“From time without beginning,” writes Douglas Puterbaugh in his chapter on FEAR in THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE, “man and horse have shared something in common: an ancient and deeply rooted emotion called fear.”
Interestingly, although mankind evolved as a predator and horse hung on in the role of prey, both rely on fear to save them via fight or flight. It is this natural and powerful response that can divide horse and rider, that can cause the horse to jig, shy, and bolt, and the rider to quake, tense, and fall off.
And while fluttering white ghostly figures and things that go “bump” will surely send many a horse (and rider) into a whirling, spinning, tizzy, it isn’t just Halloween that gets us spooked. We come face to face with outer and inner demons every day, and our fear response holds us back as we strive to achieve partnership and higher levels of performance with our horse.
How can we conquer our own anxieties and our own fears, so we can help instill a greater sense of confidence in our horse? Here are four tips from top riders and trainers for saying, “BOO!” right back:
1 Practice, Practice, Practice
“There’s a direct correlation between study and test performance,” says dressage trainer Douglas Puterbaugh in THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE. “There’s a direct correlation between practice and performance in competition. The only way to perform at the best of your ability is to practice diligently…when you’ve practiced so thoroughly that your movements have become almost automatic, that old nervousness won’t the fear it once was.”
2 Scare Yourself…a Little
“If you are trying to build your self-confidence,” writes USEA Hall-of-Famer Denny Emerson in HOW GOOD RIDERS GET GOOD, “don’t hurt yourself, and don’t scare yourself—too much. You have to scare yourself a little to give yourself something to build on, but only a little. Keep doing the slightly scary thing until you have had so much success that you know success is inevitable. Then make whatever it is that you are trying to do a little harder…You can be timid, or shy, or indecisive, or reticent. You can be burdened by any one of many afflictions that result from a lack of self-confidence, and you can improve every one of them if you can figure out a way to scare yourself just a little bit. Too big a scare, and you will find your self-confidence in pieces on the ground.”
3 Employ “Thought Stopping”
“When you find yourself visualizing imminent disaster,” says Olympic coach, dressage rider, and popular motivational speaker Jane Savoie in IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE RIBBONS, “break your pattern by doing some ‘thought stopping’ right away. As soon as the alarming picture pops into your head, use an action word to quiet your mind and erase it. Your action word might be something like: ‘Clear,’ ‘Focus,’ ‘Stop!’ ‘Relax,’ or ‘Breathe.’ Replace the negative thought with a positive one. This is an important step, because if you don’t fill your mind with a positive thought, the negative picture will creep right back in.”
4 Create Safe Habits
“Learn what you need to do to be safe on the ground and in the saddle, and then do those things the same way every time you work with your horse until they are as automatic as the safety habits you use when driving a car,” says Melinda Folse, author of the bestselling THE SMART WOMAN’S GUIDE TO MIDLIFE HORSES. “Even experienced horse handlers can unwittingly grow careless over the years, so it never hurts to take a good look at your habits to make sure you are doing everything you can to keep yourself safe to ride another day.”
Melinda gives us a few ideas of the kind of “safe habits” we all should employ on and around horses:
-Teach your horse to respect your space.
– Pay attention to where you’re standing.
-Wear a helmet.
-Practice the one-rein stop and the emergency dismount.
“Fear is a conquerable thing,” Melinda reminds us—and indeed, all the featured authors remind us in their respective books, “and being safe around horses is something we can be proactive about.”
So don’t stay scared. Get busy!
And Happy Happy Halloween!