How to Rein in Your Fears in the Saddle

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.

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.