The Riding School: Unspoken fear

This week, the Riding Instructor discusses the “curious paradox about horseback riding that so many people both love it and are terrified by it at the same time.”

Top photo: Amy Hubbard

From the Riding Instructor:

It’s a curious paradox about horseback riding that so many people both love it and are terrified by it at the same time.  Consider the folks at your barn: I would bet that at least 25% of them love riding and horses, but also exhibit varying degrees of fear.  Think of the older riders who rarely venture above a trot, the kids who jump back every time the horse moves towards them, the teens who are wary about tackling a new jump.  As I’ve mentioned before, a little fear is a good thing, as evidenced today by one of my extra fearless little peanut riders, who got her foot stepped on as she was trying to pick a hoof without help from one of the big kids.  But many riders are limited by their fear and it takes some careful, targeted instruction to help them overcome their specific anxieties.

In my experience, riders who deal with this kind of fear–unlike those who’ve had a bad experience–rarely tell their instructor that they are afraid.  Instead, the instructor has to have a keen enough eye to see the evidence of their fear and devise ways to help them overcome it, so they can both enjoy riding and keep progressing.

Here’s how to recognize a couple of the most common fears and some suggestions on how to help the students work on moving past them to become more confident–if not entirely fearless–riders.

Fear on the ground: These students are usually pretty confident in the saddle, but are nervous around the horses on the ground.  It’s most common in lesson riders who have limited contact with the horses in their stalls–they tack up with assistance or on the crossties and haven’t really had the experience of pushing around 1,200 pounds of lesson pony.  They stand far away from the horses, move back if the horses move towards them (I call this the horse training the person, instead of the other way around).  When I see this kind of reluctance, I change the lesson plan.  I incorporate some work on the ground before they ride: They lead the horse, practicing staying right beside them, and have the horse halt sometimes.  With bigger kids, they trot in hand.  I have them practice positioning the horse perfectly by the mounting block (a skill portable plastic mounting blocks has undermined), moving its body around with a well-placed push.  And this sounds a little cheesy, but we practice hugging and loving on our horses.  What lesson horse doesn’t love a little snuggle? (Don’t answer that!)

Fear of going forward:  All instructors know that almost everything is easier if the horse is going forward.  It’s easier to steer, to post, to stay on the rail.  But many riders find that bigger movement intimidating.  The most obvious symptom of this is a tendency to lean forward, to adopt something of fetal position–hands in the lap, shoulders forward, a very risky position indeed–and not be able to get the horse above a slow jog.  With these reluctant to go forward riders, it’s very tempting to put them on the ones that are easier to get going, but I’ve found that usually backfires.  I keep them on the slowpokes, but try to find some motivation in every lesson to make them want to go forward: a game that involves a trotting race, some trotting poles, timing how long it takes them to go down the long side.  I’ve also found that riding with no hands on the lunge or one hand as they go around the ring (hand on hip, out to the side, on the head) makes them use their legs more effectively and keeps them from riding backwards.  I also love the vaulting surcingle to help them get comfortable with the feeling of forward.

Fear of the unexpected:  Some students who haven’t had a bad experience still worry about the bad thing that might happen.  They might make jokes about it – “Am I going to fall off?” – but it’s still a real worry.  The best way to deal with this is to treat every question seriously, but matter-of-factly, acknowledging that horses are unpredictable, but explaining the horse’s actions and psychology as clearly as possible.  The more these students know about why a horse does what it does, the better.

Fear of change: This student worries about new things, but, most of all, about riding new horses.  I try to nip this one in the bud by making sure that all of the students know all of the horses that they might ride, but every once in a while, a student gets attached and then needs to make a change.  When I know I’m going to be switching the horses around in the future, I introduce the possibility to the students a week or two in advance, always presenting it as a positive experience, telling them a little about the new horse’s personality and how they are ready to move on to it. When the big day comes, I keep the student well within her comfort zone, so there’s not more than one fear at a time!

Recognizing and dealing with these more subtle fears helps your students to develop as people as well as riders; when I’ve coached a rider through doing something that I can tell they were a little scared of, I always make a point (after they’ve achieved what they feared) of praising them for getting past that bit of fear they never admitted to.  There’s no better feeling in life and riding than safely conquering the things that hold you back!

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