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"F" is for Fear

Mounting calmly
Love Horses

As we get older our sense of self preservation grows and we can become more fearful as riders.  We worry more about falling off as we don’t bounce like we used to.  Bad experiences cause further problems and we soon find our fear out of control.  As adults we have so many more commitments in our lives, such as children, a mortgage, bills to pay, and so on, so we just cannot afford to take a tumble that could put us out of action for a while.  So in understanding how to control the fear we must first understand what fear is for.  Yes, strange though it may sound, fear is a necessary emotion and does indeed have a purpose – to keep us safe.  We need a healthy level of fear to stay alive and well.  I suppose you could also refer to it as respect - respect for the vehicle we are driving and what damage it could do; respect for the horse, his instincts and what he is capable of.  


An example of safety through fear and respect that immediately comes to mind is a situation I found myself in just this week.  I am currently undertaking a driving course to obtain my Class II LGV license.  The vehicle I am driving is an 18 ton rigid, curtain sided lorry and when I first drove on the road on Monday I was so scared.  All I could think about was the damage I could do with it.  The firm I am learning to drive with refer to the license as a ‘James Bond License’ because it is a ‘License to Kill’.  Because I was fearful, I drove the lorry with extreme caution to ensure that I was able to stay in control of it.  Every time I hit a pothole it wanted to pull the wheel out of my hand; downhill was scary because it could so easily run away with you because of the weight behind you; roundabouts were just as scary because of all the obstacles such as curbs, bollards, other vehicles etc.  


So, the fear factor kept me safe during that first drive.  If I had felt no fear the first time I drove that lorry I could have done all sorts of damage as I would probably not have had a healthy enough level of respect for what the vehicle could do and so driven too fast for the conditions or perhaps not considered other road users properly.  However, I could not have continued in that frame of mind, so in order to be able to drive the lorry confidently and responsibly I had to get my fear under control.  Now, because I have achieved that, my driving ability in this type of vehicle has gone from strength to strength and I am able to safely negotiate town centres, narrow country lanes, motorways and roundabouts etc.  The lorry responds to me entirely differently now, which may sound strange because it is an object rather than a being, but its true – the wheel doesn’t seem to jump out of my grip like it did, and the ride is much smoother, and, because I have a healthy respect for the vehicle I am driving, I am much safer on the roads.


Fear around horses is exactly the same.  The more fearful you are the less positive your actions and requests.  Horses are very intuitive animals and feel your mood.  They are even capable of smelling fear.  Without realising it we change in the way we move our bodies when we are fearful – we tend to have more tension in our muscles, our heart rate increases but we tend to hold our breath causing even more tension, our core body movements often don’t correspond with what we ask the horse to do through the reins.  The tighter we get the more fear we instil in the horse and everything can then begin to spiral out of control with the horse either running off, bucking, rearing or perhaps even running us into a tree or fence, and maybe he will not move forward properly or just stand rooted to the spot.  The communication of fear works both ways – we can instil fear into the horse and the horse can instil fear in us.  


So, getting the fear under control is absolutely essential if the partnership is to move forward.  This can be quite a long process and certainly should not be hurried.  The partnership should take quite literally one step at a time.  If you can only bring yourself to stand on the mounting block beside your horse, but no more, then that is just fine.  Whilst you need to have a goal, make it attainable so you feel you are making progress.  For example, in really severe cases you might decide that simply being able to sit on your horse by the end of the first week is a big enough step.  For some people the fear is so great that this would be a huge achievement.  Putting too much pressure on yourself too soon can lead to more damage to confidence because if you do not achieve your weekly goal, for example, then you will feel as though you have failed and that comes with a whole new level of emotions that you can really do without at this time.  By the same token you do need to make sure you progress.


Learning to build a communication with your horse on the ground based on respect, understanding and consistency will increase your handling skills and, therefore, your confidence levels.  Having your horse respect you as much as you respect him is essential to a healthy, happy and confident relationship both on the ground and when riding.  Much of what I teach on the ground transposes to the ridden work.  The better the horse yields to pressure on the ground, the better he will yield to pressure when ridden, i.e. leg yielding, quarters in, shoulder in etc.  The better the horse backs up on the ground the better he will backup when he is ridden, and the better his backup is the better his stop will be, because the stop is a moment between forward movement and backup,


So, a healthy level of fear is necessary to keep us safe provided it is kept under control.  My advice to anyone with a fear issue is to learn more about the horse in nature.  Understand that 60 million years of evolution has taught the horse all the things he needs to know to stay alive – fear is what keeps the horse safe.  Learn how to read the horse so you can understand the signs he shows when something is worrying him, then you can do something about it before the situation gets out of control.  Discover how your horse learns and how to communicate on the ground first in order to eliminate as many behavioural and confidence issues you may have between you before you start riding again.  Then learn how to give your horse a solid ridden foundation that will help to keep you both safe and take your new found confidence levels forward into whatever discipline you choose.


Many of the people I help suffer from fear and anxiety when riding and together we work through it.  One of the greatest rewards for me is seeing a once nervous or incredibly fearful rider back in the saddle smiling, laughing and riding with confidence in their bid to achieve their ultimate goals.

Written by Viki Sheppard.  Published by D J Murphy (Publishers) Ltd : Horse & Rider UK : September 2009 Issue

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