It happens to the best of riders, and the best of horses. Occasionally the fear or anxiety sneaks in. Whether this happens to you at home or on a horse riding holiday, it’s not a nice feeling. It could even ruin the ride for you, and if there’s one thing we don’t want is to let fear take over and not enjoy the one thing we love the most on this planet; riding horses. In this blog I will be going over ways to gain confidence and control nerves when out on trail, both at home and on a trail riding vacation.
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Fear is important, it’s there to keep us safe and to let us know we are taking something too far. However, if fear starts to take over when you’re in the saddle, it becomes a burden or even dangerous. When fear truly takes over, you are not able to make rational decisions anymore, and it will hurt your confidence even more when something happens in this case. Fear doesn’t always mean you’re not a good rider, even the most experienced riders get nervous from time to time. If you’re a beginner or intermediate rider, it’s important to stick to the advice of your trainer, and if you don’t have a trainer, the most important thing at the moment is to get one. Experienced riders can get nervous or anxious while horse riding for so many different reasons. Even just getting older can make your anxiety go through the roof. As we age we become more fragile, and even if we don't consciously think about it, our brain knows. Having a horse related accident or even seeing others get hurt can install fear of riding into our brains. However, no matter what the reason is for your fears, they are always valid, and there are always ways to enjoy riding again without anxiety.
To start off, good equipment and gear can make you feel a lot safer and confident. This can be as simple as starting to ride with a helmet if you usually don’t. You can also think about getting a body protector, safety stirrups and safe riding boots with a high heel.
Another great thing to make us feel safe when out on trail by ourselves is to download an app that sends out an alert in case we do fall off, such as Horse Rider SOS.
For beginners and intermediate riders, this would also include gaining experience with horse riding. Experienced riders, however, also occasionally have trouble understanding some types of horse behaviours. After all, they are flight animals and don’t think the same way predators (that’s us) do. If you are able to understand your horse better, their reactions become more predictable and therefore manageable. If you don’t understand your horse’s behaviour, it may seem uncalled for or unexpected when they get a big fright from something that they normally don’t even take a look at. There are millions of different horse behaviours to learn about, and I won’t go into all of that detail in this post, but I will discuss some behaviours later on.
It’s great if you can occasionally cross your fear boundary, and you’ll find out that you’re able to handle that situation too. It’s important to not go too far out of your comfort zone but it’s good to push it every now and then. Of course, we all need to stay safe, and that should always be your priority. However, if you feel like you’re really gaining confidence on for example a short hack, you could see about extending the route a bit. Even if it makes you feel nervous, you know you were able to improve on the short trail, so you’ll get there on the long one too! As recently as today, I was out on trail when my anxiety came back for just a second. We were walking along nicely, but I’d just had a bit of a discussion with my horse which we managed to sort out. She decided that she badly wanted to take the trail to the right, even though I wanted to take the trail to the left. In my happiness, confidence and absolute love for my horse after figuring out our pretty intense disagreement, I left the reins extremely long and rubbed her neck and bum, which meant I wasn’t stable in the saddle whatsoever. At the same time, a group of about 10 ducks flew up out of the canal right next to us. She got a massive fright, crow-hopped to the other side of the tarmac street and turned. I think I got an even bigger fright than her and became a bit anxious for a second. I quickly realised that even in the ridiculous posture I had just now, I managed to stay on my horse with ease. That gave me the confidence to laugh it off, calm my horse down, and continue the trail. Even though I was slightly out of my comfort zone, I realised that even then, everything will be alright.
Ride with people you’re comfortable with and can talk to about your worries. Get rid of judgment, yelling, and people that stress you out, even if they have good intentions. When I was around 10 years old, I was quite scared to jump with my very inexperienced pony. I had an instructor that thought the way to fix it was to chase me with a lunging whip and scream at me until I jumped. Needless to say, that didn’t work and many tears were involved. Thankfully my mom also rides horses, saw this happen a few times, and allowed me to find a different horse riding lesson with a different, more understanding instructor. I wasn’t comfortable telling the instructor that I was uncomfortable or nervous, as I assumed she would yell at me. Her goal was for me to overcome my fears, but this isn’t the way to go about it. Surround yourself with people that you are able to speak to and around whom you feel comfortable. When you’re out on trail and feel yourself getting nervous, let them know, they’ll help you by distracting you or by encouraging you for how well you and your horse have been doing.
Also read: How to make horse riding friends
If stuff does get out of hand, even though it will probably be fine! This base can look like a lot of different things. It can be a short trail ride during which you can always easily get back to the barn, or knowing that during the trail you can always get off, work your horse on the ground until you both feel confident again, and hop back on. Don’t count on the scary thing to happen, but have a plan if it does.
Before I knew it, I had written a total of five pages on this topic, so I’ve split it up into two parts. You can read the second part here, in which I will tell you more about my own experience with anxiety on horseback, what to do when fear comes back while you’re out on a trail, and how to deal with nerves during your horse riding holiday.
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