Amateur Hour

Facing My Riding Anxiety

I am embarrassed to admit this, but I have some serious riding anxiety.

I did not start riding with this fear of horses when I was a first grader back in the mid-70s. I clearly remember my first lesson when I was six. My mother took me so that I could have a horsey upbringing like she had. Like her, I thought horses were fabulous and they did not scare me.

The first time I rode, I could not wait to go faster. It was thrilling and fun, and I loved being around other people. I loved the smells and the personalities and everything else about the horses.

Unfortunately my mother suffered from both depression and anxiety. She chose to never acknowledge it or treat it despite family interventions. Interestingly, she always showed bravery on her horses, but would grow tremendously nervous when I rode anything other than my pasture horse who was just barely a horse, at just a hair over fourteen hands two inches.

I could only ride him in the ring with supervision. No pasture riding or bareback ever. Never mind that he eventually became a lesson horse whom others took out in the pasture for long rides.

When I had moved on to a bigger horse to take lessons on, my mother would literally cry as she watched. I tensed up and doubted my skill. Of course, I never progressed as I had wanted.

She kept me from other aspects of horsemanship as well for fear I would either be kicked and die, or that I would do them poorly. This meant anything from just walking another’s horse out for grass to binding legs to giving baths.

“The trainers are picky about what they want, and don’t touch those bandages over there.”

“This horse is nippy and that one has an attitude problem.”

That I was even allowed tack up my own horse was pretty remarkable. This was mortifying as I’m sure others regarded me as a spoiled brat who couldn’t be bothered to work.

Since we lived a good hour away from the barn I had no way to get there without her driving me, so showing up for a full day by myself just was not in the cards. She had this experience growing up, which accounted for her comfort around horses. But I was more or less chained to her if I had horses in my life. It became unbearable.

I began to dread our Saturdays at the barn.

Where was my father during this time? Unfortunately, his idea of support was to attend competitions—horse shows or tennis matches—and unleash his intense anger if I did not win. Good times.

I stopped telling him about competitions altogether. It is not hard to see why my mother kept him at a good arm’s length from her love of horses, but their relationship and dysfunctional home life was not a spot I could call a soft place to land.

As an adult, many people have called me brave for doing things that I never even saw as remotely frightening.

I attended college a thousand miles away from home, sang in front of fellow voice students who were graded on their evaluations of me, went sky diving after graduating, lived overseas by myself in Hungary and Russia for years in the mid ’90s, skied in back bowls and trees in Colorado, drove through blizzards on mountain passes, broke up teenagers fighting, and stood in front of surly middle and high-schoolers for years as their teacher. None of this was scary and only required focus and basic mindfulness.

I love my mother and am proud of her many achievements. She is in her 70s now and still rides regularly. Nevertheless, I have to hold her more than partly responsible for not only my teenage-self losing interest in this sport but also hard-wiring this funky fear into my brain.

I was not trusted to grow into competency and could never take pride in the sport.

It remained a sore point with me for years into adulthood. I could not watch any equestrian events or hear stories of other riders without feeling embittered. I had always been a kid who liked adventure. I climbed trees and swam in a creek and played tackle football with neighborhood kids. I was not delicate and preferred being dirty to freshly bathed.

I had also been a good athlete and felt a strong connection to animals. Why hadn’t I become any good at riding? I knew why. As badly as I felt for my mother, her inability to deal with her own issues had become my problem.

I have attempted to rectify this by returning to riding in my 40s. I see, however, that while I have grown very healthy in many areas of my life, riding still produces anxiety. It is entirely from me. The trainers are encouraging and I ride with a group of excellent horsemen and women who can deal with all sorts of random, daily equine issues.

But I remain scared.

I get nervous when it comes time to canter. I get nervous out in the field. I get nervous when my horse speeds up. It’s obvious to everyone.

I meditate beforehand and tell myself to relax. I take deep breaths while riding but I know that I am still tensing up. I find myself thinking about terrifying what-ifs that I cannot function as ably as I should. Twelve-year-olds are braver than I am.

I love being around the horses. My friends have told me how happy I am talking about the horses. I love the people I have met. It’s like being a kid again without the crying or scolding parent hovering. But something about riding freaks me out when it comes time to do anything that is a little challenging.

I know how this happened. It took years to develop. I do not feel anxious in other areas of my life, or at least not at this level. I function perfectly well in the real world with the full-on body blows that we often have to take in careers and finances and personal relationships.

I have not had children, and that may be telling. Or not. Quite a bit went into that decision.

Looking back though, riding had been the bond between my mother and myself. Without her, I would not have horses in my life at all. I have to credit her with that. However, there is also this fear and frustration that accompanies it.

I hope to leave all of that baggage behind me. I am just not entirely sure how to do this. It would be nice to take a few drinks before riding like I did before those college singing/peer judgment classes, but anxiety does not mean stupidity. Anxiety is not logical either. Anxiety is just anxiety. And it is holding me back.

What I have to remember is that I am in control. That doesn’t mean white knuckling the reins or staying at a sad and slow pace. It means slowly but surely moving forward, onto more advanced riding a bit at a time.

I have fallen off, and funnily enough, as I’m falling I’m not freaking out. It’s just a “Here I go.” Once you’re out of the saddle and out of balance there isn’t much you can do if gravity takes over. That much I have accepted.

It’s leaving the comfort zone that I grew accustomed to for so many years that freaks me out. That zone is a gap that I have to get across. I may fall repeatedly but I am determined to get over it with time.

(Courtesy of Amy Hempe)

About the Author

Amy Hempe is a writer and teacher living in Denver. In addition to leasing a horse, she has two dogs and hikes, snowshoes, and makes valiant efforts to go running.

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