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. :)
I used to dread riding Cruz. Far from being fun, it had become a frightening chore.
Now I love my horse. Not only that, but I can tell Cruz likes me, too. His whole attitude has changed because my approach to him has taken a U-turn.
In my last post I asked whether you are
(a) a figure of authority whom your horse respects?
(b) do you just hope he’s going to behave without giving him firm direction?
My own answer to that question used to be a resounding (a) ‘No’ and (b) ‘Yes’!
Authority over your horses starts on the ground. A friend who has been through similar issues noted how often we go out of our way not to inconvenience our equine buddies.
Let me give you some examples of my own guilt here.
Before: Giving Cruz hay was a messy business during which he’d grab it out of my hands while I attempted to place it on the floor.
Now: He backs up when I bring his hay and waits for me to place it on the ground before going near it. This took patient, repeated refusals to give him hay until he obeyed my quiet but insistent command to wait for it.
Before: It was a race to place feed into the manger before his muzzle thrust me out of the way.
Now: He keeps his head to one side until I’ve put the feed in his manger, because I wouldn’t give it to him until he did.
Before: I’d groom him exactly where he stood, even if he was so close to the wall that I was liable to get squashed at any moment!
Now: I ask him to move over by pressing him on his side where my leg asks for lateral work under saddle. This way I daily exert my authority and reinforce the aid for moving sideways.
Brushing His Face
Before: If he wanted to eat hay while I brushed his face, fine - I would work around his munching.
Because I wanted him to like me, I tried not to ‘upset him’ by interfering with his agenda.
Now: I hold his head up for brushing. If he tries to lower it again, I hang onto it until I’m done. He gives a big sigh and closes his eyes to enjoy the feeling of the brush strokes.
I was astounded at my blatant lack of authority over Cruz in even the smallest things. Now he enjoys being groomed and hangs his ‘fifth’ leg.
He has surrendered leadership to me, which allows him to relax. This is a vital component of the trust building process under saddle, too.
(It’s interesting to note that he also no longer pouts with his head in the corner when I bring the saddle, but has a friendly, welcoming stance.)
Any of This Sound Familiar?
There are many ways to inadvertently lose our horse’s respect. Yet gaining his respect is vital to the process of eliminating our fears.
Do you recognize your situation in any of these on-the-ground scenarios?
a. Your horse won’t let you catch him
b. He drags you along when you lead him from the field
c. He stops to munch grass on the way back to the barn
d. He won’t stand still while you groom him
If your horse frightens you, first examine your relationship with him on the ground and address those areas where he is in charge, and not you.
We need to be a competent leader on the ground before we can expect our horse to obey us under saddle.
As your horse’s respect for you increases, your fear of him will decrease.
Then you’ll be ready to lead him (in a quiet and orderly fashion!) into the riding arena. Note I say ‘into the riding arena’ not ‘off for a trail ride’. I strongly advise you to ride in an enclosed area when you’re working on your riding fears.
Next Friday I’ll go through how to minimize fear by commanding your horse’s respect while sitting in the saddle.
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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