There are so many variables that go into horse riding. We are essentially trying to maneuver our upright, two-legged frame atop a massive four-legged animal. There is a lot to say for our physical fitness and coordination. But us riders go through a lot more than just physical demands when riding. We also do a great deal of mental gymnastics, simultaneously considering our goals, our horse’s strengths and weaknesses, and the potential risks involved. I used to particularly struggle with the risks: the numerous things that could go wrong at any given time.
Hope for the Best, But Expect the Worst
I dealt with these risks before each ride by systematically evaluating each possible emergency and poor outcome. I would then consider the probability of each of those situations by filtering them through the current circumstances (which horse I had that day, how that horse was acting, weather, other people in arena, spook factors). By the time I got on my horse, I would have used my imagination to play out all the possible bad scenarios.
Why did I do this? Well, I wanted to be prepared. Prepared in the case that something went terribly wrong while I was riding. I wanted to have an action plan so that I could respond in those situations. I wanted to do well in my lessons and to conquer the danger before the danger ever happened. On paper, it sounds pretty fool-proof. In reality, it’s crazy-making.
The Fundamental Flaw with This Mentality
Horses are half-ton mirrors. They detect our anxiety sometimes before we do. The fundamental error in my way of thinking was not in trying to be prepared. The error was that I had lived out these panic situations several times in my mind before ever getting on my horse. Not knowing the source of my anxiety, the horse was left to guess what danger awaited them, and would react according to their personality.
Recently, I took two little girls riding for their first time. One of them was confident and volunteered to ride first. When it came time for the other little girl to ride, she was so nervous, but still wanted more than anything to get on. So I told her the secret of being a Cowgirl: “You just have to relax. That’s it. Take a deep breath, and relax.”
Although the “Hope for the Best, But Expect the Worst” mentality sounds realistic and even healthy, the focus is still inevitably on the worst-case-scenario. As it plays and replays in our minds, it creates a reality within us as though it happened several times over, even if it never actually happened. This, in turn, breeds a deeper anxiety when we ride, which is not what our horse needs. Our horses, being so intuitive, will pick up on it and start to react to that reality also. Their instinctive self-defense will kick in when they sense a threat, even if they do not know what exactly that imminent danger is.
Focusing on the negative (especially the most extreme negative) will take our attention away from the ideal outcome. My trainers used to always get on me about my habit of looking at the ground while riding. I don’t know why I looked at the ground all the time, I suppose it is just what felt natural. But as long as I was looking at the ground, my horse was crooked an unfocused. You can just imagine how problematic that was when trying to get through a seven-jump course. It is the same with focusing on any desired outcome with our horse. They are looking to us for direction, so we have to look at where we are going in order to get there.
A New Way: Prepare, But Expect the Best
Does this sound like practically the same saying? Yes, it does, but one crucial nuance changes the whole game: just prepare once. There will always be risk factors when riding. And it is wise to consider any new risks before we hop on the horse’s back. But think of it once, make whatever adjustment that needs to be made, and be done with it. After that, shift your expectation from the worst to the best: what you want to accomplish. Even for pleasure riding and trails, just make it your goal to enjoy the ride. Be grateful. Be tenacious. Be driven and purposeful. But don’t let fear hold you back in a place where all horses spook and everything you do is futile. Look where your next jump is, and your horse will follow. Know the whole course, and they will trust you have the situation under control.
My favorite part of riding, hands down, is riding bareback. I absolutely love it. Funny enough, it’s where I’m most likely to fall off. So when I get those squeamish feelings in my belly about hopping on a horse bareback, I just ask myself: “What’s the worst that can happen – falling off? Okay, so you’ll fall off. You will just get back on again.” More often than not, though, I don’t fall off. I just have a damn good ride.
See Also: How to Not Lose Your Nerve in a Lesson
What do you struggle with most when riding? How have you developed to overcome that struggle? I’d love to hear in the comments below or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org