Whether you’re an adult new to horses and horseback riding, or you’re returning to the equine world after a long break, there’s a bit of a learning curve to understanding a horse. (Trust me – I’ve been a professional for over 40 years, and I’m still learning :-). 

There are some easily recognizable signals, such as the horse nickering when he sees you coming (and he knows you have a treat), or putting his ears back when he’s cranky (it pays to learn this one early on in your Horsey Life!); but there is also a myriad of other signals that you may be missing. And the best way to learn them may surprise you. Learn to understand yourself first.

Self is a four-letter word

There are a lot of times where “self” has a negative connotation: self-absorbed, self-centered, selfish – even self-confident has been given a bad rap.

Self-Awareness, on the other hand, is a good thing. By becoming aware of our bodies, our thoughts, and our emotions, we’ll not only gain insight on how we’re perceived by horses, but also why we perceive horses the way we do. 

We all have built-in self-protection behaviors – it’s how we’re wired. They spend their days toiling away deep in our subconscious. They have a huge part in running the show in our lives, and we don’t even realize we’re relying on old habits of processing fear, anxiety, or doubt. Our sneaky subconscious has become pretty good at hiding in plain sight.

With a smile and denial

Think about a time when you were around a horse and you felt a little fear tugging at the edge of your mind. You brush it off. Why worry? This is a horse you’ve taken lessons on for a year – why the sudden whisper of fear? 

You finish tacking up and hide behind a smile (and in denial). Everything’s fine – at least that’s what you tell yourself. You’re just being silly. After all, it would be too embarrassing to tell your riding instructor that you’re afraid, and you wouldn’t share that with your family –  they don’t even understand why you want to ride in the first place. 

But by pretending everything is OK, you’re setting yourself up for more discomfort down the road. Without acknowledging and working to understand your feelings, the fear will keep coming back and you will feel more and more powerless to combat it.

Bring your fear out of hiding

If you’re going to continue working with horses, you’ll need to do some inner work.

  • Extend grace to yourself. You are not hopeless, idiotic, pathetic or any of the other nasty adjectives you use to label yourself. We are ridiculously unkind to ourselves – beating ourselves up over things we likely wouldn’t even notice in a friend. So – no self-flagellation allowed.
  • Acknowledge the emotion. You are entitled to your emotions and no one else has the right to belittle you or gloss over your feelings. This extends to your instructor, your family and yourself!
  • See and feel the emotion. Enter journaling and visualization. I know – journaling has become the new black. I think the only thing I haven’t heard people insist journalling can cure is male pattern baldness. But – I’m saying to journal anyway. Write down the instance when you felt the fear – put in as much detail as you remember. Now, visualize the experience in “slow-motion”. Take it one frame at a time and see if you can pinpoint when and how the fear showed up. Were you picking out the horses’s feet? Were you getting ready to tighten the girth? Once you’ve identified when you first noticed the fear, now connect with the what. What did the fear feel like in your body? Did you have a mini-flashback, so brief that you hardly noticed it? Did you feel a catch in your breath or a tightening in your shoulders? Sit with that feeling. You’ll most likely want to skip this or do a very cursory job of it. Resist the resistance. Acknowledging your emotion is the first step in understanding it, and understanding yourself.
  • Visualize the scene again, but this time, imagine you acknowledged your fear. Imagine you spoke with your instructor and explained your fear. Imagine she listened and worked with you to find a way to work through the fear. How does that feel in your body? Did you experience the same tightening in your shoulders? Did it stay the same, intensify, or lessen? Being able to feel the physical manifestation of fear stops the downward mental spiral that can quickly spin into a much greater level of anxiety.
  • Gradually work through your body, head to toe, and consciously relax each body part – the jaw and shoulders are often where the fear pops up, but check the rest of your body as well.
  • Repeat the second visualization a few times and you’ll see your fear start to dissipate. 

Visualization is a great way to “pre-treat” anxiety and fear as well. Visualize in great detail that you’re tacking up the horse, you and the horse are calm and relaxed. Feel the silkiness of the horse’s neck as you pat him, smell the peppermint that you gave him. Feel yourself leading him to the mounting block and mounting him quietly as he stands perfectly still. You take a deep breath and exhale, and carry on with a great ride.

Until the next time, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself!

Are you interested in a few more stress-busting exercises? Grab your free copy of 60 Seconds to Calm and learn 3 simple exercises you can do in 60 seconds or less to help you nip anxiety in the bud and fully enjoy your Horsey Life.