Fear, and Confidence, with Jen Verharen

“Whether it be fear of falling or failing, I have yet to meet a rider that has never been scared,” writes Harriette Airhart. Truth! But it’s reassuring to know that there resources available to us to help us navigate those fears. Harriette shares what she has discovered with the help of professional performance coach Jen Verharen.

Harriette Airhart at Whidbey Island Horse Trials. Photo courtesy of Harriet Airhart.

“Confidence isn’t about everything feeling easy, it’s a deep rooted knowledge that you can handle anything that comes your way.” — Jen Verharen

Back in 2016, I attended the Area 7 awards dinner and conference in Portland, Oregon. I went to listen to speeches, learn, support my friends as they collected their year-end ribbons and prizes, and to just see what the whole thing was about. I went to dream and become inspired. Little did I know, that meeting was a gateway.

I went to a couple of talks with a couple of different speakers, but the one that stuck out to me was about goal setting. I didn’t know the speaker, but I could tell she was passionate about what she was speaking about, and that she was well-educated on the subject. She came with a plan, a system, an agenda, and it worked. It stuck.

She walked us through an exercise in proper goal setting, and talked about how important this seemingly small step can be in actually reaching those goals. I learned how to create goals that motivated me, scared me, excited me. She taught us how to make goals that worked. These goals were different for everyone, but they were achievable, exciting, and motivating. This was my first experience with Jen Verharen.

Taking it back a few steps, I want to talk about fear. Fear is one of those things that all riders feel at some point, in some way. Fear can run deep, and can manifest in many different ways. Some people feel their fear physically, as nausea or muscle aches. Others feel fear only in their heads, which can look like overthinking, worrying, or stressing.

Everyone is at a different place regarding fear. Some people come face to face with their fear while asking for a canter transition, while others don’t feel that sour feeling of nervous until they are competing at high levels. For some, riding brings absolutely no fear, but instead, the feeling of failure brings them to tremble. Whether it be fear of falling or failing, I have yet to meet a rider that has never been scared.

For me, my fear has always run strong, and has manifested in both physical and mental ways. Throughout my riding career thus far, I have been faced with extreme levels of debilitating fear. Sometimes it would come on randomly; other times, I would have certain fears for weeks on end anytime certain situation would come up (example: jumping a certain kind of jump, showing, etc). The unfortunate (later on, fortunate) part about my fear is that my drive, and my love for this sport, also runs strong.

It wasn’t until I got to a place where I was competent enough a rider to be able to get on a sane horse and evaluate its needs, improve a horse on the flat, and be able to tell the difference between correct and fake work that it hit me. I was a decent rider who could do some things with a horse. Based on my knowledge and understanding, I was pretty good. The thing that was missing, though, was confidence. I didn’t believe in myself, and I wasn’t able to bring myself out of a panic situation and keep riding. But I wanted to work towards overcoming my fear.

My wonderful trainer, who was at the same goal setting presentation at the USEA meeting, suggested that I do some research on her and see if she had any resources that could help with the mental side of riding. As luck would have it, she did. I decided to participate in one of her online confidence courses, The Performance Project. The course was five weeks long, with weekly audio recordings as well as weekly group phone calls. The course was emotionally tiring, but extremely fulfilling.

Over those five weeks, I learned about how and why fear manifests, fear patterns, strategies for dealing with nerves and discomfort, strategies to boost confidence, how to set meaningful goals, why having meaningful goals is crucial to building a base of confidence, and so much more. I was able to apply strategies and coping mechanisms to my riding, and in a matter of months, I went from feeling fearful of cantering even cross rails, to confidently coursing 3’ on my (easy going, but green) OTTB. And now, my sensitive warmblood.

In addition to the extremely high quality, personalized coaching provided by Jen, being apart of the Performance Project allowed me to join an overwhelmingly supportive community, whom I still lean on today for support. Being able to learn from others experiences, and grow through their journey, was one of my favorite aspects of this program. Jen made sure that every moment of our time together, whether it be on the phone or through social media, was a learning opportunity. She found ways to teach through her own experiences and the experiences of others, while setting each member of this program on the path to achieving their goals.

Fear does not diminish completely out of our lives. It will always be there, in some way or another, at some time or another. However, the most influential thing that Jen taught me is how to start managing it. She taught me that it’s OK to feel it, as long as I stay  grounded to the fact that I can handle anything that comes my way. This is a lesson that I have taken to heart, in and out of the ring. I have grown, I have changed, and the Performance Project is what jump started me onto the path of success.

The Performance Project will be running again in April. I highly recommend signing up to become a part of this amazing community, and overcome your barriers.