She was done with horses forever. That is hard for me to understand because I cannot imagine my life without horses. Do people have other hobbies? I am as addicted to this whole horse lifestyle as the biggest junkie. This is my meth and, instead of bad teeth, I get very strong thighs. But maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re trying horses and realizing it isn’t for you. I tried rock climbing and realized it’s not for me. The fear of heights far outweighed the fun. If that’s how horses are for you, there’s no shame in it. Move on to something that makes you happy.

6. Be assured that there’s a lot more to horses than riding them. Even if you decide you can’t ride anymore because you can’t afford to risk getting hurt, or because you have a health condition that makes it impossible, you can still have horses. You could have mini horses and nobody would ask why you don’t ride them! Plenty of people have older, retired horses that they don’t ride anymore, but the horses are still part of their family and they enjoy caring for them now in their senior years as much as they enjoyed riding them when they were young. If you are at your core a horse person, the kind that will dodder around the barn when you’re 80 and remind the lesson kids to look up and keep their heels down, then horses were never just about riding for you anyway. You’ve got it- the bug, the freak gene that accompanies horse craziness, the thing in your blood that makes horse sweat smell like perfume and an affectionate nicker like a tonic for your soul. People like us are not just riders; we are horse people. There’s a difference.

3 thoughts on “Dealing with Fear as an Equestrian

  1. This is an excellent post! My current horse is my first horse. I hadn’t ridden horses for 4 years before I got him. He was/is green and lacked balance and has a horrible conformation. He was reactive. I came off him a lot and it began to get worse after I had been riding regularly in lessons. We came to realize the work we were asking of him was too much for his body so my riding outgrew him. I simply began to ride the lesson horses and now I ride him for fun with no agenda.

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