How to stay confident in the saddle while trail riding

You can find the first part of this blog post here.

My experience with nerves while riding horses

This may sound strange, as you probably know I’ve ridden horses for my entire life, am an experienced horsewoman, and haven’t ever taken a break from riding in the last two decades. Just because I haven’t taken a break doesn’t mean that I haven’t been absolutely terrified. I know what it feels like to be nervous to ride your horse, and to not look forward to riding. For a long time I was very embarrassed, and I still find it hard to admit that every now and then my nerves get the better of me. It’s however completely normal for even the most experienced riders to have a setback in their bravery. It can be because we’ve had a bad fall, seen a bad fall or simply just because we’re getting older. 

In the beginning of my life with horses, I’d see and hear about people falling off and getting hurt. These were always situations where these events were likely to happen. Maybe someone fell off on a trail ride with a horse that wasn’t ready for it, or while backing a young horse in a way where it was bound to go wrong. Over time, and years of spending every waking minute around horses, I saw that people were getting hurt by doing things that I was also doing, or having “freak accidents”. These are accidents that can happen no matter how good your seat is or how careful you are. A horse is a horse, a living animal with its own personality and fears. You can break your arm from a simple tumble when your horse trips, or you can suddenly encounter something new out on trail that changes your horse into a bucking speed devil when you didn’t expect it. This made me nervous, especially after seeing a few accidents that could have easily happened to me. At this time I decided to dial it back, and to take on less horses for training and really strengthen my groundwork for weeks before even thinking about getting on. It helped me a lot and I feel comfortable with my decision to now not take on any more youngsters for backing. I will always train my own horses, also the youngsters, but I feel like it’s not worth it to push through the fear for something not absolutely necessary. I’m very happy with my choice and it has allowed me to get rid of the majority of my nerves. Sometimes we need to make difficult decisions, but it ends up being for the best.  

Arabian horse and rider in a field in the Netherlands

What to do when fear comes back while you’re out on a trail

Take action to control your nerves in the saddle

This is for experienced riders who are fully capable of heading out on a trail with their horse. I’ve already told you to surround yourself with calm people that you feel comfortable talking to about your nerves. If someone calm however tells you to “not be nervous”, I recommend finding another trail buddy. Except, of course, if this somehow works for you! For me, it absolutely doesn’t and it actually just pisses me off. You’ve come as far as being confident enough to head out on a trail ride with your horse, so that confidence is somewhere, you just need to find it. When a rider gets nervous, they will lean forward and hang on the reins, which is a perfectly normal reaction to fear. The same way that smiling makes you smile or laughter makes you laugh, pretend to be confident, and you will find it again. If possible, stop your horse, sit really deep in the saddle, lean back and release the reins a bit. Take a ridiculously deep breath, and my number one advice is to start singing a song. I started doing this when I was backing my Arab, and it worked miracles. May I recommend "Joy To The World" by Three Dog Night? Somehow screaming "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" from the top of my horse always brings back my confidence. Singing forces you to breathe, which is something nervous riders often forget to do. Don't just wait for your nerves to disappear by itself, your horse will copy your anxiety and that’s only going to give you more cause to get more anxious, it's a vicious circle. Pretend as hard as you can and trust me, it’ll work.

Properly ride your horse out of the gate

For me personally, the beginning of the ride makes a big difference. If I start off by ‘not riding’ my horse, which means I don’t have my legs on her or my seat is inactive, she’ll quickly become less confident and eventually nervous, and so will I. If I start the trail by having an active, forward seat and with my leg on, my horse will copy my confidence and excitement to go out. Even if she is already trotting out of the gate, I still put my leg on in the beginning and loosen the reins. It’s okay if she heads out in a trot, when we’re both confident about our forward movement, I’ll take my leg off and ask her to come back into a walk again with confidence. Some rides, I don’t take her back into a walk at all. This has to do with understanding your horse’s behaviour, like I mentioned before. Sometimes it can seem like your horse explodes out of nowhere, but that’s almost never the case. If my horse would like to trot for longer, it means she has energy to get rid of. If I would force her back into a walk and keep the reins tight, she would explode if I do eventually ask her for a trot or if she gets a slight fright. Forward is good! It means they are using some of that energy and it isn’t pent up. The trot is very controlled forward energy, and a horse that explodes like a bomb means you’ve let their bucket overflow and you’ll certainly lose control of them. To calm your nerves, remind yourself that a trotting horse is a happy horse, and a nonexplosive one!

Don't set any physical goals on your trail ride

Don’t set goals. Sure, this sounds a bit strange, but what I mean is that you shouldn’t set physical goals while trail riding. Telling yourself you have to reach a certain point, go a certain way, or do that big loop, means setting yourself and your horse up for failure. You won’t reach the goals if you set them, but you’ll reach them if you don’t. Taking the pressure off means that you can always turn back when you feel that you and your horse have done a great job. If you go out with that mindset, you usually end up being able to reach that certain point, go that way, or do that big loop. If you are really struggling with motivation to push through your nerves every now and then, see what happens when you take away the goal of riding. Think about what your feelings are doing when you think about not riding your horse again. This is also how I came to the conclusion I didn’t want to back anyone else’s horse anymore. Horse riding is something I forever want to do, and that’s why I am motivated to keep riding and push through if necessary. However, I wasn’t motivated to back youngsters anymore, and that's alright. Different situations require differently sized steps. No matter how slowly or quickly you get rid of that anxiety, it will happen as long as you’re motivated. A super anxious rider will have to take small steps, but a dangerous or unfamiliar environment to trail ride in also requires a very slightly anxious rider to take small steps. 

Don’t rush

In this case I’m not referring to taking small steps, but to taking enough time with your horse. I literally did this wrong a few days ago, when I only had 45 minutes to get my horse, tack up, do a short trail and put my horse back in the field. If you don’t have enough time you’ll be stressed to begin with, and you’ll run into problems on the trail that you normally don’t encounter. My horse could feel that I was stressed and logically also had a freak out. She was very unaware as to why we were having a major freak-out, but because of my stress she felt like this invisible thing was a big threat. Take your time, spend quality time with your horse, and make sure you have some time to spare in case something doesn’t go according to plan so you don’t stress out.

How can I deal with my fears when I’m out on a horse riding holiday?

When you’re on a trail riding holiday, you want to have the time of your life. If you don’t immediately feel comfortable with you assigned horse, you can do several things. You can see how it goes for the try-out ride, as most places give you the chance to try out a horse on the first day with the option to switch to another. Keep in mind that you keep riding your horse, even if they are forward. Put your leg on and don’t hold the reins tight so as to not let them get rid of their energy. If this doesn’t make you feel more comfortable and you are nervous while riding, ask for another horse! Remember that you’re a guest and that you’re there to have an incredible experience. It’s completely normal to switch horses to find your perfect match. Sometimes it’s just not worth it or not the right fit, it happens. This can be for no reason at all. When I tell people that slow, hard-mouthed, bombproof horses make me nervous, they usually think that’s strange, they won’t run anywhere right? I personally feel a lot more comfortable on and connected to a very forward, high energy, soft mouthed, extremely responsive horse. My own horse is extremely responsive and forward, and likes to trot and canter a lot more than a walk at all given times. This doesn’t make me nervous, but it can make you nervous. The same way that you maybe don’t feel anxious on a slow horse, but it makes me extremely uncomfortable. What I personally like about these extremely responsive horses is that I can clearly see them copying my energy. When I feel nervous on my horse, her stride shortens and her breath becomes shallow. This is my very clear warning that I am affecting her. When I then sit deep into the saddle, her stride lengthens, and when I take a deep breath, she does too. Everyone has their personal preferences and types of horses that make them feel comfortable. Be clear with the guides about what type of horse you are and tell them you’re a bit nervous, they will go above and beyond to find your absolute dream horse so you can have a fantastic holiday.

A horse can feel a fly land on its back. Imagine all it’s feeling from you. Every emotion, every thought. If you're thinking it, you can bet he’s feeling it.

Also read about teaching your horse to trail ride alone in my guest post on Horse Rookie!

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