By Bob Jeffreys & Suzanne Sheppard
The worst thing about getting hurt is not always the physical injury itself. Most of the time the physical portion of the experience heals long before the psychological element of fear can be dealt with effectively. It would be so much better if we didn’t get hurt in the first place! Remember the times we just couldn’t wait to gallop around having fun without any thought of what could go wrong? Unfortunately, the longer you ride the more you learn about misadventures that can and sometimes do happen.
When we get hurt, we sometimes develop a fear of being hurt again. When we ride in fear, it most definitely affects the way we ride. Muscles and joints stiffen; we forget to breathe properly and generally become unstable and uncomfortable. When we hold our breath or become tense our horses notice it. They won’t understand the actual cause of our fear, but will recognize its presence and assume that they too should be afraid. After all, when the lead horse in a herd says there’s danger around and runs, the herd follows. Now we’re riding a spooky horse, which makes us even more afraid! Things will only get worse until we break the cycle.
You need to go back to a place in your riding or training where you feel absolutely comfortable. Otherwise, you will find all sorts of excuses to avoid dealing with your fear. For some of you, that place may be just grooming your horse or working on ground manners. When you’re okay with this step you are ready to move on.
Getting some support and guidance from a qualified riding instructor is an important way to help yourself succeed safely; if someone is helping you, be sure to communicate clearly what your comfort level is. If you have to go solo, start in a small enclosure such as a round pen or small corral. Work on something simple with your horse such as walking and asking him to “give to the bit” and “follow” his nose. Concentrate on your breathing…feel the air go in through your nose, into your chest and spread out in your seat before reversing course and exiting. When you’re comfortable with this, try to imagine that your legs are long enough to allow your feet to scrape along the ground. This corrects much of your body position. Feel your hips working in sync with the horse’s front feet (i.e. you’ll notice that as your left hip reaches the apex of its movement forward and to the left, the horse’s left front foot will hit the ground). Now add some cones around your work area, proceed toward a cone, circle it and go to another one. Add more circles or perhaps a figure eight pattern. All the while you’ll keep breathing and “scraping” the ground with your feet.
Eventually you’ll feel really good about your control and will want to bring all the above exercises up to the trot. Then you can move to a larger enclosure and finally you’ll be confident enough to introduce the canter (keep breathing!). Don’t allow outside influences, such as peer pressure or anything else force you to move along faster than you feel safe doing. Also give yourself a reasonable, realistic time frame to accomplish your goals.
You’ll be pleased to know that your riding skills will be improving while you’re training your horse to a higher performance level. You shall also be reinforcing the mutual bond of trust between yourself and your horse. Riding becomes fun again and your fear will become manageable.
Remember, however, that a healthy respect for caution is not a bad thing. Your cumulative knowledge and experience with horses often activates a certain “inner voice” that you need to listen to. If you think that galloping down this rocky incline could get you hurt…you’re right…don’t do it!
Being confident and cautious will bring the enjoyment back to riding.
About the Authors: Bob Jeffreys and Suzanne Sheppard, founders of Two as one Horsemanship, appear at expos and clinics across North America. Call 845-649-8869 or visit www.TwoasOneHorsemanship.com for more information.