And that is the focus of this blog. How do you put the fear back in its box? What can you learn from fear and how can you address it.
For some riders, it is fear of failure, or of looking foolish. This is a much Easier fear to deal with – because it is a less genuine fear. It goes away, Once a rider accepts that if they make a huge mistake at a show, no one will really care, showing isn't as scary. Most horse people will sympathize, because any Honest rider will admit, they have probably made a similar mistake. It is part of being a member of the Horse People’s club – you will be embarrassed by your horse, sooner or later, and probably multiple times. By the way, it is Way worse if you own and ride Mules – then the embarrassment is guaranteed to appear frequently! Mule people have a special form of humor and very thick skin.
Fear of falling and injury is a whole different thing. Well sort of. It is at least a very real fear. People DO get hurt riding horses. In fact, some people are seriously injured. It is a risk you have to accept as a trade off for the joy of riding. Just as I know that everything I get in my truck, I run the risk of being killed in a traffic collision. I don’t let that fear stop me from driving. It DOES stop some people. Some people never learn to drive, they are too afraid. Some people give up driving after a serious car accident. But in truth, Most of us just face that fear and do things to minimize the risk. We keep our car in good condition with decent tires and good brakes. We wear our seat belts. We have cars with air bags and crush zones. And Hopefully, we remember how to drive defensively – leaving extra room between us and another car, yielding even when it isn’t required, watching out for the other guy.
The other side of the equation is to make the Horse more reliable. The example of the horse who spooks at the sound of car backfires – that can be addressed at home. If a horse is known to spook at some particular thing, teach him to be less reactive. Show him that it is Not going to hurt him. You could put a horse in a round pen and fire a cap gun, or a starter’s pistol until the horse recovered from his fear. In addition to desensitizing him to the specific stimuli, you would be teaching him to trust his rider to watch over him and keep him safe from harm. We can NOT desensitize a horse to everything that might ever happen to him – because there is no way to predict every weird occurrence that might happen. But you can teach the horse to trust his rider and also you can teach the rider to trust his horse! A horse that fears car traffic would do well to be ponied in the streets off a calm horse. When the horse sees that the Other horse is not afraid, then the green one learns confidence.
Once the horse has learned to be braver, and the rider has learned better riding skills, then it is important to SHOW the rider that the horse is better than he was before. I will take a client out on trail rides, and I ride their newly retrained horse, and they ride a safe lesson horse. Then they see with their own eyes that their horse is reliable. After a few rides like that, I may put the owner on their horse and I ride along on a very confident horse. And I always promise the rider that if they get too scared, we will trade horses. This makes it feel like a smaller leap of faith. Knowing there is a ‘chicken out’ helps a rider Try the scary thing.
She went and worked with a pro trainer and developed a Lot of ground control. Then she started riding, and the mare improved, but the trainer was not quite as good instilling confidence in a timid rider. So, she wound up with me. We started with lessons here and now have progressed to riding at her place. She will ride her mare confidently if she rides alone or with a few known companions. But if anyone else joins in, then the rider is tense, and the mare picks up on that. So, I am riding the horse in new situations to show her owner that even if the mare jigs a little, she is no longer going to lose her mind and bolt up a hill and injure someone. But it is a long and slow road. When the mind envisions a terrible outcome time after time, the neural pathways are etched. So, when conditions hit the trigger, the mind Races along that familiar path straight to disaster and panic.
Just as we have to give a frightened horse time to develop courage, we have to allow a rider time to learn to be brave. And that only comes if you carefully set up conditions that take the rider just a tiny step out of their comfort zone. If you push too far and are in the stress or panic zone, no learning takes place. But if you take baby steps into the area of stretching the envelope – and then you retreat back into the safe comfort zone, eventually both a horse and a rider will develop a larger comfort zone. Then you can push a little farther. It helps if the rider can SEE that the horse has learned better skills or that this NEW horse is better and safer than the one that hurt the rider. Always try to end on a positive note and mentally reward yourself for trying and focus on your successes.