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Supporting riders with fear is close to my heart, because I have felt it too. 

And I know there is a way to live, and to ride, with a completely different relationship with fear. 

Have you felt riding fear or anxiety?

The sick to your stomach, looking for a way out, can’t wait until you can just get off, go home, and feel better kind of fear. 

Stack it with but this is who I am, and what will people think if I quit, and sometimes I have so much fun… Things get confusing quick. 

For me, the peak of this fear was when I was 13 years old. 

(See that picture above of me and one of my horses at the time… doesn’t it look like we are having so much fun?)

Within the course of one year, I had acquired a new horse, Sydney, who was quite a handful. (I was getting bucked off most times I rode.) One of those times I broke my arm. 

My other horse, Flame, would ride out calmly from the barn for about a mile and then, when she deemed it was time to return, spin around and go back to the barn at a dead run. One time she fell while navigating the turn on the paved road that led to the barn. I, of course, went flying. 

Then I was attacked by a stallion and had a number of injuries, including a concussion. (You can hear more about this story here.)

I was also going through a number of emotional growing pains. I was not eating nearly enough and started having heart palpitations.  Suffice it to say – it was a strong start to my teenage years. 

The physical fear I felt riding, starting with the anxiety I had sitting in the car on the way to the barn, was quite warranted. 

For my skill level at that time I had no business with a young, nervous, off the track Thoroughbred. And I needed to find a different trainer who knew other strategies other than setting up 3’ jumps and chasing us over them with a whip. 

It felt like at least 1 out of 3 times my horse and I would land separately on the other side of said jumps. We probably had a higher success rate than that but I had A LOT of falls in this year. 

There are times in life when we can look back and laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. 

This is one of those times in my life. 

Looking back, it was a year that taught me so much. 

One, I didn’t want to chase horses with whips. Even then, I felt my horse was just as afraid as I was. I started looking for a different way to relate to my horses. 

Two, I accepted Sydney was not the best horse for me and the fear I felt every time I rode was my body saying “you’re in over your head!”. 

Intelligence won over my ego, who enjoyed having a flashy, fast horse that got everyone’s attention no matter where we went. We found Sydney a more appropriate home and I rode my friend’s calmer horses as I built my skills and regained my confidence. 

Three, the way we feel about riding, and therefore how those rides are more likely to go, is VERY influenced by life in general. When life feels as though it is falling apart, those emotions are very likely to spill over into your time with your horse. I was not conscious of this when I was 13, but looking back, my fears and insecurities about life in general were feeding what I felt whenever I noticed my horse tensing under me. 

Here’s another interesting thing about fear…

We relate to the feeling in different ways and each have different tolerance levels for it. 

Some people like to push themselves, they like to feel on the edge. They describe what they feel as excitement. 

For others, they prefer much less adrenaline coursing through their veins. Quiet and calm is what they seek. 

The balance of what we enjoy is not only individual, it also changes through different periods of life. 

Risk tolerance is a piece of this. 

Riding horses is risky. 

There is a lot we can do to choose the amount of risk we want to take – the kind of horse we ride and work with, the activities we do, the pace we go. 

However, we are still climbing on the back of another animal, with a mind and spirit of it’s own. *!#? can happen. 

When you are feeling fear about riding, or working on the ground, or even just being around your horse, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Why am I doing this?

This is legitimate. In today’s world, having and riding horses is a hobby and a luxury. We are choosing to do this, and we are putting a lot of time and resources into it. Be clear on why it is important to you. For me, even at 13, I felt a calling in my soul to spend my life with horses. I realized I was not on the right track but I knew I would find a different path and find my way. 

  • What is my fear telling me?

For me, in hindsight the message was clear – “you are falling off all the time, your body hurts, you’re going to get hurt… again. STOP doing it this way.”

Reasons I have seen fear giving important messages to my students are with the following:

  • They are over-horsed. Their horse is too sensitive, athletic, anxious, etc, for their level of riding
  • They are not in balance. Nothing triggers fear faster than the feeling you are going to fall. When someone is riding in a way that is not in alignment and balance, fear will be there. 
  • They are trying to do too much. For example, if you are still learning to canter, it’s probably not the time to sign up for a steeplechase and expect it to go well. 
  • They have had an accident. When we experience an accident, when something happens, it can make our nervous system more sensitive. What is not actually a physical risk in the moment triggers a memory which kicks off the fear response. 
  • They have seen an accident. Same as above, it doesn’t have to happen to us to over sensitize the nervous system. Seeing it happen to others can have a similar effect. For this reason, I don’t recommend watching “riding fails” videos. Your brain can come up with enough what ifs on it’s own.
  • There’s other “life stuff” going on. If you are in a state of fear or anxiety in other areas of life, our systems don’t always differentiate between there and here. An over reactive, overworked threat state can have you feeling threatened in many contexts, even if they have nothing to do with the root cause of the anxiety.

     

I know, from my own experiences and working with thousands of students, in person and online, that there is nothing that can more quickly sap the joy out of riding than fear. 

Because of this, I developed the Calm and Confident Riding Program in 2015. 

In the years since then, it felt as though HorseClass needed a more complete program on tackling fear. 

Several years ago, at our prior Farm Campus in Honey Brook, Pa, we hosted trainings with Natural Lifemanship, teachers of a method of Equine Assisted Therapy. Through these trainings, I connected with Lisa Pulliam, counselor, coach, and rider. 

Lisa began offering sessions at the Farm Campus with our school horses through her organization StableMinded. 

With time, and Lisa’s own personal experiences working through her own riding fears, the Finding Calm curriculum was created. 

After 18 months in development, it is ready for YOU! 

We start June 25 with a Free Webinar to guide you to Find Calm in YOUR Riding!

June 25 12:30pm EDT

Here’s what Lisa will be covering:

  • The Science of Fear AND of Confidence
  • What to do Instead of Setting Riding Goals
  • The Brain/ Body Connection and Why Understanding this Matters

Sign up here for the updates on Finding Calm and we will let you know as soon as you can register for the webinars.

A personal note… I relate to fear very differently these days. I respect it as my body’s warning system and I listen to it. I trust that my intuition can know things that I don’t consciously understand. Even when things appear “safe”, I listen to that fear and I change something.

I also consistently put myself in uncomfortable situations physically and mentally. My ability to be in physically threatening situations, feel fear, and yet be able to control it through breathing and thought, to still do what I need to do in the moment, continues to grow.

This is a skill that I will continue to develop all through my life. But that’s my choice. There is above average risk in some of the things I do and I accept that. Risk taking is not everyone’s path.

(Right now the specific activities I am referring to are open water swimming, being in large waves, riding a motorcycle, and expanding my limits riding horses by exploring tricks and roman riding. Also moving to another country when I didn’t yet speak the language and knew no one was a great way to be uncomfortable on a daily basis. I got used to it.)

BETTER RIDING IN 7 DAYS (FREE MINI COURSE)

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Better riding in 7 days (FREE Mini Course)

Daily exercises for an immovable seat, steady hands, and a happier horse

Your information is safe with us, learn how we use and process data in our Privacy Policy.

Related Courses

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This 28 day program is for every rider who has ever experienced fear or anxiety about riding – whether from an accident, a bad experience, or just the question of “what if?”
Instructed by: Cathy Woods
A series of short, guided visualizations to bring more mindfulness from ground to saddle.

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Comments

6 Responses

  1. Hi Callie, it’s Carol Hinks again. I signed up for this just to be informed but I have to say I just can’t relate to the fear of riding. I’m confused and can’t relate. Throughout my life I’ve had 5 horses including 2 babies that I raised. Choco was a handful when I bought him at age 6 but only because the guy ran him – because he’s gaited. Once I was able to quiet him down – and change his feed to Nutrena Safe Choice – I had the gaited pony that I wanted. He is kind and affectionate (something he was not when I bought him). I have absolutely no fear working around him or riding him. Perhaps our steadfast relationship supports this. I just can’t explain this – you would have to witness it for yourself. We are so bonded in life that he knows exactly what I’m thinking. We end our ring work with a walk around the property. Today he was very hesitant. (there was a baby deer that has taken up residence). I’m not going to force him to go some place that he doesn’t feel safe. We turned around and walked back to the barn. You pick your fights when you absolutely need them!
    I wish and hope that I can support other riders in their quest for love and enjoyment in this sport.

  2. Hi Callie. My fear when riding comes from the sense of lack of control when cantering, and of course the tenser I am, the more cantering doesn’t work. At the same time, I love it when the horse stumbles and my body automatically adjusts its balance. A real trip. I find present time exercises help a lot. And the more I do them the rest of the week, the less tense I am and the better my class is. Being in a small class with not too much going on helps too.One thing about aging is that your ability to process data decreases. I’ll try your 3 exercises next class and let you know.

  3. My dear Callie : you survived a lot of hard challenges. I admire how you did it especially as a teenager girl. With your dad’s horse who attacked you I was listening to you and crying. However I understand why you chosen to remain with horses, in a different way to proceed.
    I was living a terrible year 2023. My unique horse riding lesson was full of fear: it was summer I was outside in the area with a young rider who accepted to be my coach and I had two other riders to give me courage, and one friend. But on Punchie I was alone and I think as she is so sensitive she could feel my fear, my lack of confidence, of balance. But she never chosen to enjoy it, I think she decided to support me as i was, one bad rider. Thr last time we ridden I fell, there was a scary pigeon in the arena. I did it, and in the end of this lesson, I was grateful for her. I felt better. I tried to stand straight on stirrups, to be all straight. I was just holding her reins and short mane. It was a little moments of a deep feeling of complicity. She did not wanted to go back to the field but stopped on the road to it. I believe she would have preferred to go to the barn where I could have time to be with her, give her treats, and perhaps a Masterson massage.
    But the month after that it was August holidays for all the horses. And in September I became more ill when after one other trouble due to water damage – the second one last year – I had mold and suffered from respiratory problem. And adding to it I had hypothyroidism without knowing it, I became like one snail or sleeping all the time due to fibromyalgie and chronic fatigue ( my 2022 covid increased it too!). I tried to fight all my worries at home thr best I could. Now I ‘ve got a good lawyer. My problem is that I do not know what to do. I lost my poor self confidence. My love for horses is still the same. My love for Punchie too. 😍🐴❤️I fear ( I only saw her in November, she was not there last time) she has stopped to care for me as I did unfortunately the same to her. That breaks my heart to think about this, to feel in my body sometimes not like a nearly 60 yo woman but like a 85 yo woman. My knees are still having arthrose too. In my horse school there is nothing for old riders. No specific activitiy. I am the older one.lol

    However I wish to at least walk on the back of a horse, on Faspasie or my darling Punchie. I love both of them.

    I’m lost…
    One young rider became my friend through all this bad time. She supports me the best she can. I do the same for her too with her pony Hapolon.
    She is my only one in the equestrian community. I lost some friends unable to bear me not feeling good as soon as possible.
    I see my physiotherapist twice a week too. I must practice at home too.

    I do not want to let down horses. Not at all. Horses were my best friends last year, all the barn! 🙂
    The head of the school, Valérie, said I can enter in Punchie ‘s stall to do massages to her. She was so happy with one massage on the poll !
    But I did not dare to for the moment. I always think I must be stronger, then it is never the ideal moment.🙄

    What would you advise me, please dear Callie?

    I wish you to continue to guide us, and be happy with your horses, your family and friends and all our riders community. You lead it so much good with Andrea !
    Take care of yourself, the same thing for her.

    Lots of love for both of you. 🤗🐴❤️

  4. My dear Callie : you survived a lot of hard challenges. I admire how you did it especially as a teenager girl. With your dad’s horse who attacked you I was listening to you and crying. However I understand why you chosen to remain with horses, in a different way to proceed.
    I was living a terrible year 2023. My unique horse riding lesson was full of fear: it was summer I was outside in the area with a young rider who accepted to be my coach and I had two other riders to give me courage, and one friend. But on Punchie I was alone and I think as she is so sensitive she could feel my fear, my lack of confidence, of balance. But she never chosen to enjoy it, I think she decided to support me as i was, one bad rider. Thr last time we ridden I fell, there was a scary pigeon in the arena. I did it, and in the end of this lesson, I was grateful for her. I felt better. I tried to stand straight on stirrups, to be all straight. I was just holding her reins and short mane. It was a little moments of a deep feeling of complicity. She did not wanted to go back to the field but stopped on the road to it. I believe she would have preferred to go to the barn where I could have time to be with her, give her treats, and perhaps a Masterson massage.
    But the month after that it was August holidays for all the horses. And in September I became more ill when after one other trouble due to water damage – the second one last year – I had mold and suffered from respiratory problem. And adding to it I had hypothyroidism without knowing it, I became like one snail or sleeping all the time due to fibromyalgie and chronic fatigue ( my 2022 covid increased it too!). I tried to fight all my worries at home thr best I could. Now I ‘ve got a good lawyer. My problem is that I do not know what to do. I lost my poor self confidence. My love for horses is still the same. My love for Punchie too. 😍🐴❤️I fear ( I only saw her in November, she was not there last time) she has stopped to care for me as I did unfortunately the same to her. That breaks my heart to think about this, to feel in my body sometimes not like a nearly 60 yo woman but like a 85 yo woman. My knees are still having arthrose too. In my horse school there is nothing for old riders. No specific activitiy. I am the older one.lol

    However I wish to at least walk on the back of a horse, on Faspasie or my darling Punchie. I love both of them.

    I’m lost…
    One young rider became my friend through all this bad time. She supports me the best she can. I do the same for her too with her pony Hapolon.
    She is my only one in the equestrian community. I lost some friends unable to bear me not feeling good as soon as possible.
    I see my physiotherapist twice a week too. I must practice at home too.

    I do not want to let down horses. Not at all. Horses were my best friends last year, all the barn! 🙂
    The head of the school, Valérie, said I can enter in Punchie ‘s stall to do massages to her. She was so happy with one massage on the poll !
    But I did not dare to for the moment. I always think I must be stronger, then it is never the ideal moment.🙄

    What would you advise me, please dear Callie?

    I wish you to continue to guide us, and be happy with your horses, your family and friends and all our riders community. You lead it so much good with Andrea !
    Take care of yourself, the same thing for her.

    Lots of love for both of you. 🤗🐴❤️

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