Nervous Riders

By Jenny Austin

Jenny Teaching Adult Beginner Jenny teaching an adult beginner.


Does this sound like you?

  • You want to ride today but you’re always thinking “what if . . .?”
  • You tend to make excuses not to ride like
    • “but it’s windy today”
    • “but he hasn’t been ridden for a while”
    • “someone is mowing”
    • or . . . (insert your own excuse here!)
  • Do you only feel safe in the arena? Or sometimes not even there?
  • Do you need to have a really secure saddle to feel safe?
  • Will you only ride with someone else?
  • Or are you okay walking and trotting but not cantering?

If you can relate to those questions, then you are a “nervous rider” but don’t worry, it’s really common, and there is help.

How do I know? Because I am a nervous rider and except for when I was a child, I always have been. Despite this, though, I still manage to do a lot of activities with my horses including riding out alone, endurance rides, shows, clinics and more. Over the years, I have developed strategies to help myself progress with my riding despite my fears and am now helping others to do the same.

I find there are three main types of nervous riders – which one can you relate to?

  1. I’ve lost it!
  2. Did you used to be a confident rider? Did you used to canter bareback, jump anything, ride down the main street, etc. without ever a care or thought of “what if?” But now you would never do those things, you keep to the arena or a quiet trail and are nervous, cautious or scared for no “logical” reason? What happened to you? Where is that confident rider now?

    Do you grieve and long for the rider you used to be?

  3. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be!
  4. Have you always loved horses but just never got around to owning one until you were older? You had a dream that when your children were older you would get a property and the fantasy of having relaxed rides around the country side would finally come true? So you waited and finally you bought a horse, but now it’s “Why can’t I just relax and enjoy him?”

    The fantasy is shattered and the reality is that you are scared to ride out (or even in the arena) but you don’t exactly know why or what to do about it.

  5. I got hurt!
  6. Did you have you an accident that has suddenly changed you from a confident rider to an anxious one? That old adage of “get straight back on”, didn’t quite happen the way you thought. You’ve lost your nerve!

Are you arguing with yourself?

If you fit any of these nervous rider profiles, or maybe another one, you will be going through all sorts of emotions and thought processes. There will be crazy thoughts going round and round in your head.

I assure you that you are not the only one! I meet so many nervous riders. Some are only nervous some of the time, in certain situations, some are totally terrified all the time. Some have panic attacks even thinking about getting on a horse.

Do you have two voices in your head arguing with each other? I do.

One is Doubting Doris who says things like “he will spook at that; I could fall off and get hurt; I’d better avoid that place; he always jumps there; if I canter he might bolt; I should get off and walk past that tractor; those bushes have monsters in them; I need a more secure saddle; going out alone is dangerous”, etc.

The other is Brave Betty who says to Doubting Doris “don’t be silly; you’re just making him spook by thinking about it; be brave and your horse will be brave; So-and-So can ride him without any problems so he will be fine cantering or going past the scary things; it’s just you; you’ve done it before so just do it now”.

Sometimes I wish they would just shut up and let me get on with it!

Why Keep Riding?

One thing us nervous riders all have in common is that they still want to persist. They love horses. They don’t want to give up. I wonder why? Any other sport or interest doesn’t have that magic power over us that horses do. We would have given up on archery, swimming or anything else if it got us as emotionally troubled as being a nervous horse rider does. I know why. It’s because horses are magical. They are good for our soul. But mostly it’s because when the riding is good, and we get that connection with our horse, that cloud 9 feeling that you are on top of the world and so happy, is amazing, addictive and we want more. Yes we are like drug addicts, looking for that next “high” that we got when it was all perfect and exhilarating. I call those moments “bliss moments” when I get them I am overwhelmed with joy and I can feel it through my horse as well.

What Can We Do?

The good news is, you can get help and move on with your riding!

The first priority is that your horse is suitable for you. This sometimes means facing some hard truths. There is no point persisting with a horse that is actually “too much” for you. It’s not fair on the horse either.

The second priority is health and comfort of the horse and eliminating any problems in these areas.

Once we have established that you have a suitable, healthy horse whose tack fits comfortably, it’s time to work on you.

You need “tools in your tool box” to be able to maintain control at all times. With an experienced coach, you can learn what to do, when and how. An understanding coach can also help with your body awareness, including breathing and emotions to keep a good connection with your horse.

A step-by-step program following procedures tailored for each horse and rider team is essential to get you out and about. This might start with groundwork exercises and early rides might even be on the lead.

There is absolutely no shame in being nervous and it’s perfectly okay to go completely back to basics and take baby steps.

Acknowledging and being completely honest about your fear is the first step to working with it and moving forward.

Celebrate each little move forward and accept that sometimes you will have what I call “fragile days” where you have the heebie-jeebies for no apparent reason and need to go back a step for that day.

Good luck and happy riding

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