I want to explore the topic of facing fear when riding. Working through our fears, and fixing fear is a long process and not accomplished overnight. Fear often rears it's ugly head when your horse bolts, bucks, or spooks for "no apparent reason", or for reasons you don't understand. It's easy to blame your crazy horse, after all, you should be able to ride her/him whenever you want and wherever you want, right?
So, you tell yourself...I'm just going to get back in the saddle and muscle through this, even though I can't control my breathing, my angst, or my heart rate elevating whenever I put my foot in the stirrup. Even though I'm really scared, I have to do this.
Instead of putting yourself through this, why not try a different approach. Re-evaluate what you're doing. Are you doing something to cause your horse to bolt, buck, or spook? Are you reinforcing this behavior because of your fear? Is your horse in pain and the behavior is in response to the pain? Should you ask for help before you get hurt?
Because we don't have a direct link to what our horse thinks and feel, we have to pay close attention to their body language and behavior. First, you should rule out if your horse is reacting from a pain motivated trigger. Make sure your tack fits well. Check your horses mouth, back, legs etc. to see if they are painful before getting back on. If you aren't confident in your assessment, ask your trainer for help or call your vet.
If the horse isn't reacting to pain, an unwanted behavior may be due to a fear response horses tend to share with their rider by bucking, bolting, or spooking sideways or forward. This behavior left unchecked can quickly turn into a game, and once established, is very hard to break. It becomes a vicious cycle, a catch 22. (I don't include rearing in this grouping, because that tends to be more of an attack response. "I won't do it and you can't make me." We'll visit that topic in another blog.)
One way to tell when a horse is afraid is when we feel the horse's spike in adrenaline at the time of, or just prior to the fear behavior. We've all felt it. Heading up to the arena and someone has the incredibly rude inclination to crunch their water bottle. If you're not a "horse person", you may have no idea that this invokes a primal fear that can cause some horses to shoot sideways, steering clear of the rattlesnake cleverly disguised as a water bottle. While this is happening, you feel the adrenaline from the horse, look around and think, "Geez, it's just a water bottle you big dope". Then you get on with your ride, no harm no foul, and you let your horse know she is perfectly safe by keeping her between your aids and ride on.
Think back to the first time your horse bolted. You became unstable and came off by rolling over his hip and landing on your back. It probably wouldn't have happened if you weren't afraid, but you make yourself ride with the fear, so the bolt happens. Maybe the second time, you came off over her shoulder. The third time, (here is where the game begins), you came off into the fence when your horse executed a sharp left turn. Sound familiar? Maybe your horse actually bolted because of a trigger from your aids. You came off balance, tipped backwards trying to right yourself, hands up in the air and gripping with your heels, which your off the track thoroughbred understood to mean "Let's go". Your trainer is the best resource to help you learn to ride without balancing in your hand. Or remember the first time your horse bucked. Unsettling, right? But, maybe it happened because you dropped all your weight into the saddle as soon as you swung your leg over, and your horse has a sore back. Again, your trainer is the best resource to help you learn to mount appropriately and notice if your horse flinching from the curry comb.
As riders it's often natural to think, "I've given this horse everything! Why is she doing this to me?" But the approach we need to take in fixing this behavior is learning how to ride it, and understanding where it is coming from. Learning to stay balanced and ride through these hiccups is important because each time you come off, the horse wins. A horses’ deepest desire is just to graze all day in a lovely green pasture with the herd. Your desire is to ride with your partner, his mane and your hair blowing in the wind as you gallop across the prairie or golf course, jump the meter 40 clean, turn your barrels with an amazing time, execute a perfect passage, slide stop, lead change, or what ever. Any way you look at it, your job is to make your desires compelling to your horse, and you do this by being a good leader.
No matter what anyone says you will never "fix" a horse by just loving them more. Don't try to personify your horse. Just because you "rescued" this horse and gave her a beautiful place to live with good food and vet care, doesn't mean your horse will love, let alone respect you. Horses are hierarchy animals. If you love them too much by allowing them to invade your space when working with them on the ground, you are always going to be lower in the pecking order. Horses are all about respect. If your horse approaches you in the turn out, head and ears up, snorting and prancing, that's a challenge. That isn't your horse saying "I love you, and look how pretty I am". You will need to start fixing the under saddle ridiculousness, by fixing the pecking order and learning to ride.
It probably won't happen on the horse with the problems. It will most likely happen when you decide to take a lesson on a quiet lesson horse with a competent trainer who can help you establish yourself as the leader. In the end, we all come off. We all get back on. What separates us the whether we get back on with fear or determination. A good trainer can help you find determination.