I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I coach horsewomen on managing fear (among other things), I am not a fearless woman, and I’m most certainly not a fearless rider. And honestly? I’m OK with that. As far as I’m concerned, being fearless around your horse (or almost anywhere else, for that matter), is actually one of the most dangerous, and yes, stupidest, things you can do.
Far from being the bad guy here, fear acts kind of like an internal smoke detector. The horrible loud beeping is startling and jarring and usually only means you need to change the battery (or order takeout because you just turned dinner into a smokey, inedible mess) but that one occasion there is a real danger it can literally save your life.
Just like the smoke detector, sometimes there are false alarms with your fear, so it’s helpful to know your horse’s “battery-needs-changing” signal from the “we’re-about-to-have-complete-meltdown signal. With exercises like correct breathing, being mindful, and Tapping, you can learn to respond to his cues appropriately, which helps you navigate that often gray area between fearful and dead. But here’s an important point – the appropriate response to fear is not fearlessness, it’s courage.
According to Oxford Languages, the definition of courage is the ability to do something that frightens one, certainly a quality to aspire to. And while fearless isn’t actually defined as stupid in the dictionary, being not afraid of anyone or anything can get us in trouble. Fast. Courage, on the other hand, is defined as the ability to do something you know is right or good, even though it is dangerous, frightening, or very difficult.
Think of having courage as being willing to take a calculated risk – like visiting family at 10 p.m. Christmas Eve – the most common day of the year for heart attacks. Are you going to miss out on seeing Aunt Bertha unwrap the DDD cup bra that makes the rounds of your family every year? Of course not – and you’re not likely to give up horseback riding due to fear, either.
Hopefully, you’re going to create a plan before your horse’s next meltdown moment. Understand your responses to his actions (which are, in themselves, responses and/or reactions), and build a toolbox of useful exercises you can use to help you be courageous without being
stupid, I mean fearless. (Make sure you grab a copy of the 10 – Minute Toolkit for some great tools.)
If you know he gets kind of cranky when you tack him up around feed time, plan ahead for how you’re going to manage his crankiness. (But, I have to admit, if you dragged me off to work when I thought I was going to get to eat, I’d be cranky, too!).
Can you ride him a bit earlier? A bit later? Can he have a few mouthfuls of his dinner before you ride? Those are all ways of helping manage the situation before it has a chance to get started, but what happens when none of those options are viable?
You were stuck late at work and now have an hour to groom, tack up, ride, cool down, untack, groom again, and he’s scheduled for dinner right about at the 35-minute mark. Do you normally become afraid that he’s going to dump you and try to go back to the barn? Or he’ll just plant his feet and refuse to move? This is where your responses to his cues become critical.
Giving in to your fear by jumping off, adopting a modified fetal position, and taking him back to his stall may not be your best choice – for your sake, his sake, and the sake of all the rides that may occur at 5 p.m. in the future. By the same token, if you know he has quite a buck when he’s cranky and you’re not that experienced or balanced a rider, it would be stupid (there’s that word again) to just damn the torpedoes and jump on to go for a trail ride in the woods by yourself. Fortunately for all, there is a middle way. Be courageous.
- Take a couple of deep breaths.
- Consciously relax your shoulders, jaw, and other favorite tension-holding places in your body
- Evaluate the situation
- Move to plan B.
Plan B could be lunging him instead of riding. It could be to ride in the outdoor ring where he’s less likely to fuss if other horses are being fed. It could be some in-hand work to clarify and confirm his respect for your personal space, or riding for just 10 minutes.
None of these choices are completely without risk, and quite possibly will create at least some fear, but just like you wouldn’t dream of missing Aunt Bertha and the Christmas Bra, you shouldn’t miss enjoying every possible moment with your horse. Arm yourself with tools and meet your ride with courage.