I used to be so nervous when I would take lessons. I would worry what my trainer would think of me, whether I’d put the saddle and bridle on correctly, what my horse would do, whether they’d spook or not, and so on. There are so many things that could potentially go wrong when riding, and when all these fears add up, they can be overwhelming. This is especially true the first time we ride after a fall or a mistake with our horse. But all these fears, left unchecked, will affect your horse and your own experiences with horses!
Let me be honest: I go to the farthest extreme in this category. I am a very sensitive, analytical person (read: over-thinking spazz). So, no one knows what it’s like to create this nervous, messy, miserable dynamic like I do. But as one who’s learned the hard way to overcome this fear and get my head and heart back into the game, I want to help you in your mind and emotions when you’re riding. The title of this article refers to lessons, but this advice can apply to working with your horse alone, going to a show, riding the trails, etc.
It’s Important to Remember Why You’re Doing This
Why do you spend time around horses? Is it a passion of yours? Do you want to continue to be around horses? If so, why is that? Unless there are enjoyable aspects of being around horses, you wouldn’t be interacting with them in the first place. Which means that you want to be around them. Either this desire to continue to be around horses will win, or the fear will win. Recalling why you want to be around horses will help the fear to fade to the background.
Remain Positive, Always
Let me be clear – I don’t mean be naïve. Still take precautions and be mindful of both your weaknesses and your horse’s issues. A good instructor will give their pupils a plan in the case of a horse spooking or bucking the very first day, including some methods to get the horse back under control and the emergency dismount. But have a constructively positive attitude. Go in expecting the best with a contingency plan in the worst-case scenario. When you go in to your lesson with confidence, your horse will pick up on it and likely be more relaxed, sensing you have the situation under control.
Recognize and Internalize What Goes Well
When you’re in the lesson, observe what goes well. When you expect you and your horse to do well, you will find things that you are accomplishing together. This may not look exactly as you intended, but the victories will be there. Rehearse these victories in your mind, and try to pinpoint exactly why the great outcome occurred. By internalizing these positive experiences, you will learn good, effective practices. This sense of accomplishment will translate as reassurance to your horse in future rides.
When Things Do Go Completely Wrong
Let’s face it, no amount of positive thinking, planning, or anticipating can prevent things from going haywire from time to time. The thought pattern explained above will help you go into a lesson with confidence and improve your experiences with horses over time. But the reason we lose our nerve in the first place is when things don’t go as planned. Our horse spooks. They get confused and give you an attitude in response. We can’t seem to figure out what our trainer asks of us or what our horse tries to tell us. Or no matter how hard we try in the moment, we just feel off.
In these instances, we have the opportunity to really shine. As I said before, you want to go in with a plan for the worst-case scenarios. In these moments, we have already primed our brain with a patterned plan before the instance occurs. So, at the very least, your brain will have access to productive information about how to respond. Your body will still probably tense up and your mind may go completely blank.
In your down time between lessons, take notice when you tense up in your day-to-day life. What’s happening in your body? Where are you tense? Are you breathing? Focus, then, on taking deep breaths and relaxing those muscles as quickly as possible. Those moments are likely less threatening than the imminent danger of being on a thousand-pound animal. Learning to relax your mind and body in these situations is good practice for the arena. Some even find it helpful to associate a word with their panic to help them relax (ex: “quiet”, “you’re okay”, “easy”, etc…).
The next time you feel this way riding (when your horse spooks, you have a moment of frustration or confusion), you will be able to respond in a productive way, as opposed to reacting in fear. Recognize as quickly as possible when your body tenses up, take a deep breath, and look at your situation. Here is where the contingency plans come in. Whatever you rehearsed in your mind for this situation, now is the time to act. Keep breathing. You’ll probably find that the calmer you can become, the more control you will gain over the situation.
Shine, Baby, Shine!
These are the moments that help us develop as riders. We won’t be able to do everything perfectly. Of course, we want all the sessions to go extremely well and to make incredible progress. But if (when) things don’t go as planned, take inventory of what went wrong, what you could be doing to contribute to the issue, other external things causing your horse stress, and ultimately, how you can help your horse through it. With that information, make a new plan, even in the middle of the lesson. Discuss it with your trainer or any observers. Regroup, start fresh, learn, and be ready to celebrate the victories that come from this learning moment. You will surprise yourself with your resilience.