You may have begun to think of your riding career as “before” and “after”. Before the accident, you were so confident and relaxed about riding. You were eager to go to the barn each day to tack up and see what new goals you and your horse might reach. You may have been riding for years and consider your horsemanship skills to be a part of who you are. It just isn’t conceivable that you would give up riding. But, here you are “after the accident” dreading going to the barn. You simply don’t enjoy riding anymore and it doesn’t seem possible that you could ever regain the confidence you once had.
Take heart in knowing that so many others have been in the very same situation you are in and have come back to, not only enjoy riding again, but to surpass their previous riding level. I believe this improvement is, partially, due to a new understanding that riding confidence is not to be taken for granted. Also, riders often become much more skilled at chunking down goal achievement and learning to appreciate all the tiny accomplishments along the way.
This fear you are now experiencing is very common following any accident. People often have the same post-traumatic stress reaction following a car accident, breaking a leg skiing or even falling off a ladder. The difference that equestrians face is that riding involves two living creatures that are relying on each other for safety. Your horse needs to know you are confident and he can trust you not to direct him into unsafe situations. Horses are extremely sensitive creatures. This sensitivity makes them wonderful dressage partners, but also means he will pick up on subtle signs of fear. Your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice are all loud and clear signals to him of your confidence.
There are many things you can do to overcome your fear and get back to enjoying your riding again.
GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK - Sometimes, we can be our own worst critiques. Take a deep breath, relax and pat yourself on the back for making this first step. It was your determination and resourcefulness that brought you to the internet to find answers. You WILL get passed this.
FIND YOUR COMFORT LEVEL – There is a situation or area with your horse that you are comfortable. This place may be anywhere from working over smaller jumps to riding at a slower gait. You may feel, at this time, you are only comfortable grooming your horse. Or, you may need to ride a different horse for a while. Maybe you know of an older, experienced horse that makes you feel safe. Whatever this level is, find it and work there. Work there over and over and over until you are bored to tears. Then you will be ready to very slowly increase your difficulty level. Then, remain at each new difficulty level until you are totally relaxed. Taking the time to work at each level until you are truly comfortable is extremely important. You need to replace your memories – those bad videos that keep replaying in your mind-- with new positive images. If you move forward to quickly and experience any kind of setback, this will greatly increase the amount of time it takes to regain your confidence. This is one of those things in life where “slower really is faster”.
USE MENTAL IMAGERY – Learning to activate the imagination can be a very powerful confidence building tool. Imagery can cause your body and mind to work in unison. We often under-estimate the power that our mind has over our bodies. Imagine now a bright yellow lemon. Imagine slicing it with a knife and see the sour juice squirting as you slice. You are now salivating as an associated response to this image. Our minds have learned to associate mental images to certain responses from our bodies. Your current mental image of riding may be creating a physical response of anxiety, perspiration and rapid heart beat. By developing mental imagery skills, you can rewire your brain to make new associations to riding. There are many wonderful resources on guided imagery techniques.
SELF-HYPNOSIS - With self-hypnosis you can learn to take control of your fears, doubts and anxieties. You can change the way you perceive certain riding situations in the subconscious part of your mind. The memory of your accident has remained in your subconscious mind and your mind makes a connection with anything it perceives even remotely similar. The flight or fight instinct we all have keeps us safe from harm. But, sometimes it is over-activated even when there is no longer any danger or cause for concern. Self-hypnosis deals directly with the subconscious mind to replace these negative associations with new positive ones. It works much like mental imagery, but is faster and more powerful, in my opinion.
DISCUSS YOUR FEARS OPENLY - In the equestrian world, fear can sometimes be viewed as a flaw or weakness. I call this the old “cowboy mentality”. Holding the fear inside can cause it to fester and grow. Find someone you know to be understanding and supportive and discuss your fear with them openly. Most riders have lost their confidence, at some point, so it can be easier than you think to find a sympathetic ear. The discussion board at www.positivelyriding.com is solely dedicated to rebuilding confidence in the rider.
USE POSITIVE DIALOGUE – From now on, make only positive statements about your riding:
Don’t say: I’m afraid to ask for the canter. I’m such a chicken. I should sell my horse.
Say: Today, I will ask for lots of walk/trot transitions. My goal is for me and my horse to remain relaxed. I’m so proud of this exercise because it is a step toward relaxed canter transitions.
Don’t say: My horse is going to spook at the big rock on the trail today. He always does. I think he does it on purpose.
Say: I’m looking forward to my trail ride today. I feel so relaxed and confident. I will focus on the trail ahead as we approach the rock. My horse will sense my focus and relaxed body language and gain confidence from me. We will ride calmly passed the rock.
Your brain believes what you say and responds accordingly. Positive self-talk can go a long way in producing positive outcome.
Regardless of how severe your phobia of riding may have become, you have the ability to regain the confidence you had before your accident. If you begin taking the mental steps you need, now, you can be back in the saddle riding with courage and confidence. Do lots of reading – remember knowledge is courage.
Teresa Hughes has over 25 years experience as an equestrian and trains her own horses. She's loved horses from her earliest childhood memories. Her parents bought her her first pony when she was twelve. After several years of being away from horses to raise a family, she was horrified to discover (although all the passion was still there) the confidence she'd enjoyed in her younger years was gone. After much trial and error, she has found her way back to enjoying her horses again as she did as a child and is not only riding, but starting colts as well. She shares on her website, Positively Riding!, the methods that were beneficial for her in overcoming fear. She hopes to help others, experiencing lack of confidence issues, to find a shorter path back to enjoying their horses.