I seriously contemplated quitting riding all together about a year ago. I've been riding almost as long as I've been walking & I almost let fear take away my biggest joy.
I was afraid to canter. I was afraid to jump. I was afraid to even sit on my horse. It was this all consuming feeling. Nothing serious had happened. No major injury, not catastrophic fall, or near-death experience. My mind just decided it was going to try & convince me that the risk versus reward of horses was no longer leaning in favor of reward.
I thought about letting Annie just retire (at 10) and I would come groom her and let her hand graze, but not get back on her back. I struggled with this for awhile. I kept riding, but not without this dark cloud of fear hovering over me every step of the way. I would walk a lot, trot some, & canter maybe 2-3 strides if I was having a REALLY brave day. Then one day, it all came spiraling down. I was in a lesson & I was honestly close to tears at the thought of just cantering over a single pole on the ground. My entire body was so tense & more rigid than a solid piece of oak. If they had to put a picture of fear in the dictionary, it would've been my trembling body thinking of even cantering over a jump pole. My saving grace in many facets of my life has been my complete determination & inability to feel like my mind has power over me. I am not my thoughts, I am the observer of my thoughts. I've overcome severe anxiety & depression, so I knew I could overcome this too. I do NOT accept fear as a reason to not do something. Well... maybe I would use it as a good excuse for not trying to jog through rush-hour traffic or jump off a cliff... but not when it comes to the activities that I love, I won't let fear be the reason I throw in the towel. When I set my mind to something, I do it. And I truly believe we can all wrangle in those incessant thoughts of impending death while in the saddle. These are the exact steps I took to overcome crippling fear in the saddle: 1. I reminded myself WHY I ride. At one point my fear had gotten so bad I was actually considering not riding at all. I sat down and made a list of all the things I love about riding and horses in general. I wrote about how it made me feel and what riding has meant to me throughout my entire life. Reminding myself of why I ride in the first place made me realize there was too much to lose by choosing to stop riding all together. 2. I put it out in the opened. I told my trainer I was feeling a ton of fear. I told my friends I ride with (pretty sure they already knew based on the fact I would only canter like two strides at a time 😂). When you put something out in the, it loses so much of its power. It’s the same thing I’ve done with overcoming my panic attacks; I told everyone I had them & they suddenly weren’t quite as scary. When you just admit that you’re afraid in the saddle, you take this enormous pressure off yourself to act brave all the time. It gives you permission to get help from your trainer or the people you ride with.
3. Visualization... stick with me on this one! Before I would get in the saddle, I would sit there for a minute or two and just imagine my feet landing safely on the ground after a ride, and petting Annie on the neck like I always do. Sometimes my entire drive to the barn I would just be imagining the feeling of my feet hitting the ground when we made it safely back to the barn. There was tremendous sense of peace in this feeling of “knowing” I safely made it back to the barn. I didn’t try and visualize my entire ride; that’s too unpredictable and I didn’t want to get discouraged if my ride wasn’t going the way I had visualized it on my way there. It’s so simple, but it made me so much more relaxed. Anytime I start to feel tense I just say to myself, “I already know I make it back to the barn safely!”
4. Taking lessons on a saintly lesson horse to build my confidence over jumps. This has been so great for my confidence while riding Annie. When you know more & feel more confident at something, you won’t be as afraid to do it. It’s like the first time you drive a car it’s sort of terrifying because you don’t know much yet, but once you’ve been doing it for a decade, it feels like second nature. The more positive repetitions you can do of whatever you’re afraid of, the more your brain will realize “oh this isn’t so scary after all!”
5. Baby steps. I didn’t try and force myself to get on Annie and gallop around a 3’ jumper course. No, I just trotted to one little cross rail. Then that went good, so I would do 2 little cross rails. Then when that was going great, I’d canter to a pole on the ground. I just built it up one tiny step at a time, not moving to the next step until I was fairly confident at the step before it. You have to push yourself a TINY bit out of your comfort zone, but don’t try and force yourself to just do all the scariest things all at once.
6. Take lessons with someone who gives you the tools to ride your horse effectively. I’ve taken consistent lessons with my trainer for a year and a half now and I feel like I finally have the tools to actually ride Annie effectively. She used to run away at the canter (a lot of that was saddle fit) so I was terrified to try and canter her. I got her a new saddle fitted properly to her and then I learned how to ride her effectively. Annie isn’t the easiest horse to ride. She’s a chestnut mare, so you have to make everything HER idea. The more I’ve learned how to do just that, the more confident I am riding her. I used to canter her one or two strides before screeching back to a halt, and only when the footing was ideal, and there weren’t many people in the ring, and she was on her best behavior, and... well I had this idea of all the stars aligning before I would canter her. Now, I’ll happily canter her around our arena when it’s flooded, with 6 other people riding, and a full jump course in the way. How did I make this change? I just learned HOW to ride her canter safely. This step has made a huge difference, but I couldn’t have gotten to this point if I wouldn’t first have taken care of the mental aspect of leaving the fear out of the saddle.
It’s completely normal for our brains to try and keep us safe, and, well , theres a lot of sketchy things we do when we decide to sit on a 1000 pound prey animal.
Just be gentle with yourself. Find the right trainer. Find the right horse. And don’t beat yourself up about the fear, but don’t let it debilitate you. Think of it as a challenge to overcome! 💪🏼