The Fearful Rider
By Betsy Kelleher
Horses are instinctively fearful animals. But if the rider has developed a “confident authority” and has taken time to bond with the horse and to introduce new things gradually, almost any horse that hasn’t been damaged in some way will usually respond with submissive trust to new situations and objects.
It’s the Unexpected that usually creates a problem--the Spooky Plastic Bag that blows across the road in front of you on a windy day, or the Noisy Monster Tractor coming up from behind, or the Ferocious Barking Dog running at you! Suddenly, here is this Terrible Possibility of pain or death, and you panic!
Be aware that your response to the situation can influence your horse to respond the same way. If you tense up and tighten the reins too much, that’s a definite signal to your horse that something is frightening. On the other hand, if you keep your body relaxed, if you breathe deeply and control the focus of your mind away from fearful influences and on going forward quietly, your own mental attitude can actually help your horse stay quiet! The more distance between your horse and the fearful object, however, the less threatening that object will seem.
If you have a “confident authority” and you have already taught your horse to respect and obey your authority, you have better control of your horse. A calm, confident animal that depends on its rider is not born that way, you know, it is trained. The real key to safety is in the rider’s hands and mind. It is thorough training with quiet confidence!
After almost 30 years with horses, I wish I always had that kind of confidence. But gone are the days of jumping on an eager horse and enjoying the speed. Like many older riders, I’m too aware of the many possibilities for getting hurt from just one brief moment of the unexpected. I’ve read books, gone to clinics, taken lessons, and practiced all sorts of riding exercises to gain experience and skill. For me, competitive trail riding was in itself a great confidence builder. It takes courage for a horse and rider to venture out together alone on an unknown trail! It creates dependence upon each other and it is a great way to bond with your horse. Beyond the arena is a wonderful world of challenge and growth, as soon as you and your horse are ready.
Knowing when you are ready is the key. Until then, you should do only what you feel you can handle, gradually venturing out a little further each time. But do venture out, even if it’s only a few steps. Learn to follow your own instincts. A friend wisely advised me recently to visualize good riding experiences instead of the bad things that might happen! Another influence that helped me most was the four basic principles of Sally Swift’s Centered Riding.
I first heard about Sally Swift while riding my young Appaloosa, Dude. He had run away with me once, and I was scared he might do it again. This sensitive young gelding was feeding off my fears and jigging around with his head up in the air, greatly increasing my anxiety. Then someone told me to look up, sit down and breathe deeply. Dude immediately lowered his head and relaxed and that was my introduction to Centered Riding.
Sally Swift lives in Brattleboro, Vermont, is now 93 years old and still working actively within the Centered Riding organization. Two books and two videos on Centered Riding are well worth your attention, not just to deal with fears, but to improve any riding discipline. Basically, Centered Riding deals with the way a rider uses his or her body as a means of influencing the horse and developing positive communication.
Sally Swift gave a rider’s clinic in the mid 80’s at Judy Tippett’s Red Barn Farm near Millstadt. My experience riding in that clinic fills a chapter in my book, “Sometimes a Woman Needs a Horse,” and describes the feeling of confident authority that I experienced that day. When I encountered an “impossible” situation, Sally Swift commanded, “head up, sit, breathe” and I did, and it worked!
This year, I’ve ridden Traveller briefly as often as possible, down the road by the barn or on the trail behind the pasture, just to build up his energy after several months of health problems. It’s actually been two years since he felt “normal.” Sometimes I feel his anxiety, but I’ve also seen him get calmer with each ride. I haven’t been riding as much as I used to, and that’s a sure way of losing confidence. I need to remind myself to look up, to sit down and relax and to breathe deeply!
I remember the competitive trail rides, when I rode alone for miles on an unknown trail. I rode six miles a day, at least three days a week, when conditioning for a 30 mile ride. Somewhere during those countless miles Fanny and I shared, we found trust and companionship and a special bond. That kind of relationship only comes, I believe, when horse and rider are alone with each other, learning together, meeting life together and finding trust. Even though Fanny and I had that bond, she still had a mind of her own! We encountered a train one day (Fanny backed up rather fast into a tall cornfield), and another day we met a truck pulling a small mobile home trailer (we ended up in the middle of a field), and once we met a motorcycle (I think that was the only time she reared). Yes, I was much younger then!
Perhaps I am too aware of this world’s burdens. I am sure the horse does not understand it all. He looks for food, for companionship, and for safety and comfort. If only we were satisfied as easily.
It’s good advice to leave your troubles at the barn door before you enter. If you greet your horse bearing inner conflicts, regrets, worries, feelings of guilt, anger or fear, just how do you think your sensitive horse will respond? Yes, he or she senses your inner soul. That’s what makes horses so special! When we are feeling bold, they eagerly share our joy. When we are afraid, they know it. And when frustrations happen, we may end up taking it out on our horses, because all that inner turmoil has a way of overloading one’s patience and judgment. Riders need to focus on the horse in order to stay in control and enjoy the relationship.
Of course our basic fear is of getting hurt or killed. There are warnings included on every training tape involving horses, warnings that people working with horses will get hurt at one time or another. Staying safe as we deal with our horses requires knowledge and understanding and skill and we need to learn all we can.
Sometimes, our fear of death looms larger than it should. Each of us must deal with that image, find peace with its reality and do what we can to prevent tragedy. I tell myself that Death is simply a part of life, like leaving one room to enter another. We never know when the door will open to enter that last room, and we should be ready at all times. Of course it’s not that simple! It takes courage and self control—mind control—to overcome those fears that threaten to spoil my riding enjoyment!
If you are a fearful rider, take time to find the answer to “why?” and then deal with specific aspects of your fears, one at a time, and get help if you need it.
True believers know that God is our Master and we live within His Kingdom. Our lives can be a constant struggle to go our own way (just as our horses struggle with their instincts and fears versus our demands), or we can find peace and assurance through a total submission to His loving mercy and sovereign control. “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (fear), but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (II Timothy 1:7, NIV)
Our confidence in Him comes only through many hours together, as we spend time alone with God, in prayer, in the study of His word and meditation on its meaning, and as we travel through daily trials and experiences of living, learning to trust His guidance and comforting wisdom.
I’ve heard trainers say we should be as God to our horses, taking charge with kind but firm authority. We have a responsibility to be skillful in training, to be good riders and to truly love and care for the animals we have taken over. We don’t have to spend thousands on clinics and training equipment and on property with indoor arenas. We need to spend time with our horses, helping them find the trust and respect and affection of a good relationship. We can get help along the way, but looking to every new trainer or technique or piece of equipment can become an escape from dealing with the horse.
Just as we pray to be led by God’s Spirit, we should treat our horses in a way that causes them to want to be led by us. Remember the golden rule. Can we do for our horses as we would have God do for us? Can we work to develop within ourselves that confident authority that our horses need to respond to us with trust and respect and willing submission?
Scripture tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33) and so we are reminded to set priorities. Horses can take a lot of our time and we need to put God in His rightful place.
For me, that means spending time alone with God every day. My “confident authority” can only come from His Spirit working within me to build trust and reverence and peace from my own acceptance of the reality of life. When my own life is “right,” then I can deal better with the other stuff.
Sally Swift’s basic principles are simple but effective. God’s principles of life are also simple and effective. We learn the principles, and we apply them to our lives. As we learn to develop a working partnership with our Creator, by taking time alone with Him, listening, meditating, learning, seeking, yielding, and obeying, we can also learn to deal with our horses wisely. The journey itself is worth the time.
(Originally published in the June 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)