It’s normal to get butterflies before a jump lesson, or feel tingly and nervous setting out on the cross country course. It’s even normal to be a bit anxious in front of a new clinician. It’s not “normal” to have a panic attack in the middle of a lesson with a familiar instructor and a horse who is not doing anything wrong.
Over the past few years, I have seen more attention given to adult riders and to dealing with fear and anxiety issues. However, most of what I have seen in print has been written from the coaches/trainers’ point of view. Most of what’s out there centers on either confidence building or improving competition performance. But what about the rest of us who are just trying to ride our horses and have fun?
I have a lot of personal experience with this topic, and I can tell you that there are different types and levels of fear and anxiety. These things are often more than just a “confidence issue” and sometimes, you need help to deal with it.
If you had told me when I started riding (as an adult) that I would wind up in a therapist’s office because of it, I would have thought you were nuts.
First of all, riding is about spending time with horses. I love horses, I like to ride horses, and I’m not afraid of them. In fact, most of the time I am confident, I try new things, and I’m a very low-drama, calm person.
Then one day it happened. I had a panic attack while riding, and I burst into tears. The horse I was on had been injured and I was bringing him back. He was a little green and young and had been off work for a while. He would buck and spook and, in the process of bringing him back to work, I had come off more than once. By the time we were in that lesson and without realizing it, my body had developed a whole range of triggers designed for self-protection. When my horse got really forward and over his back, my nervous system thought things were about to end badly.
For me, this bunch of small, individual traumas had worn a path that, when triggered, was unstoppable.
The good news? At least I was smart enough to say to myself, “You shouldn’t be terrified riding your horse.” Then, I decided to figure out how I could do something about it. I knew this was not the kind of thing that would go away simply by repeating positive affirmations.
I did some research, and I went to see a therapist that was recommended to me. This individual worked with equestrians and used a technique called EMDR, for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a technique that somehow disrupts, “takes the edge off”, or just tamps down the memory of a trauma.
As the person participating in this therapy, you sit comfortably while the therapist guides you through visualizing the events that trigger your fear. As this is occurring, you are also either looking at a light moving back and forth, or wearing headphones through which tones are played first in one ear, then the other, at a constant rate. I’m not going to delve any deeper into the theory of how this works, but for me, it works like a charm.
I got over my initial concerns, but my horse at the time turned out to be more problematic than I had anticipated. It was time to move on, and a little while down the road, I found Fezzik, my current project.
Approximately a month after I brought him home, Fezzik, too, was injured and required rehab. I guess the universe likes to establish patterns—this was just not a pattern I liked.
Although during much of this process we were only trotting, we were supervised by my trainer whenever we started a new “phase” of rehab. On one particular day, she told me to trot. We did, and then Fezzik broke to a canter on a 20-meter circle. It was not the end of the world, but I froze completely, before managing to get him to stop. My trainer, who did not realize anything was wrong at the time, told me to kick him on. Still frozen, I told her I couldn’t, and then got off.
My trainer got on him to finish his work, and while I watched her, my heart was still racing (this is different than pounding). My reaction was way overboard for this incident—I would say now it was a panic attack—and I went so far as to start walking up and down the hills on the property, trying to calm down and work off the adrenaline. When I finally thought I was ready, I drove home, only to be hit with a wave of vertigo.
The bottom line: it was time to find a new therapist (mine having moved to Virginia several years prior), and she came in the form of Doris Worcester. Doris is also an equestrian who began her performance coaching work because she needed to deal with her own fear and anxiety in the saddle and saw a need for it in the other riders she knew.
The great thing I discovered about going to a therapist that is also an equestrian is that when you talk about a fear, a problem, or how something feels, she knows what it is you’re referring to. Doris also knew the questions to ask that would lead me down the paths I needed to explore, and to get rid of the things I needed to get rid of.
I have seen Doris probably three times since I have been working on “getting my sea legs back” with Fezzik. I finally feel like I have a safety net. I have not needed to see her since mid-summer, and I am much more resilient and capable of working through any issues that come up.
That’s not to say I’m not doing my homework. I make frequent use of behavioral techniques, like breathing exercises and visualization, positive statements (not affirmations – I am just not an affirmation type of person), and activities that build confidence. I go slow, I repeat. I have goals like “make a jump set boring”. I love these exercises, and they help to remind me that therapy doesn’t stand on its own.
I also made time to ride with Daniel Stuart. Daniel is a terrific coach and equestrian sport psychologist who trains top-level competitors, building confidence and empowering people to perform their best (by the way: I hate the word “empowering”, but it’s the right choice, in this case). Daniel Stewart also likes affirmations—but hey, you try them and see if you like them.
To each their own.
What I like best about riding with Daniel is that he has a lot of cool exercises up his sleeve. For example, he’ll set a series of low jump rails according to your level (height is not what matters here), on a circle equidistant apart. No, you are not going to jump around the circle. You are going to jump each jump—only once—without crossing your line. You’ll have to change directions once during your turn. Oh, and it is timed.
Failure for your turn involves doing sit ups; in fact, sometimes failure involves having your whole team doing sit-ups because of your round. You have to think, and not just about the jumps. You have motivation in spades. When you focus and nail it, you see immediately how your own mindset can improve your performance. Suffice to say, this is a great confidence-builder, demonstrating that your own skill set can solve the issues confronting you.
So, what are the take-aways here?
1. There are problems that can’t be solved simply by building up your confidence and “working through them”. No matter what your normal demeanor is, whether you’re recovering from a huge traumatic event (or a lot of little ones), or if you’ve never been afraid before, you might still find yourself dealing with this.
2. Severe anxiety or fear isn’t a “normal” reaction to ordinary events, but that doesn’t mean you’re not normal. It means you need help to deal with a common problem.
3. There are techniques that can help, dramatically. You don’t have to find a therapist that is an equestrian, but in my opinion, it’s a great addition. A therapist that has experience working with PTSD and other traumas and uses behavioral techniques to assist can also be helpful. This isn’t Freud asking about your mother. This is practical, hands-on application.
4. Preventing those rare, extreme reactions is only part of the equation. You have to do some of the work on your own. Here’s how:
- Do things that build your confidence. For me, that includes lots of repetition. I practice jumping the same four logs in the cross-country field on a loop to get used to going at the right pace. It might also include challenging yourself to new things, like signing up for a Daniel Stuart clinic.
- Build up your toolbox! I had a trainer at my barn who does natural horsemanship, and has provided me with a bunch of techniques I can use while riding. These help to prevent certain behaviors and to get my horse to listen. I practice them when I first get on so they are part of our routine and ingrained if I need them.
The Bottom Line:
I wrote this article so that others in similar situations would see that they are not alone in struggling with this issue. Participants in our sport may deal with a range of fear and anxiety issues. These issues are not all the same, they can come seemingly out of nowhere, and they don’t all have the same solution.
Finally, have hope. This is not a unique problem to have, and there are quite a few specific things that can be done to cope with it.
About the Author
Laura Strassman works in technology marketing and lives in the Boston suburbs. She has a long and checkered history with horses but currently owns a wonderful TB X Percheron named Fezzik. He is 17.2 hands, so aptly fits his name if you know the reference. Laura enjoys taking photos and creating video both for work and in her free time. Her favorite subjects are food, and of course, horses.