Fear of riding: It's a beautiful day to ride your horse. So why are you overcome with fear?
Fear of riding: Anyone who has ridden for any length of time would be dishonest if they told you they have never felt fear. Those are words of wisdom from Faith Meredith, Director of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Center and FEI level competitor and trainer. The question, then, is what to do about fear of riding.
The solution to fear depends on its source. In my experience, there are five commons sources of toxic fear:
• Riding accident (or “near miss”) • Being “over-mounted” (your horse is too much for you) • Aging • Riding in environments that are socially poisonous • Emotional displacement from other aspects of your life
RIDING ACCIDENT (OR NEAR MISS)
If you’ve had a riding accident, the two things that probably shocked you the most were (a) how fast it happened and (b) how powerful your 1,000 lb horse really is. People who have had car accidents say the same thing. One minute, everything was normal and fine, the next everything was dangerous and out of control. Riders (and drivers) report feeling a sense of intense helplessness during an accident. Some “dissociate” from the situation, feeling as though they are watching the whole thing from somewhere else. This is a common defense mechanism in such situations. This can leave you with a toxic fear of riding.
If this has happened to you, you probably have heard that the best thing to do is get back on the horse. That is usually good advice unless the fear of riding you feel is debilitating. In this case, trying to suppress your terror isn’t going to help you.
As Jane Savoie, FEI level competitor and former Olympic champion puts it “What you resist persists.” Overcoming this kind of fear of riding is best done by working with a compassionate trainer whom you trust. This kind of trainer will develop a re-training regimen for you that is aimed at always keeping your in your comfort zone.
For example, if just getting on the horse is terrifying, then that’s your lesson for the day: Getting on the horse while the trainer holds the reins or lead rope, giving both you and the horse a chance to get used to each other again. When you can do that without fear, you move on to walking on a lead line, and so on. Keep in mind that some of the fear you’re feeling may be coming from your horse. Horses have memories, too, and you may be just the stimulus that reminds them of that scary thing that happened. Turning your attention to calming and reassuring your horse can have the unexpected benefit of calming you as well and making you feel more in control.
If you are over-mounted, you are riding a horse that is beyond your riding skill. Your fear of riding is your body’s legitimate response to this situation, and it is also your body’s signal to change the situation. Ignoring it is a bad idea or hoping the fear will go away as you get better is generally not a good idea. If you don’t feel safe on your mount, your fear can end up being permanent, and you will give up riding entirely. Again, the best way to overcome this is not to grit your teeth and force yourself through it. Instead, work with an experienced trainer to develop a more balanced and secure seat. Once you realize that your horse can’t get you off balance so easily anymore, your confidence will soar. Also try this trick recommended by Susan Jeffers (Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway): Tell yourself “So what if I fall off. I can handle it.” Say it until you feel it is absolutely true.
Experienced older riders are often surprised when an attack of toxic fear of riding overwhelms them. Here is how trainer Bob Lemen describes it: “Several months ago, I experienced what is called a "panic attack." It was a strange, unpleasant, and very unsettling experience for me; especially since it involved something I had done hundreds of times before. As I pondered this event, I realized that I had panicked because I knew that my physical skills were not what they once were. In short, I'm getting older and more susceptible to serious injury. “ This is a variation of being over-mounted. As we get older, we get slower, which makes it more difficult to respond in time to our horse’s lightning-fast actions. We also are aware that it takes us much longer to recover from falls, sprains, and other injuries. Our fear is our body’s way of saying we need to modify or eliminate some of the things we’ve been doing, such as starting young horses or riding problem ones.
This kind of fear also should not be ignored, nor should you just force yourself to “ride through it”. Instead, remind yourself that your riding expertise and experience means you can handle most unexpected situations AND downscale your equestrian activities to meet your aging body’s needs. For example, if you’re pushing fifty, you might want to re-think starting young horses or riding three year olds. Let the younger bodies do that as you advise from the ground.
RIDING IN POISONOUS SOCIAL ENVIRONMENTS
Toxic fear of riding can also descend upon you if you spend a lot of time riding in poisonous social environments. If you are a dedicated and talented rider, you will attract jealousy and fear from certain individuals. Insecure, less-talented riders will feel jealous, talented ones will feel threatened (especially if they are used to being the “best rider in the barn”.) “Just ignore them” is generally a bad strategy because it trivializes the level of malevolence that may be directed against you by these people. You should not underestimate them, and your toxic fear is telling you that they are getting to you.
If this is the source of your toxic fear of riding, take it seriously. Use meditative techniques to ground and center yourself. Rest assured, this doesn’t mean you need to get off your horse and twist yourself into lotus posture. Instead, focus your attention on your breathing, and breath deeply into your abdomen. This has the effect of reducing stress hormones, lowering blood pressure, and calming jitters. Imagine you and your horse surrounded in white light that is impenetrable to “negative thoughts”.
When you interact with these poisonous people, don’t try to downplay your accomplishments or skills. If you do, they will see right through your ploy to “tame them” and they will hold you in contempt. This strategy basically says “I’m afraid of you”, which can just fan the flames of the envy you are trying to manage. It can produce negative results even in people who don’t wish you ill but are just a little jealous. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, author of the Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Professional Jealousy calls this envy preemption, and points out that it rarely works. Rather than making you seem “like one of the girls”, it tends to end up making people feel uneasy or manipulated. And in reality, your fear is making you oblivious to everything about these people except their reaction to you.
A better response to this situation is to turn the tables and focus your attention on them. Don’t praise, don’t complain, and certainly don’t put yourself down. Instead, simply ask “how are you doing?” This allows others to relax in your presence, forget your differences, and enjoy being with you. As Rusch points out “The most socially gracious people I know share one character trait: intense, nonjudgmental curiosity.”
EMOTIONAL DISPLACEMENT FROM OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE
Finally, it may come as a surprise to find that your toxic fear of riding has nothing to do with riding at all. Your fear is displaced from some other aspect of your life. Riders who have lost a loved one, suffered a humiliating defeat at work, undergone a divorce, or suffered situations that were deeply threatening emotionally can find that they suddenly and inexplicably become afraid of riding. Why? Because you feel threatened at a very deep level, and it is as though your body/brain decides it must be riding a 1,000 lb animal that is making you feel that way.
Emotional reactions have their own logic. Of all of the types of toxic fear, this is the one that is most difficult to address because it requires identifying the source (which may not be apparent to you) and then doing something about it.
Suppose, for example, your husband is divorcing you, and it has completely knocked the wind out of your sails. Your self-esteem is below ground level, your belief in the trustworthiness of others is shot, and your future suddenly seems incomprehensible. These are HUGE issues to sort out, calm, and resolve. But you may find yourself terrified of riding until you reach some resolution and some healing for your broken heart.
In situations like this, a horse can be a comfort and a blessing. But for some, they can be a 1,200 lb reminder of what it feels like to be out of control. Understanding friends and family can often be of help here, but more likely a good psychotherapist who’s heavy on compassion and light on blame will be required.