Conquering Rider Fear
By Cheryl Spencer
I have been teaching and coaching full-time for about twenty-five years. I have taught riders so small they needed a parent to hold them and a leader to control the horse, and I have taught riders old enough to collect CPP. One of the recurring obstacles to riding is fear.
There are many types of fear, and in order to resolve the issue, the cause needs to be determined. Very young children may have the fear of the unknown: a large animal, a strange adult instructing, a new place. Older children may be concerned that they won’t be any good, or that they will not be able to keep up with their peers, or worse yet, someone will laugh at them. Some children and adults will demonstrate a very high level of anxiety, which is something that will appear in many aspects of that person’s life, because it is just their make-up.
Many of my students now are adults. These range from early 20’s to 60’s. They may have ridden as kids, even teens, and the older ones as adults, but are re-starting again. Their fear, increasing with age, generally, is the fear of getting hurt. This is a very real fear for any rider, but most learn to handle it by riding horses within their means, at paces and activities which become comfortable to them.
If the rider’s fear is based on the fact that their horse is behaving dangerously, the horse should be sold or re-trained by a professional who is experienced in re-starting this type of horse. Be very clear with yourself and the trainer as to your ability level, and what you expect from the horse. After a couple of weeks, the trainer should be able to tell you whether this horse will ever be the one for you. If you decide to proceed with the horse, ensure that you and the horse get many lessons together with YOU riding the horse before you attempt to ride the horse on your own. It is likely that a combination of your behaviour and the horse’s personality caused the issues (if they did not exist when you got the horse), so ensure that you can erase those problems with professional help. I have seen instances with my own horses, where the rider continually avoids doing something which the horse balks at, until the horse become domineering and an issue. If you can muster the confidence, better to ride through a couple of small bucks rather than get off every time the horse balks, or you will have taught him to do behave badly in order to avoid work. If you cannot do this yourself, do NOT put yourself in a position where you are continually backed down by the horse. Get a strong confident friend to get on the horse with a crop and work him through. One the horse “has your number” the problem will be exponentially more difficult to fix.
With children, or adults starting again, the problem can normally be solved by ensuring that they are always placed on a quiet pony or horse. Different ponies will work with different kids. A nervous child (especially if they make a lot of chatter or squealing) may have an effect on one pony and not another.Try a couple of quiet ones at your riding stable, if the first one is not a match. I like to spend some time with riders, especially children, on the longe line, in order to build up confidence and balance. If you or your child is keen to ride, but not having success in a group lesson, ask your instructor for a few private half-hour longe lessons. This is normally adequate time for a session, since the longe lesson is more intense. Be prepared to pay more for this personal time with your instructor, but you will most likely find it to be a worthwhile investment.
And while it may not be all that socially acceptable, I am going to talk about the overweight rider. At my stable, I have weight limits for riders. This is to ensure safety for my animals and for the rider's own safety. A rider who is grossly obese may not be too heavy for the horse or pony, but will not have any balance or core muscle strength. This “jello jiggle” effect can cause back issues, sprained tendons, and sore withers in the horse. Riders will be quite anxious and fearful, and they will be at a very high risk for falling off, even at a walk, and at a much, much higher risk of injury due to their lack of fitness. Obese children will generally have the lowest level of core strength. Many riders who have ridden for years and have become overweight as adults can continue to be effective riders due to their existing balance, muscle memory and core strength. On the other hand, riders, most commonly women, in their 50’s who are not necessarily overweight, but who do not have a history of regular physical fitness, may have osteoporosis or other condition causing brittle bones. For this reason, I suggest people who wish to become riders, and who are over 45, and who have not had many years of a high level of regular physical activity (3 hours or more a week), get a bone density exam prior to beginning riding.
Lastly, I am going to deal with the common fear that most riders face from time to time. This may be after a fall, or after having had a spook, or even after having witnessed a riding accident. One rider I know had been riding alone in a ring at a new boarding stable in the town where she had just moved. The ring was beside the road. A speeding vehicle spooked the horse and pitched the rider. Beside the unfenced ring, some old windows and equipment had been left in an orderly fashion, but in the path of the horse. He jumped it, but the rider fell face first and was fairly badly injured. No hospital visit, but cuts on her face, completely skinned elbows, bruised knees and badly bruised hip and chin. The horse was freaked out, too. The rider identified that she would not be able to ride THAT horse for some time, so badly was her confidence in him shaken. He was a horse whom she had known since birth, but his behaviour had become erratic. He had lost a great deal of weight, and she determined later that his unhappiness and personality change were due to a continual lack of food at his new boarding stable, something he had never faced at our farm where he had lived his entire life.
The rider was so badly shaken, she knew that if she didn’t ride for a while, she would likely quit riding, but knew that in her present situation, with that horse, a recurrence of an accident was likely. She brought him back to our farm, with horses he knew and a sufficient feeding program, and asked me for a horse for her to regain her confidence. I gave her one of my older horses. He was 19, and abandoned by his owner for non-payment of board. He had been an AQHA show horse, and then a trail horse for many years.
She began by walking this horse and gradually getting her confidence back. The key to this was having a horse who was as close to 100% trustworthy as you can get. Then when she was ready, she began again to re-establish her relationship with the first horse. Luckily, she had moved back to the area, and could ride him on his home turf. They started by walking together, horse on a lead line, hand-grazing and grooming. Then the horse was longed. Finally, the rider was ready - almost – to start. The fear was still there, but overshadowed by determination. I want to be clear that this was a well-schooled, well behaved horse generally. The adult rider was very experienced, a life-long recreational rider who had had years of lessons in her youth. She began that first day by getting on and walking one circle. Then she got off. The next day she did two circles and got off. And so on, until they were in a regular lesson routine.
The key is to be aware of your fear, acknowledge it, and just push yourself a little. You should also try to have a confident friend or instructor assist you. If the horse shows bad behaviour which frightens you, say a buck when starting a canter, instead of jumping off immediately, take it down a notch, do some trot circles or a pattern, and then get off and have another person try the horse at the canter the next time. Someone who will not be afraid, and who has the skill to push the horse through it.
Remember to reward yourself and your horse for every milestone. Give him a kind word, a pat on the neck. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, do something else, which you know you have mastered. Always try to end on a good note. One lesson I have learned is that ending on a good note often means ending early. Going “one more time” can mean that you or your horse is tired, and you never get to replicate that “great” feeling of a few minutes before. Then you either end on a bad note, or end on a worse note if one of you loses your temper. When you get to that sweet spot stop, give yourselves a pat and bask in the glow! Those positive experiences will build on each other until one day; you realize that you have reached a new level of confidence and trust.
© Cheryl Spencer 2011