Author: Megan Warren – Certified ICF Coach
Riding – whether you are a beginner or a professional – requires an acceptance of risk and uncertainty, a belief in your own self-efficacy, an ability to make focused instantaneous decisions based on an evolving context, and the emotional intelligence to acknowledge, process, and release fear, disappointment, frustration, and other negative emotions to keep moving forward.
In this article, we’ll look at how you can increase your confidence and overcome your fear and anxiety of riding horses by learning to:
- better accept risk & uncertainty; and
- develop your self-trust.
How do you gain confidence in riding?
The pressure in your chest begins well before you can smell the sweet richness of the barn. You carry the tension in your shoulders. Its rigidity stiffens your gait. This fear also shows up in the way you ride: holding your breath, you hunch in the saddle, not letting the horse fully move beneath you, becoming less fluid with each circuit.
You are not alone. This tension, this reaction, is normal and happens to everyone at some point or another. The good news is that you can learn to overcome this and be a stronger rider for it.
Accepting risk & uncertainty
Accepting risk and uncertainty is easier for some people than others. If it’s not easy for you to “go with the flow,” if you feel the urge to control everything in your environment, you may struggle in the saddle. To accept risk and uncertainty is to release control, to respond to each moment as it arrives, rather than trying to pre-arrange or pre-organize it into predictability and perfection. Luckily, you can strengthen your ability to accept risk and uncertainty.
Firstly, you will need to allay your fear, which will give you some space to practice strategies that expand your comfort with risk and uncertainty.
Techniques that take you out of your whirling twirling mind and into your solid body will pause the mechanism driving the fear. Turning off the analyzer, the “what if” machine, the “I can’t” megaphone for two minutes and being fully present in your skin will help you stay in the present moment helping create distance from your mental vortex and help you relax into the movement of the horse.
There are many different mindfulness techniques, but there are two that work particularly well.
In the first, you take a deep breath in through your nose and release it slowly through your mouth. Then you focus on the soles of your feet. For two minutes, either sitting or standing, bring your awareness to your feet, focusing on your soles, toe to heel. How do your feet feel? Notice how they press into the floor. Notice the sensations of the carpet or the grass on your arches. Pay attention to the force your feet exert on the ground as they push down. Conversely, notice the force of the floor pushing up against your feet.
In the second, you breathe for specific counts. Breath in slowly through your nose to the count of five; hold for the count of seven; breathe out through your mouth to the count of eight. Repeat this four times.
Increase positive emotions
Increasing positive emotions better balances the anxiety and fear. If you increase positive emotions frequently, they can act like a vaccine, immunizing you against adversity. Essentially positive emotions create a buffer that you can draw on when bad things happen.
If you’ve never ridden and getting on the horse feels paralyzing, think back to the first time you successfully tried something new. If you ride, but struggle with performance anxiety, cast your mind back to a time when you mastered a new skill on the horse. Despite the fear or anxiety that was present then, you tried it and you mastered it. Call to mind the good feelings that arose when you overcame the fear, the obstacle, and achieved your objective. Sit with and revel in the good feelings – soaking in the pride, the relief, the joy, the determination, and the exhilaration present in that moment acts like charcoal, absorbing and neutralizing the toxic chemicals that arrive with fear and stress.
Riding, like anything else that takes you out of your comfort zone, is a mental as much as a physical game. You may find yourself spiraling out of control with “what if” scenarios or focusing on how you will fail. Becoming aware of what your thoughts are and noticing the influence they have over your emotional and physical states of being is the first step to taking the mental reins. Once you notice the thoughts, ask yourself if these thoughts are helping you get closer to your goal. If you decide that focusing on how it will feel when you fall is not making you a more fearless rider, you can decide to focus on what will help you.
How do I stop being nervous when riding?
There are two strategies that work well here.
Firstly, you are likely imagining a worst-case scenario. You get on the horse and it throws you, you fall, or you miss the jump and you will break something. Once you become aware of this, choose to visualize the best-case scenario where you ride like a pro, win the blue ribbon, or sail over the jump. Picturing the best-case will increase the positive emotions we looked at earlier. Then you can move to a most-likely scenario: you get on the horse feeling fearful, but you breathe through it; the horse stumbles, you feel ungainly in the saddle but don’t get thrown. Focusing on the most-likely scenario reduces the impact of the negative emotions and stress chemicals that get released when you consciously or unconsciously focus on negative future events that may or may not occur.
Believing you can do it is a critical element of being confident in the saddle. Cultivating optimism and accepting your feelings are the recipes for strengthening your self-belief.
You can cultivate optimism by choosing to focus on your successes and your strengths, rather than your failures and weaknesses. Where you find yourself stuck, focused on how you will fail, you can shift from pessimism to optimism by asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief. Have you failed exactly this way before? Most often, your fear is driving your mental movie, and you will find that you don’t have concrete evidence. What you have is conflated fear.
Even if the answer is yes, you have evidence, ask yourself if you also have evidence of success that you could focus on. Your cognitive biases often cause you to disregard anything that doesn’t confirm what you believe, so it’s likely you have examples of success or an understanding of how this time is different than the last time, but you are ignoring that in favor of the evidence that you are the failure you believe you are.
After you challenge your belief that you will fail, won’t be able to do it, or will fall, you can choose to reframe the thought. Most often you fuse your negative feelings and fears with your identity, so your disappointment in your performance is internalized as you being a disappointment; your fear of riding or failing is internalized as you not being capable.
Soften and accept negative emotions
That mindset shift from “I am not good enough” to “I am brave” is key because looking at yourself judgmentally creates mental limitations that become barriers to success. You may think that when you judge yourself – mentally, emotionally, and physically – you are pushing yourself to improve, to succeed, but what you are really doing is setting up a trap. You think if you castigate yourself for your fear, if you tell yourself that being scared is not acceptable, you will be stronger than the fear. But not giving yourself permission to have the fear doesn’t make it go away. If anything, denying or repressing the fear, makes you more rigid as you put energy into constraining the feeling. That shows up in your seat on the horse.
The only way out of the trap is to soften, to accept and release the fear. You can soften simply by acknowledging that you don’t feel confident, that you feel anxious about riding. Tell yourself that it’s normal and it’s okay. Your fears are valid. Holding space for your fear and recognizing it, rather than hiding and repressing it means that you will be able to release it, rather than storing toxic emotions in your body.
After you validate your feelings, sit with the idea that your fears don’t define you. Being afraid of riding does not mean you won’t be able to ride well. Accept that the fear will ride with you until you have ridden enough that riding becomes familiar, that the new skill you are mastering feels comfortable. Focus on the picture of yourself riding as well as you can. This focus leads to good expectations that over time become faith in yourself and certainty that you will ride well.
Manifest your destiny!
Megan Warren is a certified ICF coach with more than fifteen years of experience. She partners with clients to apply critical thinking skills to transform self-abandonment into self-abundance, creating positive and sustainable change in your life and your sport.
Her approach starts with helping you understand that everything you want, and everything you need to make it happen, is already inside you. We spend so much time looking outside of ourselves because we aren’t taught social and emotional learning in school. We don’t realize the conflicts we encounter in life are simply outward projections of our internal conflict. Megan helps you look inside and resolve the conflict.
Drawing on experience from hundreds of hours of client work, her coaching techniques and online courses teach you how to move from drowning – from feeling overwhelmed, duty-bound, dissatisfied, or trapped – to riding the waves – feeling free, empowered, and fulfilled.
Interested in working with Megan to conquer YOUR fears? Here’s how: