Has a bad experience with your horse ever ruined everything about riding—not only for a few weeks or months, but for many years?
Have you continued to ride despite your anxiety? Or not wanted to get back on after that one awful incident?
I understand: It happened to me.
I’d finally got my seven year old home bred to relax in the warm-up at schooling dressage shows, and we were winning all our Training then First Level classes—and I do mean all of them—because I was so relaxed and my horse completely trusted me.
We could do no wrong!
Feeling ready to tackle recognized shows, I took him the following year to the New Jersey Horse Park.
If I had known what a zoo that place is and that we would be warming up with Grand Prix dressage riders who think it’s funny to mow down us lesser humans, I would never have taken Cruz.
We were both scared out of our wits. When I should have shown Cruz calm leadership, I panicked at his reaction to two big horses coming at us in canter half-pass. I could feel him building up to something.
In terror, he reared vertically, I fell and he fled from the scene.
That did it. He completely lost confidence in me, and I in him. Our happy days of trust were over.
The Fear Is Real
I writhed in agony for the six hour trip home, towing the trailer and getting lost. (Then bursting into tears!)
I was able to walk only with the assistance of two walking canes: it had been a hard fall from more than one perspective!
For two weeks I didn’t want anything to do with Cruz. I licked my wounds and begrudgingly fed him every day.
Finally I realized I must sit back on him—or sell him and never ride again. Well, that wasn’t an option!
After lunging him for the next two days, I donned my body protector and, with either a friend or my husband supervising, I gingerly got back on my bewildered and innocent horse.
The most awful scenarios were playing in my head as I put my foot in that stirrup.
After about a week of Cruz not putting a single hoof wrong, I was able to ride alone without someone standing ready to dial 911 if needed!
Two months later I took him to a show where I knew there’d be hardly any other horses warming up.
I was in tears as I mounted him, terrified that he’d rear again.
But he didn’t. (Why would he? He's not a rearer!)
When a lively stallion came a little too close (the only other horse on our warm-up patch of grass) he shied away very violently: he was back to his old behavior.
I survived the warm-up, and won both dressage classes, although I was back at Training Level.
But it was the first big step in what was to prove a very, very protracted rehabilitation process.
The Blame Game
It took a long time for me to accept my part in the New Jersey disaster. I hated Cruz for ‘letting me down’ and ‘frightening me like that.’
Only after a lot of soul-searching did I come to admit my own culpability. I should not have put him into such a daunting situation: neither of us was ready for it. I should have had the courage to scratch.
On top of everything, I’d had to stop giving him his calming supplements, because they weren’t legal for recognized shows. The poor animal was expected to cope in the most frightening situation without his regular help.
I let him down and now felt awful.
But here we were, and I had to do something about it.
A Shrinking World
For any of you reading this who’ve have carried around your fears for years and years—I hear you!!
I have spent the past six years taking Cruz to shows where I know there's enough space to warm him up away from the other horses. We’ve come home with plenty of blue ribbons, don’t get me wrong, but it was through evasive action.
I tried to take him into regular warm-up arenas at recognized shows, but as soon as a horse came too close or bucked, we both lost it. I would be shaking too much to be of any use to Cruz, who'd go into a tailspin.
Our world was now shrinking. Trail rides never happened because I didn't trust him to behave. I became that person I used to laugh at, the one who won’t leave the safe confines of the fenced in arena.
Life was getting very dull for Cruz and me and something had to change.
Carrying Out New Year’s Resolutions
In my post A More Relaxed Approach to Dressage I talked about how I am now varying Cruz’s work. As a result we’re having much more fun together and have ventured off the property to enjoy a long trail ride and go splashing around with other horses in cross-country water jump training.
(Since I wrote that last post, the rain has dried up in my arena and we’re popping over small jumps in the sand instead of in a pond!)
At the beginning of this year I vowed to change my own attitude to riding, and have done two important things to help Cruz and myself.
Cruz is on some new supplements which are working extremely well for him, and my next post will cover the details. They are all 'legal': finding ‘legal’ options that work on him has been a real challenge for me. More about them next time.
It Took Two Books to Change Me
I could throw all the supplements I wanted at my horse, but until I overcame my own fears, I was not going to become a confident leader for my horse.
I was so tired of being that rider who keeps ‘hoping her horse will behave,’ instead of being proactive and influencing the animal's behavior.
But for that I needed a confidence in my own ability, which had been lacking for years.
My brain needed rewiring.
Not having the money to go to a sports psychologist, I did the next best thing, and looked up books on the subject. I ended up buying the following two based on their reviews and what I read in the sample.
I haven’t looked back.
Inside Your Ride by Tonya Johnston
The subtitle of this book is ‘Mental Skills for Being Happy & Successful With Your Horse’ which tells you right away this is a book worth reading!
I strongly urge you to buy a copy if you’re struggling with issues of confidence around your horse, and not enjoying your riding because of them.
One of her aims is to ‘boost your confidence, and improve your focus, as well as to overcome the stress and fear when you ride or compete.’ Tonya Johnston gives you ‘psychological tools designed to enhance your thinking, approach, preparation, and partnering with your horse.’
One major tool I use from the book is a version of her ‘Post-Ride Notes’ which I complete after every ride. I begin by recording the date, the weather that day, my mood and that of my horse.
I then read my Pre-ride Preparation (tool courtesy of Ms. Johnston) to reduce stress before the ride, such as positive self-talk and breathing exercises to perform before getting on the horse and while you’re in the saddle.
When I finish riding I fill in the Goals Accomplished section. You set these goals before you ride - ensuring they are attainable.
One of my early goals was to be able to ride Cruz back up to the barn without a major spook.
It doesn’t sound like a big goal, but it was a big deal for me. I was always having to get off in the arena and lead him up – admitting defeat yet again. Now I can ride him up on the buckle!
She quotes three-time Olympic dressage bronze medalist Günter Seidel, who says we shouldn’t train each day with only one goal in mind, because we’ll be disappointed.
And we need to enjoy the training as well as the attainment of our goals.
Now come the Highlights, my favorite part of the Post-Ride Notes. These are often the same as the attained goals, but also wonderful moments such as ‘I relaxed my inner thigh and Cruz moved forwards with new energy and freedom,’ or ‘when he spooked in his usual corner I ignored it and kept going, and he didn’t spook there the next time.’
Tonya Johnston stresses the importance of being positive and recording at least two good things under the last two headings.
No negatives allowed!!! The human brain is always looking at the negative, but these Post-Ride Notes have no use for that thinking. Only the positives are mentioned.
I’ve been completing a riding journal for just over a month now and it's making me more and more aware of the good things in my rides. The ‘bad’ moments are few and far between—the exception, not the rule—and I don’t dwell on them. If I do mention them it’s in order to prove to myself that I coped well in those moments and went on to the good stuff.
As a result, my Post-Ride Notes are now covered in smiley faces. :)
With Winning in Mind by Lanny Bassham
This is the second book that I recommend you read. It is not specifically for riders (the writer is an American sports shooter who won a gold medal in the 1976 Summer Olympics) but is written by someone who overcame pressure by winning the mental game.
He explains how to get your brain to accept a new self-image. He calls the process a Mental Management® tool and says that ‘you can change any habit or attitude that you do not like about yourself, normally within 21 days.’
That’s pretty revolutionary stuff, isn’t it?
He describes how to write a Directive Affirmation, which is a statement of what you want to be, written in the present tense, to read several times daily for twenty-one days.
He states that if you follow the steps ‘there are only two possible outcomes. You will either become the person you want to be or you will stop reading the affirmation. It is that simple.’
What could I lose?
I wrote out my Directive Affirmation and read it daily for 21 days.
Lanny Bassham also tells us to record a Performance Analysis after every training session.
I incorporated this into my Post-Ride Notes, to produce what I call my ‘Performance Analysis Ride Notes.’
My pre-ride preparation now included positive self-talk, a solution oriented attitude, my affirmations (part of the Directive Affirmations), my negative thought-stopping cues (from Tonya Johnston) and concluded with goals accomplished and highlights.
Last week I got off Cruz after yet another terrific ride, and realized something wonderful.
Before mounting I had forgotten to record my mood and Cruz’s mood. I’d failed to go through my pre-ride routine of positive self-talk and had not reminded myself of the negative thought-stopping cues. I hadn’t read through any affirmations, such as “I ride Cruz with super-confidence and give him total confidence in me” and my solution oriented attitude of “I have the riding skills to meet the challenge.”
In short, for the first time since beginning this strategy I hadn’t needed it.
You can imagine how elated I was!
My Performance Analysis Notes have now become a useful daily record of how my rides are progressing. But here is the only positive self-talk I need:
‘God is watching over me and I am a good rider!’
My new-found confidence is making me less ‘driven’ when I ride. I don’t obsess about a movement, and I relax in the saddle, striving to make it easy for Cruz to do the right thing.
Instead of walking forever before trotting and cantering, I now walk, trot and canter on a long rein before coming back to work correctly in walk and building up slowly to the other gaits.
Cruz is happy with this system. He relaxes at the outset, is more responsive to my aids, and I don’t have to work so hard to get results.
We finish after only forty-five minutes: it’s a win-win situation for both of us.
And he drops his sheath when we get back to his stall, which he never used to do.
Not only did we go for that cross-country training with a bunch of other horses, but last weekend I also took Cruz for a jumping lesson. Life is getting to be fun again. :)
The Next Step
Other horses, including big ones, come into my arena and work around us to get Cruz comfortable with having other equines in his space.
I’m learning to stay relaxed when they come towards us and all I’m getting from him is a twitch in one ear.
This is HUGE!!
Last weekend I took him into the warm-up at a big recognized show. My next post will cover our success there. :)
Last week we looked at gaining your horse’s respect on the ground and decreasing your fear of him before you get in the saddle.
Now let’s foster your horse’s respect while you mount and when you ride.
Set yourself up for success every step of the way when overcoming your riding fears.
Before you get on your horse, I suggest using some ‘safety nets’ to get relaxed. Your horse won’t know that you’ve ‘cheated’ by setting up emotional and physical props: but he will react positively to the calmer person you’ve now become.
What Safety Nets?
After Cruz reared on me at a big show, I was terrified to get back on him for a long time. Eventually I was willing to try again - but only after I had some safety nets in place.
These will make you feel safer, too.
1. Ride in an enclosed arena with the gate closed.
2. Have a competent riding friend on the ground to watch out for you.
It’s generally a good idea not to ride alone: even professional riders who aren’t afraid of their horses understand this. So if you can, have a friend ride with you on a quiet horse. This is calming for both you and your horse.
3. Not essential, but if you have one, wear a body protector. It may never be needed, but it will make you feel more secure.
Taking these precautions will relax you before you mount.
And for the Ultra Nervous…
If you’re really scared, I would suggest asking a trusted and competent horse person to ride your horse for a few minutes before you get on him. She will prove to you that there’s nothing to be worried about.
(And if there is something to be worried about, maybe this is not the horse for you. I’ll be addressing this in a later post.)
Preparing to Mount
Lead your horse into the middle of the arena. This gives you lots of space to maneuver when pulling down the stirrups and tightening the girth. Keep your arm looped through the reins at all times, but let your horse stand quietly without you pulling on his mouth.
If your horse doesn’t stand still, he’s showing a lack of respect for you. Once again, you need to be a strong leader: increase your authority over him and decrease your fear of him. Do this now, while you’re in the middle of the arena. You’ll be teaching him to stand still for you at the mounting block.
Quietly but insistently ask your horse to back up, then halt. Lead him forwards again, and ask him to halt when you halt. Then back him up again. If he responds immediately, give him a pat and continue tightening the girth, etc.
If he doesn’t stand still for you, repeat the process as long as necessary until he does. Your horse must respect you at all times. Do this in the spirit of training, rather than as a bullying tactic, and always reward his good behavior.
Fairness When Mounting
Now you’re ready to lead him to the mounting block where he must stand still for you to get on him.
Here, too, remember to be fair on your horse.
Your horse needs to know you’re in charge as soon as you get in the saddle. This doesn’t mean pushing him around. It simply involves leading him firmly in the right direction the whole time you’re riding.
You may have heard the term “ride every stride.” If you remember those words, you’ll never leave it up to your horse to make decisions about where to go or what gait to adopt.
Take up enough contact with the reins for the horse to know that you are leading him. In the beginning this will not be a strong contact (unless the horse’s attitude warrants it) but just enough for your rein aids to be definite. At the same time, make it clear to your horse through your seat and leg aids that he is to walk - not trot or canter - until you ask him for upward transitions.
Fairness while riding means preparing your horse for a change in direction or gait.
When your horse worries that he’s about to run into the boundary fence or wall of the arena because you haven’t told him to turn in plenty of time, he’s going to decide for you. He no longer trusts you as his leader. He’s lost respect for you and has to take over: it’s a matter of self-preservation.
Reassure your horse that you are in charge by preparing him well ahead of time for changes in direction or gait. Let him know that you’re a competent leader.
We so often fail to lead our horses properly, then become afraid of them because they “don’t listen to us.”
If we look at the situation from the horse’s perspective we’ll understand better why this happens.
Often we only assert ourselves when we feel like it, and abandon the horse to his own devices the rest of the time. Examples are doodling in the arena chatting to our friends, or walking the horse off after working him.
Remember to ‘ride every stride’ even when you’re both relaxing.
Too frequently we hope our horse is “going to look after us.” We put him in tricky situations then abandon him when he most needs strong guidance and leadership from us. This is when he’s most likely to react negatively and scare us.
My own example is riding my First Level horse in a crowded warm-up arena with Grand Prix horses performing canter half-pass ‘at him.’ I was scared, too, and hoped he could cope without my intervention. He reared vertically because he was being hemmed in by big ‘threatening’ horses and I’d deserted him just when he needed reassuring leadership from me.
I should have taken a firm hold of him between my legs, seat and hands and ridden him purposefully between the scary horses, thus increasing his trust in me as a good leader. (If I’d been an even better leader, I wouldn’t have put him in that situation in the first place!)
So it’s not always his fault that your horse “behaves badly.” Use clear, consistent aids to tell your horse what you want him to do at all times, and don’t put him in situations that he (and you) are not ready for.
If you do this your horse will learn to respect and follow you because he trusts you to be fair and consistent in your leadership. Instead of coping with paralyzing fear every time you get on your horse, you’ll be able to progress with your riding skills and enjoy being a horse owner again.
If you have any comments about this post I’d love to hear from you!
Horses are my big obsession, and I'm constantly striving to get better, smarter and more in harmony with my equine buddy, Cruz Bay.
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