Even among experienced riders, fear or anxiety can seem like an insurmountable obstacle in riding or just being around horses. Your horse spooks and you get hurt, you experience pain and lose the ability to be relaxed and supple, you see someone else get thrown. All of these events can cause anxiety and excessive fearful responses. Because horses tune in to our emotional states, our anxiety can cause unwanted behavior like shying or what seems like disobedience. When we are calm and confident our horses tend to be the same. Anxiety is a learned response to the perceived possibility of danger. Riders can learn to overcome negative responses to anxiety, stay in the moment and enjoy the time on their horse. Fear is a natural, normal and necessary response to immediate threat and danger, for example, when your horse suddenly spins and bolts. To ride well and stick with the horse you can learn to stay relaxed and adhered to the saddle even in fearful moments.
Fear or anxiety can seem like an insurmountable obstacle in riding or just being around horses. Many riders are afraid to some extent. For some it means having a healthy regard for horses, for others it means not achieving what they would like with horses, and for others it means not riding. While there is a difference between fear and anxiety, both can cause riders to lose security in the saddle and horses to react by spooking or becoming tense. Fear is a natural, normal and necessary response to immediate threat and danger. Anxiety is a learned response to the perceived possibility of danger. While some riders are held back from their responses to fear evoking events and anxiety, others learn to control the thought processes and emotional and physical responses engendered by both.
Have you seen one person seemingly float along with their shying horse, not even bumping in the saddle? That person has learned to overcome the natural instinct to stiffen against danger–fear is there but their body responds in a way that keeps them on the horse. Do you have friends who seem to remain calm on their horse even when you know they are anxious? They have learned to overcome natural responses and stay relaxed and present. The good news? Anyone can learn to overcome negative responses, whether to fear or anxiety. Through a series of mental and physical exercises, including mindfulness and body awareness training, you can learn to identify how the mind and body create anxiety and then learn to distinguish the difference between relaxed, harmonious states and fearful or anxious states. By practicing being in control of how you experience relaxation and how you communicate your feelings through your body to your horse, you can overcome responses that sabotage your riding and upset your horse. In addition, you can learn specific ways to move with the horse’s motion, even if it’s sudden and unexpected, so you are confident in the saddle.
Horses, as herd animals, read and mirror our emotional and physical state. When the rider is calm and confident the horse tends to be also. An anxious rider make the horse more likely to be tense, spook, or not pay attention to the rider’s aids. By learning to calm mental and physical aspects of anxiety and learning to change our physical response to fear we can keep our horses calm, responsive and attentive to our desires.
How does this work? The brain senses a threat from the environment or from a memory or a thought and transmits fear to the body via neuro-chemicals. The body reacts by preparing to flee or confront the threat. If the threat is perceived as intense the brain may react with panic and flood the cerebral cortex with chemicals that result in disorganized behavior like freezing or panic–responses that make you fall of and your horse become more afraid. Fear/anxiety responses are similar whether the body is reacting to an actual threat, a memory, or a lesson. For example, a horse tries to buck you off (actual threat), when you were a child a horse bucked you off (memory), a parent told you never to ride horses because they will buck (lesson). Your mind may not distinguish between these three types of experiences. Your body will respond to a lesson in a similar way it responds to the horse actually bucking. By using a beginners mind when you ride you can learn to train your mind to react differently to memories and lessons and act appropriately to immediate threat.
A beginners mind is open to experience, it is accepting and non-judgmental and it reacts to the present moment. In contrast the experts mind pre-judges, expects imagined outcomes, and knows what will happen (self-fulfilling prophecy). And, while you may not be able to control an actual event (a plastic bag spooks your horse) you can learn to control your reaction. Learning how to sit with the movement of the horse to have a more secure, harmonious seat is one step toward maintaining cool confidence. Another is learning to remain in the actual conditions of the present moment. My sister Wendy Morseth is a clinical psychologist who works with people to overcome fear and anxiety. We have teamed up and offer clinics for riders wishing to experience the joy of Riding without Fear. For more information see: sitthetrot.com/RideWoFear.htm.