Riding with fear

By April Clay, Psychologist

It’s not exactly your riding companion of choice. It’s annoying, uncomfortable, can make you sweat, run for the bathroom and become generally immobilized. Fear may not be regarded as your best buddy, but it does have a message to impart.

Feelings of fear and apprehension can be thought of like an “alarm” going off. This alarm is the flight or fight response, a natural change in your body that happens as a result of feeling threatened either physically or psychologically. A rider at some point in their career usually knows physical fear. You are, after all aware that there is a certain amount of risk associated with piloting a thousand pound animal.

Feel the Fear
Never ever deny how you feel. Too many riders try to deny their feelings, act tough and white knuckle their way through things. It really doesn’t work. Accept what your body is trying to tell you, and know you will have some control over how you interpret and ultimately deal with the message you are being given.

Although you may be tempted to be impatient with these uncomfortable thoughts and sensations, do try to tolerate their presence. You can’t be anywhere in this moment other than “where you are”, and accepting this is a vital first step to change. You cannot move anywhere until you admit to yourself “this is what’s happening to me right now.”

Assess the fear
Now what is it that you are afraid of exactly? Is it a repeat of a fall you have had? Is it getting bucked off? Getting run away with? If you have had a bad accident, then you need to try to understand how and why it happened. Some accidents do have reasons: my horse was too fresh, I was over faced, and I took that turn way too tight. Simply understanding the elements will make you feel better. The “known” has a nice way of calming us all down.

It is common for some riders to carry more awareness of physical risk than others. This is not wrong, and should not be approached with the idea of eliminating this fear, but rather how to manage it like any other riding problem. It is especially common for older amateur riders to experience such an awareness, as time and experience has taught them sometimes things do go wrong. As well, age typically brings with it an understanding that injuries take longer to heal and accidents can mean time away from work or responsibilities with loved ones.

Make a list of resources
What do you have that will help you deal with the risk involved and shrink it? Some examples are a coach, years of riding experience, how to do an emergency dismount etc. There are always tools you can use and others you can develop.

You can think of the relative risk of riding as always being present, and that at times this risk becomes larger and more prominent in our minds.

Make a plan
One annoying feature of fear: it tends to make you feel helpless and ineffective. Creating a plan for yourself helps offset this trend. Ideally, you make this plan with your coach so it can be reflected in your upcoming lessons. For example, one rider and her trainer mapped out five lessons that reflected her visualization work. Each lesson was to begin with a relaxed warm-up, and she was permitted to ask for a “time-out” to refocus herself if she felt her fear taking over. It was equally important for each session to end on a positive note, even if this meant “going back” to a previous step.

Perspective and patience
Do try to keep perspective when working through your fear issues. Remember that this is one time frame in a series of many in your riding career. It’s not all of your “riding self.”  Most riders will have the challenge of facing their physical fear at one point or another. As for patience, consider this journey with fear to be an intriguing one worthy of all the time it takes.