"Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyways" – John Wayne
I don't know, at times I've wondered is it courage or insanity? I'm not entirely sure. I do know that great riders and fearlessness seem to be synonymous.
It's not a secret that horses are inherently dangerous. In fact that is the exact wording in the waivers we make each of our students sign. The same waivers we signed ourselves. It's not that we enjoy being bucked off, stepped on, kicked or bitten. Its more of a decision. We know what its like to eat dirt. It just happens that to most of us, it is worth it for that one perfect moment on the back of a horse. When everything comes together, and this powerful creature begins moving willingly and effortlessly beneath you at your slightest touch. Equestrian Ecstasy … like a drug we constantly crave from the first moment we feel it … trying to get the same fix from every horse we ride from that point on.
It's been about 2 years since I had the displeasure of winding up beneath the beloved, voluptuous school horse "Miss Kitty". It wasn't her fault or mine. It just happened. She had been on stall rest for a week and needed to be ridden. I was a graduate assistant, working to extend my education as long as possible, and riding all the school horses is one of the "perks"
In true Miss Kitty fashion, the microphone in the arena squealed and we were off. Then another squeal trying to turn it off and she did a spontaneous slam on the brakes. I tried to save it, losing my balance, and my foot got caught in the process. Bummer … I wound up caught beneath her, trying to pull my foot from the stirrup. She was frantic, and just as frightened as I was. As I tried to maneuver myself out from under her she actually appeared to be trying to tip toe off of me. At 1100 pounds she wasn't tip toeing anywhere. She took the closest path, running up my leg, with the majority of her weight landing on my knee.
I was lucky, I damaged my knee, but I was able to continue on to teach and train within 6 months. It didn't necessarily make me afraid to ride, but my confidence was shaken. I no longer felt invincible. When Horses are the way you make your living you can't afford to not be able to ride. Sustaining injuries while training isn't just possible its probable.
There is a hesitation that isn't easy to rid yourself of once your become concerned for your well being. In the process of trying to save ourselves we put ourselves more at risk. As a trainer you must be able to make the decision to ride through the problem in the instant it occurs or else it's pointless. In order to continue training effectively, I had to rehabilitate my confidence, as much, if not more than my physical wounds.
So what do we do when a horse gets the best of us? Maybe you took a bad spill, or sustained an injury, or perhaps you just rode a horse you've ridden before that for the first time just wouldn't stop. The most important lesson I ever learned as a trainer (and in life) is that control is an illusion. There is a moment of awareness that you are riding a thousand pound animal with a mind of its own.
Whether you are professional trainer or a backyard warrior you have inevitably experienced fear of some sort in your riding career. Fear, is a natural response intended to protect us from making errors of judgment. While anxiety is normal after a negative experience, not addressing the issue can make a bad situation much worse.
Don't be persuaded to "get over it" or "face your fears" alone. It is essential to find a qualified instructor to help you get back on track. Its important to work with someone who acknowledges your fear, with patience and understanding, while not catering to it. There is a difference. A good teacher knows when and how much to push. In riding the best way to conquer fear is to acquire skill. The stronger our foundation, the less likely you will be to repeat history. Don't have expectations for yourself that you wouldn't put on your horses. Learning takes place in the small space between what we know and what we don't. If a horse is not ready physically or mentally to perform a task, we take a step back, and focus on the basics.
There are extreme cases in which conventional methods of dealing with riding anxieties may not be enough. A new technique used to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
With a trained therapist, patients talk over the trauma while following a rapid movement of a light or moving object before their eyes. This allows the patient to release disturbing emotions through stimulated eye movements available in REM sleep. EMDR combines several therapeutic methods, psycho-dynamic, cognitive, behavioral, etc. with eye movements or other forms of rhythmical stimulation, such as hand taps or sounds. It involves recalling a stressful past event and reprogramming the memory in the light of a positive, self-chosen belief. While the effectiveness of EMDR remains controversial amongst medical professionals, many patients have experienced quick, long lasting results in as few as 3 sessions.
I also suggest reading Overcoming the Fear of Riding: Featuring Interviews with 12 Top Riders, a book by Theresa J. Jordan, Ph.D. and Peter De Michele, M.Ed. The book is full of advice from riding's greatest stars, who reveal their own histories of overcoming fears. The experts discuss fear of injury, embarrassment, failure, and performance anxiety. These interviews and the author's professional approach provide the insight you need to deal effectively with many different manifestations of fear that relate to riding.
Coping with fear is just another part of learning to ride. If you are facing this issue, there is hope and help available. Achieving our goals often requires a determined spirit, sweat, and energy well beyond what we think is possible. Be patient with yourself and acknowledge your successes along the way. It may not happen over night, but commitment combined with action will eventually achieve results. You just have to take the first step.
"You don't have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great." Les Brown