Q: I’m terrified to ride my young horse. I’ve only had him for eight months and in that time, I’ve felt myself becoming more and more afraid. Each ride seems worse than the last, and while I haven’t been seriously injured, I can tell my trainer is getting frustrated with me. What do I do?
Whatever you do, Julie, don’t “just do it”.
Have you ever heard the expression, The fire that melts the butter hardens the egg? Well, it can be like that with slogans too, as in, The slogan that kicks one athlete into overdrive sends another to the ER.
Riding a horse while scared is an awful feeling. It can also be dangerous, both because there’s probably something to be scary about, and because people don’t ride very well when they’re scared. They don’t think clearly, or execute decisively, or respond quickly enough. Therefore, if the “bad thing” happens (he bolts, bucks, spins toward home, or stands on his hind legs), you’re even less equipped to manage it than you were the last time it happened.
This doesn’t mean that you have to give up on the bugger. It just means that you have to figure out the conditions under which you wouldn’t be afraid to ride him. For example, would you feel comfortable getting on him if you stayed in the indoor, or maybe even just a corner of the indoor? What if you rode him only when your trainer was there? What if you had your trainer or an experienced rider friend get on him for ten or fifteen minutes before you rode him? What if you only walked and trotted? What if you changed his program—less grain, more turn-out, more consistent work, different tack?
The idea here is to scale back your riding on your young horse to the point where you begin to feel confident on him again. If you’re confident on him only in the indoor at a walk, then that’s where you begin. And you work your way back up gradually, waiting until you’re “hungry” to do the next thing, whether it’s to canter, work outside, or trot over poles. There is no rushing through fear, and trying to muscle it to the ground will only and always make things worse. You’re not a baby, or a chicken rider, or a loser. You’re someone whose brain is sending you signals via your body that riding your young horse doesn’t feel safe. Respect the message, even if your trainer or best friend or mother is telling you that you’re over-reacting. After all, you’re the one who has to ride him.
If, Julie, you were hoping instead for some tips ’n tricks, a short cut to confidence that would get you back in the saddle pronto, it may be your cue to consider whether this is the right horse for you at this time. I can’t tell you the number of riders I’ve consulted to who bought horses because of their great “potential,” but who later realized they were sitting on too much horse, and that any potential they saw wasn’t going to see the light of day with them as the primary rider. There’s no shame in recognizing that you each could be better served by a different partner, but there is sadness, as well as the loss of a dream. These are often the reasons why people hang on too long.
Take your time with this, Julie, talk with riders and trainers whose opinions you trust, and work your way back gradually while also being be open to hearing what you don’t want to hear. Probably the clearest indicator of which direction to go is how you feel driving up to the barn: Can’t wait to get there—or can’t wait to be done?
Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette is a clinical and sport psychologist who has pioneered the application of modern performance enhancement principles to the equestrian industry. She is also the author of two books: “Heads Up!: Practical Sports Psychology for Riders, Their Families, and Their Trainers” and “The Rider’s Edge: Overcoming the Psychological Challenges of Riding.“