By Bob Jeffreys
Fear can be an awfully unpleasant, or even paralyzing feeling. Since most of us ride to have fun, we need to put fear in its place. We should always have a certain respect for an animal that is much stronger and faster than we are, but we should enjoy our time with horses, not dread it.
When you ride in fear it changes the way you ride. Your muscles and joints stiffen, you forget to breathe properly, and generally become unstable and uncomfortable. When we hold our breath or become tense, our horses notice it. They won’t understand the actual cause of our fear, but will recognize its presence and assume that they too should be afraid. After all, when the lead horse in a herd says there’s danger around and runs, the herd follows. When this happens you’ll be riding a spooky horse, which makes you even more afraid and things will only get worse until you break the cycle.
Often fear is introduced to our riding when we have gotten hurt by being thrown or dumped or run off with. The worst thing about getting hurt is not always the physical injury itself. Most of the time the physical portion of the experience heals long before the psychological element of fear can be dealt with effectively.
In order to deal with your fears you need to go back to a place in your riding or training where you feel absolutely comfortable. Otherwise, you will find all sorts of excuses to avoid dealing with your fear. For some of you, that place may be just grooming your horse or working on ground manners. You can spend good quality time playing ground games with your horse, which will be fun for both of you. Having fun, laughing and praising your equine buddy as he jumps a barrel for you or crosses a tarp or a piece of plywood leaves little time for fear. Just remember to keep the fun in it for your horse too. Many people get so caught up in perfecting ground work, they can actually start to “drill” the horse which can make them grumpy. Grumpy horses are often a cause of fear and this would certainly be counterproductive to what we’re trying to accomplish. Keep your ground work fun and progressive without drilling the horse. When you’re comfortable at this stage you’ll be ready to move on.
A round pen or small corral is a good place to start your mounted exercises. Work on something simple with your horse, such as walking and asking him to “give to the bit” and “follow his nose”. Concentrate on your breathing – feel the air go in through you nose, into your chest and spread out in your seat before reversing course and exiting. When you’re comfortable with this, try to imagine that your legs are long enough to allow your feet to scrape along the ground. This corrects much of your body position. Feel your hips working in sync with the horse’s front feet (you’ll notice that as your left hip reaches the apex of its movement to the left, the horse’s left front foot will hit the ground). Now add some cones around your work area. Wind your way through and around the cones, adding more as you get comfortable. Remember to keep your breathing even and your feet “scraping the ground”.
Eventually you’ll feel really good about your control and will want to bring all the exercises up to the trot. After a while you can move to a larger enclosure and finally you’ll be confident enough to introduce the canter (keep breathing!). Don’t allow outside influences, such as peer pressure, or anything else, force you to move along faster than feels safe. Also give yourself a reasonable, realistic time frame to accomplish your goals. This may take only hours, but it may take days or weeks or even months.
You’ll be pleased to know that your riding skills will be improving while you’re training your horse to a higher performance level as your fears diminish. You will be reinforcing the mutual bond of trust between yourself and your horse. Riding becomes fun again and your fear will become manageable. Using precise exercises and being specific about where you turn or stop forces you to concentrate on your riding and you won’t be focusing on your fears.
Always keep in mind however, that a healthy respect for safety is not a bad thing. Your cumulative knowledge and experience with horses often activates a certain “inner voice” that you need to listen to. If you think that galloping down this rocky incline could get you hurt…you’re right…don’t do it! …Ride safe.
©Two as One Horsemanship September 2011.