I have a friend who has a lifetime of horse experience, including showing at a national level.
She has returned to horses after a hiatus, buying a nice, solid, older horse. A good citizen type of horse.
However, she has a crippling fear of picking up her horse’s hind feet to clean them. She can barely brush its hindquarters or tail without flinching. She is so overwhelmed by her fear it brings her to tears and paralysis.
That is how strong and debilitating fear can be.
Research shows fear is a normal reaction to an observable danger or threat. Throughout life we all experience fear as a tool for survival. It can be as mild as twinges in your gut or as strong as the inability to move.
Fear and anxiety may seem similar, but typically fear is related to a negative past experience, or is learned from others, such as parents, society or friends.
Anxiety tends to be more unfocused about anticipated threats – a persistent worry about the “what ifs” of life. It also seems to last longer than fear.
We often say we have a fear OF something, or have anxiety ABOUT something.
In my research on this topic I have learned that the more fearful or anxious someone is, the scarier things become. This magnifies our tasks, making us feel more helpless and out of control.
Reactions to a fearful situation can be labeled as:
We feel we understand why a horse reacts (flight or fight) to life threatening situations, but we rarely cast an eye on our own behaviors.
Picture a frightened rider freezing up when a horse bolts or bucks. No outside stimulus seems to get thru. A trainer can repeatedly yell to sit back, to get the horse’s head up, to turn, etc. with no apparent response from the rider.
Harder to see is the fight response, demonstrated by aggressive human behavior. Stronger bits, whips, tie downs, tying heads around, jerking reins, chain shanks, etc. People may say that these are training aids, but when the rider/handler is afraid of the horse’s speed or other behavior, they respond with emotional confrontation.
An absent owner is an example of human flight. Repeatedly cancelling lessons or rides with friends; or asking others at their barn to ride or work with their horse.
Frenzy is an interesting reaction. It can be excessive talking, movement, displaying strong emotions like crying or lashing out.
So with all this knowledge about fear and anxiety, what do we do about it?
- Acknowledge your fear! Say it aloud. Tell your trainer/coach/instructor so they know exactly what your fears are. If they tell you to shake it off or get over it, find a new instructor. Seriously! Your feelings are valid. Ignoring your fear will actually amplify it over time. It can make riding or being with your horse an unpleasant chore you may start avoiding altogether.
- Observe what your typical reaction to a fearful situation is – do you freeze, fight, leave the scene, get highly emotional?
- Practice deep breathing techniques. The first thing our body does in high alert is tense up, breathe shallowly in our chest and prepare to leave. Work on breathing down to your diaphragm keeping a regular rhythm. Yoga and meditation are great tools to develop this skill.
- Assess your emotional state. If you are getting angry, frustrated or teary – Get off your horse: – Or walk away from your horse, – Or count to 10 (or more!), – Or sing a simple song – aloud! The point is to do something else to diffuse the energy in you and get your brain working in a positive way.
- Ask for help. Importantly from someone you trust. Help is available from various sources; a trainer, an instructor or fellow horse people who will share their own coping mechanisms. Remember, You are not alone in this.
- Don’t dive into a situation, one that induces a fear response, instead, step in. Research shows that repeated exposure to fearful situations, in a controlled way, can diminish fear levels. Walk over a pole on the ground rather than jumping a jump. Practice a bigger trot before asking for a canter. Make sure you always have a halt in each gait. Baby steps.
- Practice self-compassion! This is a big one for all of us. Appreciate the courage and knowledge you have. Cut yourself some slack. Not everyone can or wants to be an Olympic rider or national champion. The great thing about horse involvement is that there is no age limit or end to what you personally want to accomplish.
- Look into alternative therapies. I utilized emotional freedom techniques (EFT) which involves tapping on acupressure points while saying positive mantra. It strengthened me after being kicked in the face. Reiki energy therapy, essential oils, eye movement desensitizing and reprocessing (EMDR) are other solutions that may help.
These are just several ideas to help you learn to cope with fear. I’m sure there are many more out there.
Please remember, you are not alone in this experience and it does not need to cripple your life with our wonderful horses.