The Riding School: Overcoming the fear factor

Spills are bound to happen. This week, the Riding Instructor explains how best to proceed when a student’s confidence gets shaken.

From The Riding Instructor:

One year, when my sister and I had been taking lessons for about a year and a half, we had a really bad winter.  Now this was Southern California, mind you, so a “bad” winter wasn’t exactly the Blizzard of ’78; what “bad” means in SoCal is that it just pours rain all of the time – except on the weekends.  What this meant for us was that the poor school ponies spent all week getting rained on in their pipe corrals (turn out was not and still is not a luxury that real estate prices in L.A. allow) and when we little peanuts came to ride on a Saturday, all they wanted to do was get up to the sand ring and get down and roll.  Never mind the saddle, let alone the terrified eight-year-old frantically kicking and futilely pulling on the reins: they were going to wallow in that sand.  It just took a couple of Saturdays for my sister to swear off horses forever (she’s a very helpful groom now, but that’s another story) and even I, tough little kid that I was, went back to the lunge line for a couple of months to regain my confidence.

Which brings us to my topic of the week, something that all instructors have to deal with: fear.  If you teach riding, you deal with fear.  It’s unavoidable; the horses are too big and too strong.  A little bit of fear, a healthy respect for the power and unpredictability of the animal, is a good thing, but more than that is, obviously, a problem.  And fear comes in multiple varieties, which need different approaches to help the students overcome their worries, rather than leading them to, like my sister, quit riding forever.

The most common fear in riding is that which stems from a problem or an accident: a spook, a buck, a runaway can result in a student who becomes nervous or anxious in the saddle.  For this particular one, the best defense is a good offense.  From the beginning, I make sure the students know that, at some point, they will fall off; that the horses have their own minds and responses to things; and that this is just part of riding.  Pretending to students that all will always be well makes the bad stuff more of a shock.

It is very useful to talk about the different things that might happen and what would be the best response to different kinds of bad behavior.  One of the school horses where I teach now has an occasional kick out to the leg; he’s an old man and a little cranky(though, in general, he is a saint), but his little trick doesn’t really have the mojo to get anyone off – if, that is, the rider knows what’s going on.  When I have students ride him, I explain to them what he might do, how they should deal with it and guess what?  Their reaction to it, when he finally does it, usually is to laugh, not cry.

Now no instructor has the power to keep the kids in the saddle at all times, even when they are prepared, so what to do when they finally fall?  Once I’ve made sure the student is physically fine, I’m a little old school; I believe in the old axiom of “get right back on the horse.” The students learn from the instructor’s reaction: falling off happens.  After we’ve talked about what just happened and why, the student might just walk around for a while, but in the saddle. It is also worthwhile to talk to parents about falling ahead of time, so that they are prepared to support your response; an overprotective parent transmitting their worry can make the student think a little tumble is a bigger deal than it is.

And in the lessons after they’ve fallen?  I do everything in my power to ensure that their next rides are safe and solid ones.  If that means a few times back on the lunge or riding good old Lightning, that’s just fine; I keep them in their comfort zone, but with a focus on calmly getting back to work.  I often give them something new to think about – a game, riding with one hand, a complicated series of school figures – so their minds can concentrate on rising to this new challenge, rather than on the past.  Ideally, the new success will replace the fear created by that one terrifying moment.

Next time: dealing with more general anxiety.

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