The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Riding Anxiety

Do you have a strategy for dealing with in-the-saddle nerves? Callie Rae King helps us formulate a plan for riding through our fears.

From Callie Rae King:

Fear. Anxiety. Dread. Not words that you want to associate with riding, but there is no doubt that these feelings come up for most of us at some point in our riding lives. I know that there have been numerous times in my life that a bad experience made me down right scared to get back in the saddle. Anxiety is something I see many of my students struggling with as well, and I want to help, because as I have said before, riding should be fun. We don’t pay all kinds of money for riding equipment and horse care, and go out to the barn in the rain and the howling wind, shovel manure, and get covered in horse hair if we didn’t enjoy riding.

But when fear becomes a constant, the fun can get sapped right out of horses and riding. Let’s be honest, when you get anxious around horses, bad things start happening. Even if you are great at hiding those internal butterflies from your fellow riders, your horse is picking up on them every minute. Some horses are steady eddies and won’t be affected by your nerves, but most horses will pick up on your nervous energy and start looking for whatever you are afraid of. A nervous rider quickly creates a nervous horse and the combination is not fun for either.

But before you completely condemn your anxiety, consider this — fear can be good, it can be healthy. What I mean by this is a little anxiety now and then probably just tells you that you are growing as a rider. New challenges will stir up the butterflies, and as you get comfortable with the new skill, they will quiet down again.

I love this quote from Jane Savoie, taken from her article, A Positive Look at Fear While Horseback Riding. “Fear means you’re growing. Every time you stretch yourself, aim a little higher, or take a risk, you’re going to experience some anxiety. So fear itself is not the issue. Fear doesn’t make you a coward. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. Fear only becomes an issue when it paralyzes you and prevents you from doing something you really want to do. Besides, if you’re not afraid at times, it just means that you’re not stepping out of your comfort zone and living big enough.”

There is another instance where fear can be healthy. Fear may be your intuition keeping you safe. If you are truly pushing too hard, too fast, fear could be your own inner voice telling you to slow down before you get hurt. Riding horses can be dangerous, there is no need to dance around that fact, but as riders we have acknowledged that risk and continue to participate in the sport, so you need to know your own limits and have the courage to challenge yourself without going so far as to set yourself up for failure. That can be a fine line, and an issue where you need to consult logic and listen to your gut at the same time.

Let’s switch gears now and talk about the kind of anxiety that holds you back. The anxiety that is bad or even downright ugly. This is where you obsess over the same worst case scenario over and over. You feel anxious doing things that used to be comfortable. You worry constantly and read into everything that happens as being negative. This is the kind of anxiety that you need to acknowledge for what it is – unhealthy. Unhealthy anxiety can usually relate to something else that is happening in your personal life. This is one of the best things about interacting with horses – they can tell us a lot about ourselves.

Whatever the cause of your anxiety, I’d like to share several strategies to reduce anxiety and relieve stress. There are a few things that I have used to relieve my own stress, but I also wanted to go deeper on this so last week I met with a professional counselor, Tina L. O’Conner. We talked a lot about the psychology of anxiety and she gave me more tips for keeping it under control.

For the sake of not being too long winded, here are my top three strategies for relieving anxiety.

Breathing is number one for me, and when I say breathing, I mean deep, diaphragmatic breaths that pull the air down and expand my stomach. Counting 1, 2, 3, 4 as you breathe in, holding your breath for the same 4 count, and then exhaling can have a very calming effect.

Second, I use a lot of positive visualization. I picture what I want to happen and how I will smoothly handle an undesirable situation. P.S. this helps a lot from a performance aspect too!

Third, any exercise to practice mindfulness will bring your thoughts back to the present and can stop the negative chatter in your mind. To be with the horse, you must get out of your head and into your body, so you can feel your own emotions and those of the horse. To help with this, make a point of thinking about what you are doing — what are you feeling, smelling, hearing, and seeing? Spend a few moments reflecting on each one to get yourself back in the present moment.

I sincerely hope that this post will help you understand your own anxiety – good or bad. I only scratched the surface of how to relieve anxiety and work through fear but I would love to talk to you more in the comments, so leave a comment and tell me — when do you get nervous around your horse, and what do you do to relax?

See you in the comments,


About Callie: I own and operate a small boarding and training facility in Chester County, Pa., where I love working with young horses and so-called “problem horses.” I enjoy learning from every horse I get to work with and always finding better ways to train and to teach my students. Writing is another passion for me, and I write two blogs. The first is CRK Training Blog, where I feature riding and training tips and interview other trainers and horse industry experts. The second blog is Happy Horse Reviews, where I share my thoughts on a variety of equestrian products. Thanks for taking the time to read my article!

Callie King


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