Putting Courage in to Overcome Fear

Illustration from “JEFFREY, The Big Horse with a Small Problem,” authored by Lisa Brewer and illustrated by Jean Abernethy.

I remember seeing a Facebook post from three-star eventer Dom Schramm of a beautiful 4-year-old horse moving in a round pen, unmounted, floating on springs at the trot and dolphin-bucking at the canter, full of youthful play. Boyd Martin then commented, “Just get on him ya big girl!!!

After I finished laughing, I thought, “Yeah, and Dom too can become bionic, setting off metal detectors in airports everywhere.”

Of course, Schrammo was not afraid of mounting the young horse. That’s what made Boyd’s comment funny. In fact, I’m not sure Dom has any fear in the area of eventing. Clearly Boyd does not. But for most of us, fear is something we struggle with in the sport.

Webster says that Courage is the, “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficultly.” I associate courage with overcoming fear. If one is not afraid, there is nothing to overcome. While he/she may look courageous, courage may not actually be in play.

As a young person, I hung out in bars. I didn’t drink a lot, but I liked to dance. Sadly, fights were common. On three different occasions, I jumped in the middle of men fighting where it was two men beating on one man. Instinctively we know that is not fair. Without any thought, I immediately jumped in, every time. I got hurt pretty good one time and only a little another time. Some may look at that as courageous, but in fact it was stupid. I was completely unprepared and way too much of a lightweight to have come out unscathed. Whatever my wiring was it didn’t include fear in such instances, probably because it didn’t include thought.

Fast forward some years when my Marine Corp husband dared me to bungee jump. I don’t like heights, but I wasn’t going to back down and hear my hubby disparage my branch of service — Army. I stood up on that crane for what seemed like forever. I could see for miles. My fear and self preservation would not allow me to go over the edge. The longer I stood on that platform thinking about it, the more fear I had to overcome. Crowds were forming to see if the girl would jump. The Jump Master offered to give me a push. I said, “Yes, push me!” He put both hands on my back and started counting down. He got to two before I grabbed both rails and yelled, “NO-NO-NO! Don’t push!” Eventually, I closed my eyes, imagined I was somewhere else and just fell off. It took a lot of courage to stick it out and get it done. And, it wasn’t pretty.

Ultimately, the bungee jump was much safer than jumping into those fights. And yet, the bungee jump took a ton of courage while the fights needed none. It was irrational. Humans are often irrational.

We should have a healthy respect for cross country jumping. We should even be afraid if we don’t have the necessary skills and/or our horse is not ready. That is rational fear and it is meant to keep us out of harm’s way. But, if we have the skills and our horse has proven himself, then the necessary courage is attainable.

I dare say that many of the big courses Dom and Boyd ride do not require courage on their part, because they are not afraid. But at the same time, much of the eventing community may need courage to get around a Novice course. And, it is not just lower level riders. I remember speaking to a four-star eventer that admitted she was scared every time she left the start box. I said, “Surely not at Novice?” She replied, “Every time!” That is a woman that exhibits great courage every time she rides up and hears, “10, 9, 8…”

We are all wired differently. Some humans, like horses, have a higher degree of self preservation. We all have different experiences that can profoundly affect our degree of courage. Even body type and tack affect balance and can leave us feeling less than brave. Some horses instill rider confidence and some don’t. There are many reasons why an individual may feel fearful. But, everyone can gain courage.

Illustration from “JEFFREY, The Big Horse with a Small Problem,” authored by Lisa Brewer and illustrated by Jean Abernethy.

Courage is necessary to overcome fear. So, how do we get it? How do we put courage in? We put courage in through ENcouragement.

Not every riding instructor is good about encouraging students. Sometimes, friends and family don’t provide the encouragement needed. And, despite the best efforts of our equine partners, sometimes they can leave us feeling a bit discouraged. So, if the instructor, friends, family and even your beloved horse fail to encourage, who can you count on? YOU are the person you can always count on for encouragement!

We all need to be good at encouraging ourselves. It’s not hard. It’s more of a learned habit. Speak affirming words over yourself. There is science behind this. Words matter! And your words about yourself carry more weight than anybody else’s. Identify your good qualities and rider skills and acknowledge them. It’s good to know where you are weak, but don’t neglect your strengths. Even a weakness can be turned into a positive statement. If you are weak in balance, you can say, “I am getting better at balance and will master it soon.” I think we all are good at affirming our horses. We need to do at least as much for ourselves.

Another way to be encouraged is to have good experiences with our equine partners. Be prepared to change your plan and accept less, on any given day, if your mare isn’t feeling quite right. Extend the same kindness to yourself. Lower the jumps and have an easy, fun day. If you have had a fall, start small and take baby steps. It’s kinder to you and your horse. Just always endeavor to end on a good note.

If you have performance goals, remember the tortoise won the race by being steady and slow. This happens in real life – not just in kid’s stories. Check out Cliff Young and his shuffle on YouTube. Also, notice Cliff was not a young man at the time.

A third way to encourage yourself is to reframe what “success” looks like. One of the horses I took in for rehab was jumping very well at home. We went to our first jumper show. He just would not let me get on. He was freaked out by the painted rails. I’m quite sure he had been over faced in the past. That’s okay. We hung out for a while and went home. The next outing, he actually let me get on. We went to show jumping warm-up and he was rushing fences and jumping flat. I looked down at the triple combination and thought, “Not today.” So, we went to another area and flatted for a while before going home. That was success! The third time out he was perfect and continued that way.

And still another way to put courage in is to take the pressure off. When I go to a schooling horse trial on an “iffy” horse, I only commit to the dressage phase. If that goes well, I commit to show jumping warm-up. If that goes well, I go ahead with the show jumping round. If all feels right, I commit to the cross country warm-up. If that goes okay I continue to the cross country start box and commit to the first jump. Ultimately, I’ve done the entire horse trials where the greatest pressure was the trailering. I give myself permission to bow out at anytime. Since I have been approaching horse trials this way, I have completed all of them with little or no fear on some challenging horses.

In summary, here are four ways that may prove helpful in putting courage in.

  1. Speak affirming words over yourself.
  2. Accept less on any given day while ending on a positive note.
  3. Reframe what success looks like.
  4. Take the pressure off and give yourself permission to bow out anytime.

I am all for encouraging others. That seems to come more naturally to us than encouraging ourselves. So for now, maybe you will consider encouraging yourself, today.

Be safe, be encouraged and Go Eventing!

Lisa Brewer has been taking in rescues and “problem” horses for nearly two decades. She tries them all at eventing. Many have not had the desired boldness for cross country, but all have done well in suitable jumping disciplines. Lisa also writes children’s books inspired by the true stories of those horses.