Why Fear Image

You’re out on a trail ride, walking through the grass along the fence line when your horse spots it – a big piece of plastic caught on the fence and flapping in the wind. She stiffens and snorts, then starts dancing sideways. You know you have to get past this plastic to get back to the barn but what if your horse spooks really big?

What if she bolts?

Will you be able to stay on?

Should you get off?

In an instant, you notice that your stomach feels queasy, your shoulders are tight, your hands feel cold and trembling, and you can feel your heart pounding in your chest… and you’re probably not breathing either…

This is the fear response. It’s normal and natural, and designed to protect you.

But it can hold you back too. When fear takes over, you can’t move as well, you can’t react to handle the situation, you can’t ride very well, and you certainly aren’t able to help calm your horse.

Why do we have these physical sensations in response to fear and how can we tell if our fear is warranted – maybe it is a good decision to get off and walk your horse past that flapping plastic – or if the fear itself is the challenge we need to work through?

In this video, I will explain why each part of our fear response, from being short of breath to feeling knots in your stomach, has an evolutionary purpose, and a simple way to consider if your fear is helping you or holding you back.

p.s. This training on overcoming riding fear and anxiety is from my Calm & Confident Rider Program. To learn more about Calm & Confident Rider, Click Here

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43 Responses

  1. how can you prepare for handling the “moment” of spook ? I recently was thrown out on the trail when two loose dogs charged our horses. what do I need to be able to do ?

    1. Get a good trainer to work with you and show you the one rein emergency stop. This stops your horse before he bolts. Also when you can learn his body language to alert you as to when he feels anxious you will be able to read his actions and pick up on when he might spook or bolt so you will be prepared to handle him before he gets out of control.

    2. Hi Carol, it is really difficult to say what could have been done differently without being there to see what all occurred…Unfortunately there might not have been much you could have done…

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  2. The first thing I notice is feeling his body change from relaxed to a mounting tension under the saddle. At that same time I know what’s coming. My heart beats faster and I tell myself to focus on breathing in/out, in/out. In those first 4-5 seconds I could not tell you what actually happened. I keep him moving forward (in/out, in/out), in a circle and then I can usually begin to relax because I know he will wind down. He can trot or walk, but as the circle gets smaller he goes into a walk which seems to calm us both until he stops on his own. Then we both have lots of in/out while my heart rate comes down and he has some lick and chew.

    1. Jackie, I would just add to this a little bending work especially since you mentioned putting him in a circle. Changing bend repeatedly is a great way to get and keep their focus on the work and get soft!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  3. My horse is still relatively inexperienced and spooks at everything. And I am old! I find my first reaction is to lean forward like I’m getting ready to get off, or curl up in the fetal position lol!

    1. Hi Karen! I would love for you to watch our Better Riding in Seven Days series to get your position more secure – which in turn will help with you confidence!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  4. IMHO. Horses react very fast. The moment you think maybe I should get off….GET OFF! You can safely calm your horse from the ground. Then get back on and enjoy the rest of your ride and you will have taught your horse that you can take care of him when he is afraid. Fear is only unhealthy if you are afraid to get back on when your horse is calm again. Think safe, act safe, stay safe.

    1. Great insights, thank you for sharing Joan! I do agree with the point you made of if you feel like you should get off dismounting is a good idea!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  5. One thing I realized at Angelo’s clinic this weekend is how often my ingrained training that I must control all circumstances so that I (and my children) stay safe results in fear. Training like, “only walk in lit areas” and “don’t go there alone” are about my responsibility for making sure the environment is harm-free. I’m never going to control all the circumstances while riding, so I’m working on recognizing what I can and cannot control and what is an acceptable risk. I was terrified when Ellie moved soooooo much more quickly than my quarter horse and was nervous about getting back on her the next day. But then I thought about what actually happened – I had a really fast ride and actually started to enjoy it – so was able to calm myself down and was so pleased when I was able to take my first “jump.” I think that “control everything to stay safe” is probably a factor in riders who either start or come back to riding as mature women.

    1. Mary, this is awesome – thank you for sharing! You made huge changes during the clinic and I am so glad you had such a great take-away 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  6. Hi Callie
    This makes so much sense to me. I recently leased a horse for the first time. I had a situation where I truly didnt know how to handle with my horse spooking at the mounting block . I was very nervous because I was the only one in the arena and the only one at barn with no one to help. I realized that I need to gain a little more experience in dealing with my horse and learning so much more.
    This has taught me to make sure I ride when there are others around , who would be available to help.

    Thank you for such an informative video

    1. Awesome Charlene, thank you for sharing! That sounds like it would’ve been a great use for some positive reinforcement training 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  7. This is a very important topic for all riders, and resonates with me. I have been riding regularly for 1 year and 9 months so far. Within the first 9 months on my horse, I rode encountered 5 bolts and 2 episodes of him “coming up behind.” All of these as I look back on them stemmed from my inexperience. On one of the bolts, I jumped off and ended up breaking a finger and a rib. These episodes shook my confidence up a lot, and over the last year I have been steadily working on improving my riding and rebuilding my confidence. Riding my instructor’s horses in lessons weekly has allowed me to work on my riding position and security without worrying about a bolt or mini-buck. Practicing moves like the one-rein stop on my horse under calm conditions, where I simply slide one hand down one rein to bring my horse’s head around and his feet to a stop has done wonders to give me back a sense of control. So when or if he spooks, becomes anxious, or roots into the rein in canter — which I recognize as a prelude to a bolt, I can slide one hand down one rein as an automatic reaction, and because we have practiced it, he can come out of the reactive side of his brain into his rational side much more quickly and easily. As a > age 45 mother of 3 I find that needing to feel in control is at the heart of my fear. But knowledge, practice, and short episodes of working out of my comfort zone are helping to get me to become the rider I’ve imagined.

    1. Faith, I’m sorry to hear about your accidents…I’m sure getting those reactions to be automatic is big step is keeping you safer!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. Thanks! Forunately bones do heal. 🙂 I wear a safety riding vest in addition to the usual helmet since the broken rib. Since I ride my horse 2-3 days per week in addition to my instructor’s horses once a week, and it’s been over 2 months since his last bolt that I had to abort with the one-rein stop, I do believe we are progressing well together!

  8. I experienced fear at a horse show where he was very anxsious about horses coming toward him. He would stop and rear and then spin. I would freeze my body shorten the reins and try to move forward. He had my number. Easy to read and through her off balance. He’s a big powerful boy. 18 hands. He is getting much better but when he acts up I default to the freeze and shorten the reins. Need a frontal lobotomy to erase that behaviour in me. I am now going to see your next series on calm confidence.
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Sarah, is this a behavior he has in the schooling arena? I can actually very much relate to that and what I’ve found is best for both me and my horse is actually to not school when everyone else is and schooling over fences..he certainly sounds like a big boy! I hope you’ll watch the Calm and Confident free training!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  9. The first thing I do is stiffen up. I feel like I’m totally out of control or safe. I feel sure if I had a real bolt I would fall off. I know probable most of this is because I have just begun riding (5 lessons).
    This reaction comes with just a change in gate etc. I usually regain quickly but if the change continued to persist at that moment I’m feel sure falling off would be the next thing to happen.

    1. Hi Mary Ann, do you feel comfortable with the lesson horses you are riding? It does take some time to find a balance in the faster gaits!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  10. I have gone through periods of fear because of a few minor fall off incidents with my horse. He was young and I was greener than him! I still occasionally have some fear pop up when I am not able to ride as often as I’d like and feel out of practice. When this occurs, my heart starts pounding and my legs go weak. But, this usually occurs after the fearful incident when it hits me what happened and I have time to actually think about it. I have learned to handle the situation by focusing on getting control of my horse and then handling my emotions and physics all responses afterwards! I still have a lot to learn though!!

    1. Amanda, thank you for sharing! This a great way to flirt with the one of your comfort zone 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  11. Its been been getting on three months since tbe horse I was on tripped and fell sideways in the woods and rolled on me. Although my body is gradually healing I still can’t ride because of tbe remaining pain in my ribs and back and I am finding it very frustrating. The strange thing is though I am not fearful at all of getting back on a horse and in fact I can’t wait to. I have a natural low heart rate and it beats around 40 beats per minute and I wonder if this is why I don’t tend to panic in situations when a horse spooks and takes off, jumps sideways or bucks me five or six times in a row. I actually enjoy the challenge of controlling the horses in these situations. I often wonder though is my lack of fear a good or a bad thing ?

    1. So glad to hear that you are eager to get back. I suspect the answer will be, “it depends.” I would imagine that you have spent some time thinking about where riding fits into your life. I suspect that your lack of fear is actually a result of your relationship with your horse, and so a good thing. Keep us up to date on facebook!

  12. my ottb mare can react with lightning speed. I have had to teach myself to always be prepared, yet not tense. I also use Callies method of breathing deeply from my abdomen. She is really good in environments where she feels safe so I try to go new places little further each time. That being said I have gotten off and dealt with things on the ground if things get to out of hand and scary. When going new places I ride with my halter ontop of my bridle and my reins unsnap so I can quickly change to the halter when dismounted and the length of both my reins is helpful.

    Callie my first reaction to fear is my heart rate,

    1. Thank you for sharing Cynthia. It is definitely a good idea to dismount and deal with things in the ground if you feel like it is getting dangerous to stay on!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. When I was riding today i also remembered somethink else I found helpful. When my mare starts to feel a bit uneasy I give her something to do.,,,,,,I keep riding…..even if I am walking down the road. I may ask for her to flex her nose either direction , a step to the left then right anything that keeps me riding her and asking something. I think it gives her confidence that I have things under control.

        🙂

  13. So my boy is a spooker! And when he spooks, if you don’t have complete control of the reigns, he will bolt and not stop! This makes our trail rides very stressful and less enjoyable, because I can’t trust him! So, we are working on trail de-sensitizing work all around the barn and in the arena, where we are both more comfortable. (We even have an upcoming bombproofing clinic with a Police Horse trainer!) Our Barn Manager’s husband has little fear and more experience riding, so his has tasked himself with riding him on the trail to work out his fears out there. Another key has been getting to know Scout these past two years I am much more in tune with his attitudes, on and off days. He is a high energy 19 year old, left brain extrovert! High maintenance! If he is not worked hard at least once a week or more, he is not really safe out on the trail! He just has too much energy and has a hard time focusing on anything! I just can’t stress how important it is to really get to know your horse and develop your skills and your relationship, which takes a lot of time and patience!

  14. Fear is generally associated with the knowledge that one has lost control of a situation and the perceived consequences of that. It’s not a good thing for a beginner to go for a jaunt cross-country on former racehorse for example, so there is an element of ignorance that preceeds the loss of control, and an element of lack of self understanding and awareness.
    Getting the speed wobbles on a motorcycle at 100mph because one forgot to tighten the front fork bearings is another example of a situation causing fear and anxiety.
    Recognising and avoiding risk does a lot to minimise fear, but some (mostly teenagers) actually enjoy the thrill.

  15. I ride along a railtrail with a friend. Lately my mare has refused to lead & will only follow the other horse. This horse walks very slow & not forward moving. So we dawdle. I can’t get moving forward. If I put pressure on her she threatens to rear, then my fear kicksi n e.g. heels up , more forward seat & shoulders. I feel body tension & yes forget to breath. Or adverse to that our walk may be more forward & she stares at black tree trunks or posts & will shy big time. Sometimes this unbalances me & I have fallen off a couple of times. I try to turn her head to refocus her attention to what I am saying but it happens too quickly.

    1. Jay, is this out on the trail or also in the ring? Have you tried dismounting and trying to use a whip to get the forward movement?

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  16. Hi Carol,
    I love your videos,
    I would like to comment on fears. I have a young horse, 6 now. We have been together about 4 years and feel bonded. My problem is cantering. I’m a beginner and my horse has in the past crow hopped and tossed me off. I have since purchased a special inflating vest. Hit Air. It’s great, but I tension up in the process of you going from a trot to a Canter. My last encounter was poor, I rode walk trot for almost 1 hour, he was great, it started raining. We went into the indoor, trotted a bit, then asked for a canter, he crow hopped for 8 seconds with his head down between his legs. This is my fear. Yes I went down bending a finger backwards. I’m trying to canter but freeze up and end up pulling on reins. Oh we are western riding. So the fear is the toss and yes If gone over the front. Most of the time it’s a side toss. That s my thing. Jim

    1. Jim, I’m wondering if there could possibly be a problem with the saddle fit that he is bucking consistently going into the canter. Western saddles can be a bit tricky to fit to a horse…Speaking from experience, I had a young horse in training several years ago who did the exact same thing – this was before I knew much about saddle fit and now looking back I think that was the primary cause, he had some pain I believe from the ill fitting saddle.

      Another thought, does he do the same with other riders? What about on the lunge line?

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  17. Really interesting video. I am a confident person, but a very green rider…I’ve been riding about a year. My mare bolted with me a few months ago and I have since hired a trainer to help me get her to be a safer trail horse. Interestingly, I recently started learning English riding because I’m going on an Ireland riding adventure next year (I’m a New Mexico western kind of girl), and my previous western riding instructor suggested a different instructor, who happens to be a good friend of mine. I realized that my previous Western instructor was so worried that I would get hurt, much more so than I was, that it was making me more nervous. She trusted my mare much less than I do. Switching instructors has actually helped my confidence, although I’m very happy that all 3 of us are still good friends.

    1. It sounds like it was a great solution for everyone involved Katrina!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  18. Hi, I am an older rider with a spinal stimulator in my back. I had major back issues and this was put it in to help with pain. General my TWH is a big boy 15.2 hands. I have come off him a few times because he spooks and goes sideways so quick that I fall in the opposite direction. Also I have had major saddle fitting issues because he is high withered. I am working on groundwork with him and working on desensitizing him. I think I finally have the right saddle. All this being said, my confidence is shot and my husband won’t let me go to the barn to ride alone. I have just joined your Calm and Confident rider also

  19. I’ve come to realise that my anxiety ( I’d had a couple of falls) was creating a sense of expectation for my horse to do something unexpected, like a spook or a jump, or a buck. After several trail rides where he either jumped sideways, or ran off with me, this culminated in a massive buck, which threw me off at a canter, and my confidence along with it. I felt let down and betrayed, my relationship with him was not good, and I was scared to ride him outside of the arena. I had my stable manager take him out several times, and he was as good as gold. Not one single incident. I’ve been working on my attitude, and I’m improving, but on one trail ride a friend glanced over and told me to relax and breathe. I had the reins in a death grip. My relationship with the horse has improved since, and we’ve had a couple of relaxed canters, but I’m hoping to get to a point where I don’t even think about the ‘what if’ factor.

    1. That is so awesome Helen, I’m glad your relationship with your horse has improved! What a wonderful accomplishment 🙂

      -Julia, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. Thanks Julia,

        I had an awesome relaxed ride with him in the desert on Saturday, and that’s how I want it to be every time. I’m hoping this course will get me to that point. I know it’s me, not the horse, and today I was a little less confident, and he had a couple of incidents. One was a genuine spook at a truck, but the other was something I have no idea about, and that is what gets me anxious. I saw the truck before he did, and sat the spook absolutely fine. His other crazy jump was at nothing and I didn’t expect it. I’m optimistic though.

  20. I’ve had a few falls recently on a horse that spun when you mounted him and gave since stopped riding until I got a new horse… yes I still have my spinner I just don’t ride him anymore. I thought once I got the new horse that fear if falling would just go away. I thought because she was confident and calm I would be there same way. I’ve only been riding for 3 years and really learning to ride since I got my new horse in September ha and I’m 50! Three first thing I notice is my heart rate then my shoulders become glued to my ears! I’m excited to learn more about controlling my fear because sometimes it’s irrational and I know it’s holding me back from an awesome partnership with my amazing horse

    1. Hi Shawn, thank you for sharing! I hope that your new horse is helping to rebuild your confidence!

      -Julia, CRK Training Community Manager

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