Psychology of Sport

7 Ways to Conquer Your Riding Fears

“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”

— Yoda

The wisdom of that master Jedi also applies to riding—identifying your fears is the first step toward conquering them.

I think we can agree that fear isn’t fun. It makes you feel anxious, unsure of yourself and can have a significant impact on how much you enjoy your riding. It also shrinks confidence, a secret weapon you need to ride your best. And, don’t forget, your fear will quickly become a part of your partner’s ride too, so addressing your fears is important for you and your horse!

What is it you’re afraid of in your riding?

Well…it could be many things from the real, tangible fear of falling off or getting hurt, to less tangible fears of failure, not reaching expectations set for you, or a rather lengthy list of reasons that can cause those uncomfortable feelings and take the enjoyment out of your riding.

But fear not! There’s help on the way for you to address any fear you have and bring a more relaxed, carefree mindset to your passion.

Biology doesn’t help

First, if you don’t feel fear, you simply aren’t a human being. We all feel fear, to different degrees—it’s what makes us human. I have the privilege to work with some of the world’s leading athletes—and they feel fear—so it’s not surprising that you might feel fear in your riding too.

To a degree, we are all prisoners of our biology. As human beings, we are built to survive and protect ourselves. The amygdala, or control center of the emotional brain, makes sure of that. This little alarm mechanism has ensured the survival of the human species for centuries. You know how it work: you perceive a threat, the alarm goes off and that uncomfortable feeling begins. We all know this feeling.

When human life was about “eat or be eaten,” and our ancestors were dealing with real, life-threatening challenges every day, the alarm was a must-have. But, for you as a rider, the emotional brain doesn’t really know the difference between a hungry lion chasing your ancestor and your perceived threat of embarrassing yourself in the equestrian ring. That’s a problem for you.

The “what ifs”

Working with athletes every day, the primary cause of fear that I see is a future projection of what an athlete believes may happen—what we call the “what ifs.” The tendency is to project that something negative may happen (protect mode) and that makes the athlete anxious in the moment, telling themselves things like:

“I can’t do it” or “Why do I do this again?”

An example for you might be: you enter a class, arrive at the show ring, everyone is watching and the voice inside you starts considering threats and acting up…

“What if I look dumb in front of everyone?”

“What if my partner stops at a fence?”

“What if I let my coach and supporters down?”

“What if I miss?”

This creates an anxious feeling, and depending on the intensity of the feeling, it can be a real distraction—sometimes even overwhelming.

There are many what-if scenarios that could distract you from your central purpose for riding—enjoying the experience with your partner and achieving the level you choose. Keep in mind that although you project that these things might happen, they almost always never do—and that’s important for you to remember.

Isolated experiences from the past can also create feelings of fear—negative emotional memories can be brought forward to cause the anxious feelings and also distract you from today’s performance. Experiences in the past are real and a part of you, but your focus must be on all of the great, positive experiences (there will be many) leaving the few, negative ones behind.

So, there is nothing wrong with you for feeling fear. It is normal. Recognize that your emotional brain always has the antenna up to perceive threats. Remember the advice from Yoda as a first step: you must recognize your fear. Then, you must ask yourself how much of a threat it really is.

Practical strategies that may help

Let’s talk about some ways you can address your fears. Here are a few simple recommendations that we might use with a rider that might help you deal with fear and put it in perspective:

  1. Address your fears directly. What are you afraid of and what might be the reasons? When you understand what might be causing your fear and acknowledge it, it will help you consider how to address it.
  2. Always remember your purpose for riding. “I love riding because I love the animal and I love being at the barn.” Write your purpose down and keep it front and center—always! Your purpose will help you create perspective about what’s REALLY important in your riding and why you are doing it. Remember also that feeling gratitude about the opportunity to ride and do what you love can fill you with positive energy and dampen the feelings of fear.
  3. Learn to manage the most important voice in your riding—and your life—your own! Sometimes our own voice doesn’t help and tells you things you really don’t want to hear, building the threats into something bigger than they are. It’s important to develop your own Emotional Caddie, a friendly, supportive voice that you might use if your best friend was having troubles. Try the same language and tone with yourself. A few suggestions might be…
    • “I can’t wait to test what we’ve been working on in our lessons.” 
    • “Everyone watching is behind me. I’ll treat them to some some great riding.”
    • “My best effort is all I can do—being perfect doesn’t exist.”
    • “Pressure really gives my riding meaning. This is where I want to be!
  4. Confidence and constantly building it is a secret weapon to overcome fear. Creating a feeling of “knowing” you can do it in your practice and preparation will help keep those fearful what-if thoughts from taking over. After all, you’ve done great work in your lessons and training—you know you can do it! So bring the same feelings and approach to the show ring.
  5. Practice mindfulness to enjoy your riding and stay in the moment. The future is where your goals are. But you don’t achieve them without staying in the moment and paying attention to the steps that will get you to those goals. Choose to bring the positive experiences from the past forward to support your confidence and choose to leave the few negative ones where they belong—behind you!
  6. Know the difference between prove versus improve. The goal in your riding should always be trying to improve all of your skills (technical, physical, tactical, mental/emotional). Sometimes when our goal is to “prove” ourselves to others, fear will creep in—the fear of the what-ifs and trying to meet other’s expectations of you. Ribbons and winning are great, but they will only come if you are doing the right things: enjoying yourself and trying to become a better rider each day.
  7. Address any fear in training with your coach. You and your coach can structure your lessons so that when feelings of fear might arrive in the lesson, you pause and use your strategies to shift into a more positive, proactive place. This will help you bring your work on your fear from the practice ring to the show ring.

If fear is holding you back from really enjoying your riding and using all of your abilities, fear not! Remember that you are in control of your fears and there are practical actions that can help you douse the flames, helping you to be a more confident, proactive rider.


About the Author

John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A former professional athlete and current bestselling author of You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve Morein business, sports and life, John understands how athletes think and feel…he’s been there—under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. John coaches athletes in all sports and is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes—professional and elite amateur. See www.johnhaime.com to learn more.