Do you ride with fear? If so, you’re not alone. Fear is one of the most prevalent topics in my practice. While we can — and most of us do — ride with fear, it takes its toll on our effectiveness and resilience. In this column, I’d like to put fear in perspective and offer some tools to manage fear in the saddle. Let’s see if we can’t at least reduce the fear factor in your riding — or even eliminate it altogether.
First of all, it’s important to know your fear. In my experience, most people run from their fear. They do everything they can not to feel it or know it. They’re afraid if they pay attention to it, the fear will expand. Usually, the opposite is true. In order to address fear, we have to get acquainted with it.
Tip #1: Take a deep breath and accept you have fear. It’s ok. Many, if not most, riders have fear.
Once you have accepted it, start to examine your fear. Ask yourself, what is your fear really about? Is it about falling? Is it about getting hurt? Is it about being seen or watched? Are you afraid of being judged? Are you afraid of letting yourself or someone else down? Many people conflate fears, so be sure you can untangle the different feelings. You might need to talk this out with your trainer or a friend.
Tip #2: Define your fear. Is it physical (“I’m going to get hurt”) or is it mental (“I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.”) Or, is it both?
Ok, so let’s start with the physical fear — the fear that you’ll fall or get hurt. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to ride if you are hyper-focused on the risk. As you well know, your horse feels the tension and starts to wonder what he should be afraid of. In addition, fear can paralyze us, so we can’t react appropriately in the saddle. None of this sets us up for a good ride.
My advice to riders who are very physically fearful is first to set yourself up for success. Make your situation as safe as possible. For instance, if your horse is too fresh, longe him, turn him out, or work him from the ground. Ask yourself: do you need more lessons, better horse care, or a more complete training situation? Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the safest choices possible. In my experience, toughing it out usually doesn’t end up well. Horses are tougher than we are! Reduce the risks as much as you can and give yourself time to build up confidence in your program.
Tip #3: Set yourself up for success — reduce risks as much as you can.
But what if your fear is more mental—the fear of making a mistake, not being ‘good enough,’ letting a trainer down, or being judged negatively by someone. These are very weighty fears and can paralyze us just as much as physical fears.
Usually I tackle mental fear first with a big perspective shift: ask yourself, who are you riding for? If it’s not for you, then ask why.
I talk to my riders a lot about the concept of owning your ride. My view is that you must ride for and against yourself. Sure, you might be in a competition, but in the end, you are aiming to ride your best on that particular day with the horse underneath you. That is it. Owning means knowing where you are in the process of becoming a rider, and working each day to become a little bit better. If you thoroughly believe this, others’ judgements — perceived or real — will fade away. No one, including the judge, knows where you are in the process of your development as an athlete.
Tip #4: Own your riding. Ride for and against yourself.
Finally, ask yourself: how much of your fear is fueled by perfectionism? From where I sit, a significant portion of all fears has some root in the rider’s insistence (conscious or unconscious) on “perfection.”
Let me address this head on: perfection paralyzes us. It’s a rigid standard we have in our heads, a standard that is unattainable. What I see in performance is that a perfectionistic rider lets down or stops really riding once he or she feels something has not gone according to plan.
I encourage you to challenge your perfectionism habit. Accept that your ride will not be perfect. You’ll make mistakes and so will your horse. Once you have accepted this, you can release yourself to be in present time and ride every step.
Tip #5: Give up the habit of perfectionism and release yourself to ride
Fear is a complicated, multilayered topic, as you can see. Here I’ve only brushed the surface of the issue, but I hope that I’ve given you some food for thought and tips to start dismantling your fear. In my view, the saddest part of fear is that it interferes not only with our performance, but also our joy in riding! If fear is spoiling your rides, take heart, you can make change your relationship to your sport and enjoying your horse again.
Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist based in San Francisco. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the competition. Learn more at darbybonomi.com.