You climb into the saddle, thrilled to be riding at long last. Suddenly your horse stumbles and your heart starts pounding as a cold sweat spreads across your face. The fear of falling or being thrown off is very common among new riders, especially among riders who start off as adults. At some point every rider has experienced fear; if an experienced rider tells you otherwise, they are probably lying. Why? At some point in every equestrian’s life, the fact that we are putting our lives in the hands of a 1,000 + pound animal becomes anxiety producing. For many people who dream of flying across meadows with their trusty stead, fear and apprehension keep their dreams at bay and their feet planted firmly on the ground. So, how can you manage these fears so that they do not prevent you from doing what you truly love to do?
Recognize that these fears are real and are nothing to be ashamed of. If you are starting riding lessons as an adult, chances are that you are coming to the table with other life experiences that affect how you deal with trusting such a large and powerful animal. It is important to find an instructor who understands your fears and doesn’t tell you to just get over it. Can an instructor assure you that you will never fall. No, of course not, but a good instructor will acknowledge your fears and help you find a way to overcome them. Chances are at some point you will take a tumble. However, with the right instructor and with the right horse, risks can be kept to a minimum.
From one fearful newbie to another, here are some things I’ve learned over the years. First, never forget that your horse is a walking emotion barometer; your horse will know every emotion you are feeling at every moment. The more nervous you are the more nervous your horse is going to be. I always equate this with being a parent of a small child. Let’s say there is a storm outside and your five year old is in tears because she thinks a tornado is going to rip apart the house. How will you handle this scenario? If you start screaming and telling your daughter that, yes, the house is going to be destroyed and everyone’s going to die, chances are your daughter is going to completely freak out. If, however, you handle the situation calmly and tell her that everything is just fine, and suggest that you sit down and read books together until the storm passes, she will calm down and have faith that you will protect her. Well, it’s not all that different with horses. When a horse stumbles, or is spooked by something he sees as a threat, your ability to stay calm will minimize the situation. Now, I know that this is easier said than done, but with some quality time in the saddle you will gain the confidence that you need to ride through almost any situation.
Second, don’t forget to breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. When we are nervous we tend to hold our breathe which is not helpful to anyone. If you’ve ever experienced childbirth, remember back to what you learned in Lamaze class. Why do you think you and your partner learned how to control your breathing in preparation for childbirth? To keep you both calm! Whenever I sense that fear is taking over, I concentrate on breathing in and letting the air out slowly. Practice this before you get in the saddle and continue every time you sense fear is taking over.
Lastly, always remember the importance of wearing a helmet. Hopefully you would never get into a car without wearing a seat belt, and you would never get on a horse without a properly fitting riding helmet. In addition to helmets, other safety equipment, such as vests, can protect you in the event of a fall. Always talk with your doctor before starting a riding program, especially if you have had previous health issues.