Over the 40 years that I have had the privilege of teaching horsemanship, I find the number one obstacle that deprives riders of both progress and pleasure is fear. Fear of riding horses does not discriminate, nor does it have boundaries. Equestrians of all ages, levels, and disciplines can find themselves afflicted with fear.
Fear can develop after a mishap, but sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a specific cause or origin. (photo credit: Andrew Pescod)
Although fear can often develop after a mishap where the rider was injured or frightened, it may also develop without a specific cause or origin. No matter how it started, once fear is present, it seems to have a mind of its own. As it begins to grow and spread, fear can affect your ability to guide and direct your horse. You are the horse’s leader; if the leader is frightened then the horse will follow your lead. The very presence of fear will transfer through your body language to the horse, and the horse will react accordingly, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.
Fear causes many horse lovers to give up on their passion for riding. It can leave you feeling incompetent and vulnerable. It takes away the joy you once found on horseback. Fear is often the reason horses are sold or become “pasture ornaments.”
Is there alternative to “putting up your boots”? Yes, you can overcome fear! Through my own personal experience, and in guiding my students, I have found overcoming fear to be entirely possible. I would like to offer a realistic approach to facing the fear that holds so many riders back. If you begin to understand how horses think, learn to read your horse’s body language, and increase your skill level as a rider, you can develop the confidence necessary to become a leader to your horse, and reverse the cycle of fear.
Understanding the equine mind
If you understand how a horse thinks, what instincts are necessary for his survival, and how a horse silently communicates through body language, it will begin to open the door to greater confidence and better communication. There are many books written on horses’ instincts, behavior, and language, but I must warn you that there are vast differences in interpretation of the horse’s mind among authors. I believe horses are always your best teachers, so studying how horses behave in a herd can tell you a great many things. Robert Vavra’s book Such Is the Real Nature of Horses is a wonderful study of horses in the wild. Of course, the photography is amazing, but Mr. Vavra has excellent insight to what he photographs. Mark Rashid has also written wonderful books. Two of my favorites are Horses Never Lie and Considering the Horse.
There are three of aspects of the horse’s mind that are always an influence in every reaction the horse has:
- The horse is a herd animal. In the herd the horse has a leader. This leader guides the herd, and the herd follows the body language of the leader. If the leader reacts to an unknown potential danger, the herd will follow suit. Without a leader every horse will take care of himself. If you, the rider, are not a confident leader and a situation of concern arises, your horse will instinctively take over in order to survive. Simply put, one of you must lead! This is why learning how to become a good leader is such an essential part of riding.
- The horse is a prey animal, and must protect himself from the unknown. Knowing this, it’s easy to understand why horses are constantly looking for “dragons in the bushes.” In nature, horses will generally graze in areas that allow for observation of their surroundings. Being oblivious of their environment could put them at risk as prey to a predator, so it is clear why horses are always interested in the slightest movement or strange sound.
- The horse’s gift of survival is flight. His primary defense is creating distance from the object of concern. If your horse does not have confidence in your guidance as you are riding or handling him, he will instinctively want to flee from an object of potential danger.
Knowing how the horse thinks helps us see the importance of leadership and correct guidance through your body language (aids). But how can you transform from “vulnerable passenger” to “fearless leader”? You’ve got to learn your horse’s language.
Understanding body language
Your horse is reading your body language, and it’s just as important to learn to read his. Understanding your horse’s silent communication will help you to read his awareness and reactions. I like to focus on four basic areas of body language:
- The ears are amazing in their telltale positions. They are like radar! If the ears of the horse are positioned forward we know that he is noticing or “looking” at what is in front of him. If his ears are gently (not pinned), back he is noticing what’s behind him, including the rider. Pinned ears express anger and imminent reaction accordingly. I am most comfortable when a horse will flick one ear towards me and one ear in front or both back to me and perhaps a flicker in front for brief seconds. It shows me that the horse is aware and alert, yet willing to focus on me, his leader.
- From the saddle we can also notice the position of the neck. Is the neck relaxed, comfortably positioned in balance or is it raised with tense muscles? Nature has provided the horse with a valuable tool of survival by positioning his neck to see far beyond his immediate surroundings! A raised tense neck is telling us something is worrying the horse. Will you be there to guide the horse’s confidence to you?
- The eyes are more difficult to notice under saddle, but are clear signals from the ground. Horses have both binocular and monocular vision, meaning they can use their eyes either together, or independently. This gives them the ability to see objects behind, beside and in front of them at the same time! When a horse is “with you,” you will notice a flicker of focus looking towards you, albeit briefly. Remember, their focus is only about 3 seconds — another tool for survival.
- And finally, the mouth is an indication of tension or relaxation. If the jaw is relaxed, if the horse is perhaps softly working the bit, (not chomping on it), if he allows his tongue to occasionally lick it, these are indications of comfort.
It takes observation, constant awareness, and time to learn the subtleness of a horse’s body language. By understanding how your horse thinks and being careful not to humanize the situation, your reactions will be more appropriate and effective, and your confidence level will improve. Being able to read your horse is vital for the third piece of the puzzle: communicating effectively.
Developing your skill as a rider
To successfully combat your fear, you must also develop your skill as a rider. No matter how well you understand equine behavior, and how accurately you can read your horse’s body language, you must be able to communicate effectively, confidently, and appropriately with your horse to break the cycle of fear. Developing an independent seat, correct body position, and the appropriate use of the aids are necessary for feeling secure in the saddle and being able to give your horse the leadership he needs to feel secure as well. Though there are many books written about riding, there’s no replacement for in-person instruction. Especially for riders dealing with fear, finding the right instructor is important. Your instructor should have the right skills and qualifications for your discipline, and must also be someone you feel able to trust. Once you have found a possible instructor, either through recommendations or advertising, I suggest asking to observe a lesson. This will allow you the opportunity to see if the instructors’ approach and theory is right for you.
Just like training a horse, the process of rebuilding your own confidence is gradual and incremental. It can seem like an uphill battle at times, but a mountain does not have to be conquered in a day. Determination combined with knowledge of the mental and physical communication, as well as natural behavior and instincts of the horse will help you to finally re-experience the joy you once found in riding your horse.