Five Steps to Conquering Fear in the Saddle (And a Bonus Daily Exercise)
Whether it’s the fear of falling off, fear of failing, fear of not seeing your distance, or the fear of hurting your horse, fear is real and it's time we open up about it.
As riders, we often feel like we should be tough, resilient and unfazed by painful moments. But trust me, we all feel fear sometimes. In fact, we need fear! Without fear, we would do a lot of stupid things - like going on a hack with a 4-year-old next to a train track, or riding straight into a 1.40 meter class without any experience... you get the idea.
Okay, so we need fear, but what about the day-to-day fear that kicks in just as you approach a jump or that stomach-churning feeling when your horse spooks. Is that something we can let go off? The answer is a resounding YES. Here are 5 steps to letting go of fear and embracing a more confident ride.
1. Accept fear.
A client of mine once asked me, “How can I kill this fear?” My answer: "You can’t and you shouldn’t want to." We need fear to stay alive but we don’t want fear to take over control.
In her latest book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert describes how she deals with fear whenever it kicks in. She says, “Whenever I notice fear kicking in, I have a chat with fear. I tell fear that as it's a part of the family, it can come along for the ride. But it’s only allowed to sit in the back seat, it’s not allowed to look at the map nor suggest where we are going, and its certainly not allowed to get behind the wheel!” In other words, the more you try and get rid of fear, the more it will keep controlling you. But accept that fear comes along for the ride and you can refocus on what you need to do to get to your desired destination. Who knows, you may even have fun along the way.
Related: Cool Your Jets. 4 Tips for Riding Hot Horses.
2. Understand fear.
The first step in conquering fear and regaining confidence is to better understand how fear shows up in your body. For example, what is your first reaction when your horse suddenly bucks or spooks? What about when you ride to a fence and don’t see any distance? Do you get tense in your upper body? Do you freeze and stop riding or perhaps you start pulling on the rains? We respond this way because of the way our brain is wired. Our primal, survival brain takes over, controlling how our body responds in this situation. It’s frustrating because we don’t feel in control whenever this automatic reaction kicks in. The good news is, we can reprogram our mind and body to respond in a better way.
3. Train your brain.
In order to train our brain, we need to quickly calm our nervous system down. This system, which connects the brain with the body, is in charge as to how we respond to fear. Instead of trying to get rid of fear, we want to learn how to quickly relax and focus. Instead of trying to overcome fear when it kicks in at the show, we need to train at home, just like we do with our horses. The best way to do this is to practice a breathing or relaxation exercise every day (for more info check out my Masterclass, where we go in depth on this) or use the breathing exercise below. In case your fear is triggered by a previous accident or trauma, know that you might need a little more support from a professional to first let these memories go.
4. Create a strategy.
Now that you are working on relaxing your brain and body on a daily basis, we can create a rational strategy in case the fear still shows up. First of all, find out what triggers you. When does your fear kick in the most? Is it when showing in the ring, riding to fence number one, or when your horse suddenly spooks? Write these trigger moments down for yourself. Now think of a few actions you can take to prevent the fear from kicking in, as well as actions you can take when fear takes over.
For example, when riding to fence number one I often freeze and stop riding (trigger). To prevent this from happening, I will use the breathing exercise every day as well as before going into the arena, I’ll plan 2 minutes more so I have time to check in and use the deep breathing exercise. In case I still freeze up when riding to the first fence, in the moment I recognize it, I just focus on riding a forward rhythm. In other words, you do as much as possible to prevent fear from having to kick in, but in case it does, you know what to do and focus on.
Now you have a clear vision of what you want to happen, instead of what you don’t want to happen. You can train your brain to take this better route next time. We do this by visualizing our trigger (riding to fence number one) and responding with our new strategy. Do this as often as you can to erase the old 'story' of “I freeze up when riding to fence number one” and replace it with, “when riding to the first fence, all I need to do is focus on my rhythm and stay present and connected to my horse”. Aim to not just visualize you using this new strategy but also to feel relaxed and confident when doing it. Practice these exercises on a daily basis, and you will be amazed how you too can retrain your brain to feel confident no matter the challenge.
Daily Breathing Exercise:
1. Sit or lay down in a comfortable position with your right hand on your lower abdomen.
2. Start with breathing deep in and out two times.
3. Then just follow your breath deep into your lower abdomen (without forcing it) towards your hand. Feel how your hand goes up and down with every in and out flow of your breath.
4. Whenever you find yourself distracted by thoughts or noises, just go back to your breathing.
5. You could imagine your thoughts as if they were clouds passing by. Just observe the clouds as they pass by, and then gently direct your attention back to your breath.
6. It might also help to count every in and out flow of your breath up till 10 (if you lose track, start over again).
7. Practice for at least 5 minutes a day and make it part of your daily routine.
Read this next: How to Mentally Recover from a Bad Fall with Zoe Conter
Photos by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.