Sometimes getting back into the saddle after a nasty fall can be scary. Or maybe it’s simply been awhile since you’ve been in a saddle…and getting back on that big 1200-pound animal isn’t quite the same as getting back on a bicycle.
But have no fear—because our friends at Horse&Rider magazine have 5 easy ways to overcome your fear, grow your confidence, and get back in the saddle in no time.
Is fear keeping you from enjoying riding as much as you’d like? Has a past trauma or the onset of middle age shaken your confidence in the saddle? Does your anxiety cause you to feel embarrassed or ashamed?
You’re not alone. Dealing with fear is one of the most popular equine Q&A topics around, and it’s nothing to hang your head about. Horses are big, strong, unpredictable creatures; as clinician and author John Lyons says, fear is often simply “common sense in disguise.”
Whether the cause of your fear is real (a dangerous horse) or imagined (“what if” scenarios cluttering your mind), the fear itself is a clear indication you feel uncomfortable with the situation at hand–and that’s something you need to address.
Here are five double-duty fear busters–they’ll boost your confidence, plus help you become a better rider overall.
Fear Buster #1: Breathe for relaxation and focus.
How it works: Deep, rhythmic breathing calms and centers you. It’s almost impossible to feel anxiety without holding your breath or breathing shallowly–the natural responses of fearful riders. Proper breathing also reassures your horse.
“How would you feel if your horse held his breath?” asks Sally Swift in her first book, Centered Riding. “Frightened, most likely. And that’s the way he’d feel if you held yours. You can breathe a horse to quietness.” And yourself to increased confidence.
How to do it: Practice, practice, practice so that your breathing is habitually steady, rhythmic and coming from your diaphragm–the muscle that crosses the inside of your body beneath your rib cage. If your abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe, you’re using your diaphragm. If only your chest moves, you’re not.
“Polish your breathing technique using a yoga or Tai Chi video,” suggests Jessica Jahiel, clinician, author, and moderator of Horse-Sense, a popular online Q&A forum for horse owners. “Then, practice breathing properly all the time–at the table, at your desk, in your car, as you watch television. Do it whenever you’re upset or angry or startled. Make it a habit to react to surprises with deep breathing.” To remind yourself, post “belly breathe!” notes on your computer, dashboard, refrigerator, TV, tack box and other logical spots.
“In the saddle,” Jessica continues, “practice at a standstill and at all three gaits. Find a rhythm that corresponds to your horse’s strides and imagine that you’re releasing any tension you may be feeling each time you breathe out.”
Bonus benefit: As it does for any active sport, proper breathing will increase your ability to focus, concentrate and perform to the full extent of your skills and ability. (Plus, it’s good for your overall health.)
Fear Buster #2: Reprogram your “trigger point” (that is, your response to fear-inducing situations).
How it works: By focusing your attention on something constructive, rather than on your fear, you’re able to remain proactive, rather than simply reacting to the situation at hand.
“When something happens–say, your horse spooks–it triggers several automatic responses in the fearful rider,” notes Peggy Macy Martin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in helping riders overcome fear and anxiety. “Your anxiety level rises, your pulse quickens, your breathing stops, your hands tighten on the reins, your body stiffens and may even hunch forward in a fetal crouch. By learning to trigger different responses instead, you reprogram yourself to remain confident and functional in situations you used to find frightening.”
How to do it: The instant you feel something trigger your automatic fear responses, begin to substitute positive actions, recommends Peggy. “First, take a deep breath and grow tall in the saddle. Visualize the air sinking all the way down into your belly as you stretch your spine up.
“At the same time, direct your eyes on your riding goal–not down at your horse’s head or neck. If you’re riding a straight line, focus on an object directly ahead of you, to help you stay on track. If you’re riding a bending line, look in the direction of your horse’s movement,” she says.
To help your brain accept these new responses (sitting up, looking ahead) in place of the old (clutching, holding your breath), try something innovative: Lift the toes of one foot, inside your boot, and set them back down, then do the same with your other foot, and continue this “silent toe tapping” in an alternating pattern until your anxiety passes.