A few years ago I had a really unpredictable mare who had a habit of dumping me when I least expected it. It was not a good experience, to say the least. Previously I had been pretty fearless. I wasn’t particularly skilled, but I was a competent rider. I was always learning and trying to improve, and I loved riding more than anything. All I wanted to do was ride.
Having my nutty mare really did a number on my confidence. Even after I gave her to a friend and started riding safe, sensible horses again, I found that I was afraid. A few years later, I still have some anxiety about riding. I bail pretty quick if things get sketchy. I am not afraid to hop off if I feel like a situation is deteriorating. BUT, I’ve done a few things that have helped my anxiety and I will share them because I know this is a common problem.
First, I ride “safe” horses. If we’re being honest, there’s no such thing as a safe horse. Horses are, by definition, dangerous; they are prey animals with a tendency toward flight. Some horses are more safe than others, though, and I ride the ones that have a good track record.
I don’t imagine my riding skills to be more advanced than they are. If a horse is too much for me, I admit it. I have nothing to prove. I want to ride again tomorrow, not be in a cast because I got dumped off a horse I had no business riding in the first place.
This doesn’t mean I don’t take chances. Last year I was given a full Belgian draft horse that was emaciated. I got him fat again and then I wanted to ride him and see what he knew. The first time I rode him, I got on him bareback with a halter and reins just to see how he reacted. I figured I could bail more easily bareback than with my feet in irons. It turned out he was totally fine, and I continued to ride him until I found him a wonderful new home. BUT, if I had gotten on and realized he had major issues, I would have quit and let a professional take over. I know my limits.
Once I know a horse is safe, I trust it. We all know logically that if we ride with a death grip on the reins and our legs like a vise grip, our horses will be nervous. When we have anxiety, we start to tense up and we unwittingly start to cling and grasp and grip. I’ve found it’s better to force myself to relax. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I take deep breaths, loosen up my grip, sit deep and straight and let my legs relax. Doing this over and over has resulted in it becoming a normal part of my riding routine. I get on and I go through my relaxation steps. Deep breaths, shoulders back, legs long and still.
I reward my horses for relaxation by riding on a loose rein. I understand that if you’re into the show scene, this won’t apply to you, but if you’re a pleasure or trail rider, I’ve found this works like a charm with every horse I’ve ever had. The more relaxed the horse gets, the less I bother him. If he’s jiggy or nervous, I’ll ride with two hands like a proper English rider, and I find that nervous horses actually do get some comfort from being reminded that you’re up there and you’re calling the shots. (I don’t mean a death grip. I mean normal steady contact.)
But what I really prefer is to ride through the woods with one hand on the reins, my horse stretching out long and rounding up underneath me. A good horse knows its job and doesn’t want to be micromanaged. If my horse is trucking along, happy as can be, I don’t bother him. This relaxes him and it relaxes me. We feed off each other’s relaxation.
Even though I have some anxiety, I made up my mind that I’m going to ride anyway because I’m always happy I did. It’s important to point out that I don’t ride in an arena with a trainer. 99% of the time I trail ride in the woods alone, just me and my horse. That seems like a weird thing to do for someone with anxiety, but I don’t have a ton of horsey friends to ride with and if I waited for a friend to come along, I would never get to ride.
I made up my mind to get out there and explore and not make excuses. There are a million excuses from tack to the weather to whatever thing we make up to avoid riding and feeling anxiety. I decided I wasn’t going to make excuses. I was going to ride my horse, far and often. I wasn’t going to be one of those people who talks endlessly about horses and riding but never actually rides.
I think of it as building a brick wall. Every ride is another brick in the wall of confidence. Every time I go out, I gain more confidence in my horse and myself. I recently moved and I now have all kinds of wonderful places to ride, both straight from my barn and a short trailer ride away (including the beach!). I’ve had some amazing rides since I moved to the island- the kind of rides where you feel like a horse crazy kid again and you are so in love with your horse and with the feeling of being out there together getting the job done.
In a nutshell, that is what has helped me beat anxiety- putting myself in situations where I feel safe and I can relax and feel like a carefree kid again. Being able to ride my very own horse on the beautiful island where I grew up is a dream come true. Every ride brings me closer to the carefree kid and leaves the anxious adult behind.