By Jenna Santos
I am not a confident rider. If a dog barks, if a mouse sneezes, if a horse in the back paddock farts… I assume my completely sensible horse is going to suddenly turn into a fire breathing dragon, expand his great wings, throw me fiercely to the ground and fly away, burning villages as he goes. It’s never happened… but it could.
My fear began before I even owned a horse. After waiting my entire childhood, working my way through uni and squireling away every cent so I could finally realise my dream of owning my own horse, the very first one I trialled bolted while I clung on helplessly. I fell most ungracefully into a solid wooden fence which resulted in a broken arm, severed nerves, an 8-day vacation in hospital, three operations and a 12-month recovery. Suffice to say… things had not gone to plan.
A few years later, still adamant I was going to ride, I finally brought my first horse. But I was so utterly petrified I would shake uncontrollably just tacking her up. Slowly but surely, I built my confidence, but those fears still come creeping in from time to time… and this is how I deal with them.
1. Find an Understanding Coach
There is no shame in being nervous. Horses can be dangerous so your fears aren’t completely irrational (though mine certainly can be). If you are a nervous rider, it is important to find a coach who can relate or at least understand and help to build you confidence. It is no use going to someone who is going to tell you to suck it up cupcake, because it will only turn you into a blubbering mess.
Imagine you are scared of heights. Do you think having someone push you out of a plane is going to cure you? No! The trick is to determine where you are most comfortable and then slowly build from there.
I have been wearing the same 20m circle in Vicky’s arena for the past 10 years. She knows it’s my comfort zone within her arena and will allow me to warm up in that safe space before slowly asking me to move into other parts of the arena. A good coach will know how far to push you, just as a good horse trainer knows how to build confidence in their horse. If you feel more nervous coming out of a lesson than you did going in… find another coach.
Visualization is a powerful technique. It takes a little imagination, but if you are a nervous rider, you probably already have it down to a fine art. If you can imagine 800 thousand different scenarios in which you die a horrific death from falling off your horse, you can probably visualise a scenario, where in fact, things go perfectly to plan. Before you get on, before you get anywhere near your horse even, just imagine the “perfect” ride. Think about feeling a complete sense of calm and relaxation and feeding that through to your horse. Imagine perfect harmony. Imagine you are an Olympic rider… balanced and skilled, and completely in control. Do not let those negative thoughts creep in. Lock them out. We all know we could fall. But in reality … it is very unlikely we’re going to suffer any irreparable damage and it certainly isn’t useful to think about it … bringing me to point three.
3. Be Logical
Vicky said to me just the other day (while I was having a meltdown because the wind was rudely rustling through the trees),” What is the worst he will do?” The question wasn’t “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Because they are not the same thing. What is the worst my very calm, obedient, and trusting horse will do?
I used to work in events and have done many risk assessments plans in my life. When assessing risk, you need to first consider the likelihood of it happening, then the impact if it were to occur and finally a strategy for managing the risk. For example, if the risk is my horse will turn into a fire breathing dragon, while the impact would be catastrophic, the likelihood is impossible. There’s no need to develop a strategy for something that will never happen.
What about falling off? It is always a risk when riding a horse. I have broken close to a dozen bones, so the impact of falling could be moderate to major. However, I haven’t fallen off in six years and never from my current horse. Therefore, the likelihood of falling off Callisto, while riding in a dressage arena, is unlikely. The only way to avoid the risk completely is to not ride again, which really isn’t an option. So, I can either just accept it as a risk or I can reduce the risk. I reduce the risk by training, to improve my riding skills, riding a horse that is suitable for my level of training, participating in activities I train for, riding in a saddle that improves my balance and confidence, and wearing a helmet to reduce the impact if I do fall.
Logic tells the likelihood of coming off Callisto on any occasion I ride is low. So to answer Vicky’s question, the worst thing he will likely do if he becomes scared is stand still and shake in his boots, whilst I ask him politely to please not kill me.
4. Ride a Suitable Horse
This is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with… but probably the most important of all. If your answer to Vicky’s question “What is the worst he would do” is rear and fall backwards on top of you, run blindly dragging you by the stirrup, drop his shoulder and throw you forcefully to the ground or any other equally as unpleasant scenarios… then you really must ask yourself whether this is the most suitable horse for a nervous rider. I know I know … he’s beautiful, he has potential, he has amazing movement, he is just young and will grow out of it. I’ve heard it all before… I’ve said it all before. But having just sold the “love of my life” after ten years of struggling to enjoy him and my riding … let me tell you… hard decisions must be made. There are riders for all horses… and there’s no shame in realising your horse might be better matched with somebody else.
5. Have a Plan
On this particularly windy day, I was lucky to have Vicky riding in the arena whilst literally coaching me (once again) through my fears. And she told me … if you’re feeling nervous it is important to keep your horse (and yourself) busy. Have some exercises planned. We started on the 20m “safe” circle… making it smaller and then larger and then smaller and then larger. Pushing them forward on the big circle, giving with the inside rein to make sure they don’t change flexion on the small circle and repeating. Once you’re starting to feel a little more relaxed, ride down the long side, keeping them flexed to the inside or doing a little shoulder in. Go as far as you can bear before riding a half 20m circle and repeating down the next long side. The idea is to just slowly start using more and more of the arena… while keeping everyone’s mind on task. And it works. (Though admittedly my shoulder in looked nothing at all like Vicky’s. So, another word of advice … don’t play follow the leader with an elite rider).
6. Sing (and Breathe)
Now this is my personal favourite thing to do when I’m out of my comfort zone. Sing something repetitive, easy to remember and completely ridiculous. My top pick is “Henry the 8th”. I don’t know what my horses are thinking when I’m singing these songs at the top of my lungs, but it makes me breath, gives me some light entertainment, keeps their focus on me and my focus on something far from mayhem.
7. Get a secure saddle
This, in my opinion, is second only to having a suitable horse. My world changed the day I got into a VH saddle. You may not realise it at the time but a saddle that doesn’t fit your horse could tip you forward and impact the behaviour of your horse … and that’s just the beginning. A proper fitting saddle will put you in a better position, leaving you far more stable and feeling far less vulnerable. It needs to fit you and the horse… so don’t fall into the trap of getting a saddle that is too big (so you slip about) or too small (so you end up perched somewhere you ought not be). You want to be sitting in the deep part of the saddle. And you don’t need a million saddle pads… it’s only going to get you further from the horse and if you feel like you need more than one… it’s probably another clue your saddle doesn’t fit!
In addition to a properly fitting saddle, Vicky also suggests nervous riders consider a deep seat, sticky leather, bigger knee rolls and close contact. If I could sew stirrup leathers directly onto my horse I would! Or perhaps I’d just attach him to myself. But failing that, a well fitted and secure saddle is the next best choice.
It can be hard to be brave, especially if you’ve had a bad experience. But just remember, your horse is almost certainly going to stay between you and the ground, and if he does give you a sudden and unexpected gravity check, the only thing likely to be impacted is your ego.
Dr Victoria Hamilton is an icon in the Australian Equestrian Community, with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian, coach, breeder and international dressage competitor. As one of Australia’s top dressage riders, her love of horses is contagious and apparent in everything she does.