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How to Rein in Your Fears in the Saddle

By: Marcia King

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An accident, a near-accident, intimidation by a willful horse – these are common scenarios that, for some people, can hinder or end an interest in riding. But despite a mishap or a difficult horse/rider relationship, many equestrians overcome their anxieties, recovering their self-assurance and going on to enjoy many accomplishments. They've broken the fear factor. Here are some tips in reining in those fears:

Between Rider and Horse

Fear of physical harm is not uncommon in equestrian activities. Because equestrian sports involve two living entities – the rider and the horse – the confidence or fear of one can greatly affect the confidence or fear of the other.

The rider communicates his fears to his horse via body language, change in voice, and change in body scent. A nervous rider often gets tense, stiff and rigid, or gets sloppy and applies too little leg and seat and too loose a rein. Sometimes a rider does a combination of both. As a result of these "aids," the horse seemingly over- or under-responds, or reacts in a manner as confusing as his rider's.

Frequently, a rider's voice rises when he is anxious. When the voice sounds different, the horse wonders if something is wrong. An anxious rider also may give off different body scents. Horses are sensitive to smells and often can pick up that change. In either case, the horse may balk or try to run off.

Regardless of how a horse responds to his rider's fear, the bottom line is the same: The rider is no longer in control. Fortunately, there are ways to temper those fears. Dr. Janeane Reagan, a clinical psychologist who specializes in equine sports psychology and conducts workshops on the subject, offers some suggestions:

Rein in Your Fear

To regain control, the rider must first identify what he or she is afraid of. "For most people," explains Dr. Reagan, "fears fall into two categories. The most common fear is that we're going to be harmed physically. The second is psychological harm – a fear that we're going to do something that will embarrass us ... in front of people."

The next step is to identify where that fear comes from. Fear of physical harm may have originated from a frightening personal experience, witnessing a scary episode, or hearing about someone's unfortunate incident. After identifying the source of these fears, the rider can begin to minimize them by rebuilding his confidence. There are several ways to do this.

  • Return to a more comfortable level. For example, work over smaller jumps or cavalletti, drop down to exercises at the trot or walk, ride shorter and more familiar trails in the company of seasoned horses, work on a lunge line to allow confidence to build.

  • Evaluate and improve riding schools. Develop a better seat, hands, legs and balance. For example, speed scares people mainly because they think they can't stop or will fall off. So getting the best balance that you can and knowing you can control the horse is going to be really important. You may need to canter on a horse that can go slower until you know you've got your balance and that you're confident on that horse, and then you can move to the more aggressive horse or the horse with longer, faster strides.

  • Take small steps. Master skills in very small steps, especially if a person has had a bad experience. The more you can break these down into small steps that you are comfortable and confident with, the more you're going to get over your fear.

  • Work with the right horse. In general, a horse's size and unpredictability scare some people. Starting out with the least intimidating critter, one that doesn't move quickly, one that is size-appropriate and temperament-appropriate, gives children and adults a chance to learn to predict some of the behaviors of the horse. That may mean selling your horse for one that's more appropriate, or temporarily leasing or schooling on a quieter, more consistent equine.

  • Discuss your fears. It's sometimes helpful to talk to others about your fears. Fears that we hold inside and stay silent about have a tendency to grow. Verbalizing our fears to people who are supportive often reduces the intensity of the fear.

  • Use relaxation techniques. Probably the most versatile and widely used technique is deep diaphragm breathing. These are long, slow breaths taken from the diaphragm rather than from the upper chest. Bring the air slowly in as if bringing it in through a long straw and then pushing it out slowly. Practice in a calm, quiet environment. Utilize these techniques before mounting the horse, while riding the horse, or whenever you feel yourself getting tense.

  • Create a "brain video." Produce a mental image in which you achieve your goal in a calm, relaxed manner. Begin by first practicing at home the deep-breathing relaxation technique and then picturing yourself succeeding at what you wish to achieve. For example, a nervous jumper could begin by imagining going over small, non-threatening jumps. Just seeing themselves going over in a very relaxed and a very proper form, they begin to get the right picture in their minds. Along with the picture is the right condition in their bodies, which is a relaxed, confident position. As you progress, you can mentally raise the jump a few inches, taking care that you sees yourself handling each new step with confidence.

    As soon as the negative image starts to come in, your body tenses. Back off from the negative image, relax your body, and start again at the point where you didn't have a negative image and just build on that.

    Play your "brain video" and do deep breathing at home each day for 12 to 15 minutes, when you're preparing to work with your horse and when mounted.

  • Use positive thinking. Do you have a positive or negative internal dialogue? Do you mentally tell yourself, This won't work, I'm going to mess this up?

    Negative self-talk reinforces the fear. We're telling ourselves this is going to be a bad outcome, so our body reacts to that as if that's the truth. Think about performing well.

    Get a Grip

    Regardless of the personal demons that haunt a nervous rider, by taking the right physical and mental steps, by building up riding skills, and shoring up floundering confidence, most riders can be back in the saddle again, riding with confidence, courage and control.

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