It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.
Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.
To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.
If you’ve stumbled upon this article, there is a pretty good chance that you love horses, which also means that there’s a pretty good chance that through your love of horses, you have also confronted injury, fear, and anxiety. The reality of a life with horses is that there are inherent risks — whether you plan to go Advanced or are simply interested in trail riding with your friends.
If you’ve been following along with my Between the Ears series, you’ve heard stories from upper level eventers, and many of those stories included setbacks related to physical injury and how these riders were able to sort through related fears and get back to Eventing.
On this edition of Between the Ears, I got to talk to Dr. Pamela Reband, who many of you eventers reading this have probably have never heard of! Pam is a retired anesthesiologist who has been riding since the 1960s. She is an endurance rider who embraces the AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) motto “To finish is to win.”
So why am I interviewing an adult amateur endurance rider for this blog? Well, after 60 years in the saddle, Pam suffered from some pretty significant fears that might have kept her out of the saddle for good and instead of giving into the fear, Pam is gearing up to take on one of the most challenging endurance rides in the country, The Tevis Cup, next year.
Working in the industry as a Mental Performance Consultant, I have found that fear in horses transcends performance in a traditional concept. For many people, fear is getting in the way of simply having fun and enjoying horses in any capacity. So I wanted to bring you Pam’s story, as hers is the story of an everyday equestrian- which let’s face it- most of us are! Pam also tells her story in her self-published book Three Steps Up to Mediocrity.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background in horses?
I’ve done just about everything you can do with a horse; breeding, showing, driving, training, jumping, and managing a farm, but it was never my full-time job. I had a career as a doctor, and I have a husband and two daughters. I didn’t discover Endurance riding until I was in my 50s, but it has been a passion for me ever since.
You didn’t start experiencing fear in the saddle until later in life, can you talk to me about the circumstances that led to that fear?
My story started with a two-year hiatus from riding when my husband was sick. Those two years really took a toll on me physically and mentally. When I was finally able to find time to get back in the saddle, I had pains and aches that I had never had before and just didn’t feel as comfortable or balanced in the saddle as I once was. I started to avoid some of the harder training trails that I had once been comfortable on but got to a point where even the easier trails made me feel uneasy.
Eventually, I was just riding in my front lawn, and on one of these rides, my mare Skeeter tripped. Because I was so off-balanced and not riding well, I tipped forward onto her neck and because I was afraid, I grabbed onto her neck, causing me to fall on the concrete-like Arizona dirt and pulling poor Skeeter down right on top of me.
That was my “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment. I sustained a rotator cuff injury, bruised the bones down my side, and had a lot of soft tissue damage, but nothing that required hospitalization or casting. Following the fall, I realized that the most significant injury I sustained was to my mind.
Two weeks following the fall, I decided to get on my grandkids’ horse, Charlie. During the ride, Charlie tripped, very small and very slightly — I started shaking and sobbing and immediately got off. For a while after that, I would pull Charlie out of the barn with every intention of riding, but when I thought about pulling myself into the saddle, I was so afraid I actually started to vomit.
Without ever really confronting the fear or the situation, I decided that Skeeter was not a good fit for my new instability and so I sold her and set out to buy a new endurance horse. Meanwhile, my husband and I also went through the process of selling our ranch in Arizona to move closer to our children. While I was still too afraid to get on Charlie, and while my life was in complete flux, I found a 14.3-hand, 6-year-old, 900 lb ‘ball of energy’, Shiloh, who also would become a very large part of my story.
How did you work through your fears?
By the time I was settling into my new farm in Tennessee, it had been almost three years since I had ridden with any kind of consistency. I was working towards getting back on Charlie but would find myself making excuses not to ride the second I got to the top of the mounting block. I got VERY lucky as it turned out a friend of a friend of mine connected in the horse world lived right in my neighborhood. She started to come out and ‘help me’ ride Charlie, offering moral support and a safety blanket — and at the same time suggested that I reach out to a local trainer, Scot MacGregor to help me train Shiloh.
To say that Scot changed my life is an understatement. He began training Shiloh into the horse I needed him to be and, after I gathered the courage to explain that my fear was actually the biggest problem, he started to train me as well. Scot worked at my pace to give me the confidence and courage to get back to fully riding.
At first, when Scot was riding Shiloh, I enjoyed watching and was fascinated both by the horse and Scot’s training methods, but eventually, I began evading the sessions for fear that Scot would want me to get on. In true Scot fashion, there was no pressure or timeline attached, after about a month of training, he simply told me “Shiloh is ready when you are.”
I had been slowly gaining my confidence back on Charlie during this time as well. I would even ride Charlie while Scot rode Shiloh, watching how genuinely good my little horse was becoming. Scot kept pulling me in the direction of feeling safe and confident until one day, I decided I was ready to get on Shiloh. I needed help, instruction, and support, I even needed to be reminded to breathe, but Scot was there every step of the way and despite my uncertainty, the ride was a success.
So I guess that’s how I worked through my fears, slowly, not all at once. After that initial ride on Shiloh, there were still many “firsts” to conquer: the first ride outside of the arena, the first ride alone, the first ride on trails we had to travel to, and even the first official endurance ride. I was able to accomplish all these firsts, but I never approached the next step until I felt entirely comfortable and safe and I always had Scot leading me in the right direction.
Why did you decide to write your book?
What happened to me happens to an amazing number of people. It has shocked me since the book has come out how many people have reached out and shared similar experiences. I like to think that my voice is battling the “perfect” vision of what people think it looks like to come back from a fall or a setback. My journey was imperfect, but here I am today getting to enjoy my love of horses. I had been journaling and blogging about my experiences anyway, so I figured I would compile them into a book to help others along the path.
What advice would you give to someone currently battling fears in the saddle?
If you’ve got a fear or PTSD from an incident in the saddle, decide if it’s worth the work to get over it. It isn’t always worth the pain, trouble, and angst to get back to riding.
Once you’ve made up your mind that it is, know that it’s a long journey but it’s worth it. You’ve already decided it’s worth it and once you make that decision, you’ve decided the outcome. The only question is “How long will it take?” and it will take what it takes. For me, and I had a lot of help, it has taken about four years and I still have flashbacks and frightened moments. I’ve had a lot of messages from people who have read the book, some of whom are discouraged by how long it is taking and some of whom are jumping to the big steps instead of the small ones. Even babies crawl before they walk, you have to be patient in taking small steps.
In the words of Ted Lasso, “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” Now I’m not saying that the goal isn’t to be comfortable in the saddle, but I think people have a really warped view of what it takes to overcome fears in riding.
The old-school advice we get is to simply ‘get over it’ or ‘fake it until you make it’ and when you have a fear response, especially after a fall or accident, that advice just simply isn’t going to cut it. You have to take the small steps and surround yourself with the people who will help encourage you on that path, regardless of how long it takes.