5 tips for the fearful rider
Updated: Jul 12, 2019
Do you have anxiety when you ride your horse? Does trail riding feel scary? Or does your heart start to race from the mention of canter?
Believe it or not, you are not alone; this is a very common problem among equestrians.
If you ask a non-equestrian what you should do about your fear, they will simply tell you to stop riding. This approach is understandable, since usually when people are afraid of something, they try to avoid it. A person, who is afraid of snakes does not buy a snake. A person afraid of spiders, does not deliberately seek to interact with spiders. But as all equestrians know, horses are very, very different than snakes and spiders, and the draw to be with these beautiful animals can be very strong.
Being afraid of something you love is extremely hard both mentally and emotionally, but I want you to know that there are ways to manage your fear. Here are three things I tell my clients when they wish to overcome their fear of riding and/or horses:
1. Learning the biomechanics of a correct riding seat and practicing body awareness help you feel safer in the saddle.
2. Understanding how your nervous system works and the purpose of your emotions help you regulate how your feel. This includes learning techniques to calm your nervous system down.
3. Knowing the communication and body language of horses give you tools for deeper understanding in tough situations.
In this blog post I’ll focus on point 2 and share five things that will help you calm down your nervous system, when you are afraid. Please understand that these are not the only tools you can have in your emotional tool box, but it is a good start.
Tip One: Breathe.
I know, this is something you hear to nauseum. Everyone keeps telling you to breathe, be it your yoga instructor or an article in the magazine. What is up with breathing?
When you are afraid, your autonomous nervous system is in flight or fight mode (or freeze, but that is worth its own blog post). This means your body is getting ready to flee or to fight. Your pulse quickens, your muscles get tense and – yes, you guessed it – your breathing becomes shallow. You can, however, trick your nervous system into believing everything is okay by deepening your breathing. Focus in particular on your exhale and make it as long as possible. It is a good idea to count a rhythm in your mind, for example 1-2-3 in and 1-2-3-4-5 out (adjust according to your own preference). The long exhale tells your body everything is okay and this in turn affects your heart rate and your blood pressure, which in turn affect your horses heart rate and blood pressure.
Tip Two: Focus on sense perception
Making observations through your senses is a good way to stay present in the moment. Often when we are anxious or fearful around horses, our mind takes over and transports us either to the past or to the future. We may be thinking of something scary that happened with a horse a week/month/year ago or we might be “catastrophizing” about the future i.e. what could happen next. This takes us mentally away from the present moment, which is where the horse is. Horses don’t live in the past or in the future, they are always here and now, and often find it difficult to connect with humans, who are lost in their minds.
Pay attention to your surroundings. How does the ground feel under your feet? What can you smell, hear and see? If it is difficult to keep your mind focused, make your observations out loud: “I feel the wind in my hair” or ”I see a white van in the distance, it’s driving away.”
Tip Three: Activate your “soft eyes”.
When our sympathetic nervous system takes control and we are overcome by flight or fight mode, our pupils dilate, and our gaze focuses on the scary object. This in turn tenses our facial muscles, causes our breathing to become shallow, not to mention feels unnerving to the horse we are perhaps staring down.
You can again trick your nervous system by activating “soft eyes”. This happens by lifting your gaze slightly off target and using both your central vision and peripheral vision at the same time. When you have soft eyes, you can still look at what you were staring down, but it is part of your entire field of vision, not the sole focus of it. This allows your pupils to constrict, which in turn tells your nervous system that everything is alright.
Tip Four: Talk to someone
Talking to someone about your fear is a great way to lower your anxiety in the moment. Often when we are able to voice our feelings, they don’t feel as overwhelming. Of course, if you are not around safe, understanding people, who empathize with your emotions, talking to them about your distress is often not an option. In this case, try to connect with someone to talk about something mundane, like the weather.
In his Polyvagal Theory of Emotion (1995), Dr Porges proposes that when we enhance our connection with other people, we trigger neural circuits in our bodies that calm the heart, relax the gut, and turn off the fear response. Social connections enhance our sense of safety and create a positive feedback loop leading to further calming. In addition, calm states in others can induce similar states in people who might be struggling. Choosing to trail ride together with a confident and calm person is a smart choice, if you are struggling with feelings of fear and anxiety.
If you find it impossible to connect with the people around you, try to connect with your horse. Tell him how you feel even if he may be feeling those same emotions. Expressing your emotions and giving them words helps.
Tip Five: Focus on the task at hand.
If your thoughts hijack your mind completely and you have the tendency to either mull obsessively over past events or catastrophize the future, it may be beneficial to find something else to focus on. Try to come up with a fairly difficult task which requires a lot of attention. For example, if you are riding in the arena, start riding a complex pattern with many transitions. Or bring your attention to your seat bones and your body in general. Perhaps feel how your breath travels in your body. Focusing on something else will help you keep unwanted thoughts out of your mind.
Whether you have been in a horse-related accident or witnessed one or have had unexplained anxiety for years, living in fear is exhausting. The road to recovery may be long and uncomfortable, but it is a road towards freedom. I hope these five tips will provide you with positive experiences during your moments of fear and anxiety and thus help you on your journey with horses.
The writer is a biomechanics coach, equestrian emotion coach, life coach and speaker, who helps people find a deeper connection with their horses.
For more information about Katariina Alongi, visit www.withconnection.net