Fear. It’s the number one issue I tackle with riders. And, contrary to what you might think, I’m not talking just about beginners, or riders who have fallen off, or older adult amateurs. I hear about fears from riders at every level, in every discipline—professional and amateur.
Does fear accompany you in the saddle? Let’s walk you through some steps to unpack and address it. My goal is to help you understand what your fear is really about and arm you with strategies and tools to work with it.
Work with it? Yes, the first strategy is to accept that your fear is part of you. Fear needs to be worked with, not against. Many people are actually afraid of having fear. So, my first piece of advice is this: make friends with your fear. Get to know and accept it. Once you have become friends, you can work with it. Put simply, the first and most important step is to stop fighting the fact that you have fears.
Many riders are relieved by the idea that it’s ok they have fears. The idea that they can work with it, and that it can transform into fuel, unburdens them and allows them to emotionally move forward.
Next, clarify what your fear is about. This will take some introspection. Generally, I find that fears fall into several categories: fear of falling (or injury), fear of mistakes or failure (letting yourself down), fear of others’ judgement or embarrassment (letting others down), and even fear of success. The first is a physical fear and the others are mental and psychological fears. Often people suffer from all of these; more often they misattribute the source of their fear. That is, they believe they’re afraid of injury but actually it’s about perfectionism. Or they believe they’re fearful of failure but down deep it’s a fear of triumph.
Some riders are afraid that their trainers are going to be disappointed in them. Or their parents. They live under a constant fear of perceived judgement.
When you have some time to reflect, let yourself really think about your fear. Challenge yourself to delve into it. Partner up with someone and talk it out. See if you can learn anything deeper about what you’re afraid of. Look at other areas of your life—do your fears crop up there as well? What are the similarities to your riding? In my experience, people generally do not restrict their worries to the saddle, so you will likely find patterns. Once you have done the inventory, then you can more freely go about addressing the fears head on. Usually, doing the inventory provides relief in and of itself.
Riders tend to be very driven people, in and out of the saddle. They’re used to being in control. The realization that in the saddle, our control is relative and not at all certain (even on the most reliable of horses), makes some riders very anxious.
Let’s take a moment to address the fear of falling: this is a physical fear, often reinforced by a traumatic event—that is, a fall itself. This situation is different from the mental/psychological fears that I will address next. With a physical fear, it’s imperative to first make sure you are as safe as possible. This could mean scaled back lessons, jumping lower heights, getting more or different help—and, at times, riding a different mount. Second, be sure to go at your own pace (slowly). Small, positive, steps are much more effective than forcing yourself to do something you’re terrified of in order to ‘get past it.’ Set yourself up for success! Third: practice relaxation breathing before and during your ride to calm and center yourself and help relax your body (see below).
4-2-6 Relaxation Breathing—to Calm Body and Focus Mind
This breathing exercise can be done on the ground or in the saddle:
• Take a moment to call yourself into present time
• Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts
• Hold for 2 counts
• Breathe out through your mouth for 6 counts
• Repeat 3 or 4 times, imagining the breath as an oval, flowing up from the ground and then down through your body
Tip for physically fearful riders: think of yourself as your horse when he’s scared of something—how would you reintroduce that thing he is fearful of? You would do it slowly, rewarding him for every positive move or moment of relaxation, right? You would not force or threaten him. Try this approach with yourself.
Now let’s delve into more mental/psychological fears. First, a definition: I say mental/psychological as a way to highlight that fears are comprised of both thoughts and feelings. The mental aspect can actually be separated from the emotional aspect. Here is a good example: the “fear” that many riders feel before they go into the show ring is often mixed heavily with excitement. Try leaning into the excitement: redirect your thoughts from “I’m afraid I’ll mess up” to “I’m fired up to ride this round!”
Tip: You can actively change your experience of ‘fear’ from anxiety to excitement by changing your self-talk.
Let’s talk about perfectionism. The need to be perfect usually packs worries about failure, success, and others’ judgment into one heavy piece of baggage. Perfectionism grows out of black and white thinking: it’s perfect or terrible; it’s failure or success. I don’t let my riders tell me, ‘it was a bad round,’ or ‘a perfect round.’ No ride is all bad or all perfect. I want to hear the details. “The first corner was balanced and with good impulsion, but then we got on the forehand and I didn’t lift him up soon enough, etc.” Specific feedback to ourselves allows us to solidify that which we want to repeat and correct that which we need to change.
Perfection is a global judgment rather than a specific assessment. Train yourself to become more detailed in your self-feedback.
In my view, a major component to managing nerves is to actively own your own rides. Owning your rides means taking responsibility for them by breaking them down into moment to moment tasks which focus your mind on something to do and away from the fears. In every single step—own the ride and be responsible for it.
Typically I ask fearful riders focus on three tasks they want to accomplish in a round or ride. This might sound like, ‘I’m going to balance in my corners, keep my leg on out of the turn, and count out loud as I approach the fence.” Focusing on specifics that are achievable gives the rider tasks to think about which increases the chance of a successful ride and diverts their mind away from a global thoughts and fears such as “I’m afraid I’ll mess up.”
After the round, decide how well you completed these tasks. Evaluate yourself against goals that you set, not in relation to someone else’s performance. Remember while you and I might be in the same hunter class, I guarantee that we are not working on the same things. My 75 score from the judge has no bearing on how well I accomplished what I needed to do today for the particular horse I was riding. Given what I was working on, it might be a 95 in my book. Or a 65 if I didn’t come through for myself. Give yourself your own score, and then follow that up with a refinement of your tasks for the next ride. Remember: keep your tasks specific and doable for you. You decide what was a success and where you didn’t come through.
But, you say to me: I want to win the class. I want to be the best in the class. Sure, we all want to win, but we can’t control that. We can only be in charge of our own riding today. Ride your horse the very best you can for this round and let the scores fall where they may. That is ownership and responsibility. You will find, if you adopt this mindset, not only will your riding improve and your fears diminish, but you will also enjoy your riding much more.
Here’s a summary of the strategy to get you on the path toward redirecting your fears. I suggest you include others in your process, especially your trainer or coach. You may also want to enlist a trusted barn mate or colleague. When working through tough topics, it helps to have an outside perspective and a partner for support.
Summary: Strategy for Tackling Mental and Psychological Fears
• Don’t resist fears, regardless of their source or content.
• Do an internal assessment: what am I really afraid of? Where else in my life do fears show up? Am I misattributing my fears?
• Use relaxation breathing in and out of the saddle to calm your mind and body and focus yourself.
• Own your rides! You decide your specific tasks for the ride and focus on those. No global condemnation!
• Give yourself a post-ride evaluation and re-group for the next ride.
• Treat yourself with compassion, just as you would your horse.
Last but not least, remember that Rome was not built in a day. Working through fears takes time and effort, but it is possible! And the rewards are well worth it. Don’t allow yourself to get frustrated—break the process down into doable steps and set yourself up for success. Again, think of how you’d work with a nervous horse and you’ll be on the right path!
About Darby Bonomi, PhD
Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. For more information or to contact Dr. Bonomi, click here. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
Practical Horseman thanks public relations agency Athletux for their assistance in the preparation of this article.