Home » Ask the Expert, Riding and Training

Afraid to ride my horse

18 August 2011 No Comment

Afraid to ride my horse
We asked horse training expert Dr. Jessica Jahiel, whose teaching goal is to develop balanced, willing, forward horses and thoughtful riders. More on Jessica

From: Maria

I need some advice about my situation, whether to sell my horse and start looking for another one, or keep trying to overcome my fear of riding him. Here is some background:

I am 38 years old, and have been riding a little here and there since I was a teenager (weekly lessons for several years, a couple riding camps and occasional trail rides), but I never owned a horse, or had access to a horse that I could ride much, so I consider myself a beginner. It has been a dream of mine all my life to own a horse, and it finally happened when we moved to a house that has a boarding stable 5 minutes walking-distance away from suburban Denver. I bought a 15-year-old Quarter Horse gelding named Tuffy this January that came from being a working ranch horse in Wyoming.

Everyone said he was the perfect beginners horse for me. Everybody at the barn loves him, and says he is Mr. Personality and so good and calm, and great with kids (I have a 4 year old and 9 year old that ride him).

Sounds great, right? Well, things didn’t start out too great. The second time I rode him, he bucked me off, after the chair I was standing on to mount tipped over under his belly, and he must have gotten scared. I fell off, but after being reassured that it was a freak incident (and told to never use unstable chairs to mount a horse!), I got back on him, and went on a trail ride with a friend. He was fine.

Since it was winter and cold (and I work full time), there wasn’t much time for riding, probably once a week average. I would usually ride him around on the trails a little, or ride him in the arena, mostly alone. A couple of rides later, after taking him away from his dinner to ride (he is VERY food-oriented, more than most horses, I think), I was trotting him in the arena after a short trail ride, and (I had left the gate open back to the paddocks) as we were passing the open gate, he leaped into a sideways canter for a couple steps, dumping me on the ground. OK, it was probably a combination of the gate being open, him testing my determination in keeping him away from his food, and my unstable seat.

Several uneventful rides later (except I always had a hard time getting him to stand still while I mounted, so that kind of made me nervous), I and several others were riding in the arena together (it was a windy, crisp, cold winters day), and I could feel Tuffy was feeling frisky. I tried to be brave and ignore it, So I trotted around, and was about to go into a canter, and at that moment, he leaped forward a couple steps, tucking his hind legs under him – dumping me again – this time on frozen ground, and it hurt! I was told he probably got spooked by the wind. His hind legs hit my helmet as he ran by me (I always wear a helmet!).

My old bones were stiff and sore for a while after that, but I was determined not to give up. I bought an Australian saddle, and scheduled lessons with a trainer at the barn whom I really like. So we started from scratch, emphasizing on balance and a secure seat in a safe environment, taking it a little at a time. At this point, I had built up a fear of riding Tuffy that I knew I needed to overcome, or else I might as well give up riding.

By springtime, I had made some progress, but with spring, the rain and mud came, and our barn was a mud hole for weeks! Poor Tuffy had been standing in mud to his knees in his little paddock, and here I come, at dinnertime, and drag him out to ride. My plan was to stay on the road, which was not muddy.

Again, I could tell that he was all tense, and had to have someone hold him while I mounted. We started walking up the road alone, and after a little while, I asked him to trot. He trotted nicely for a minute, and then, as the road came up to a pathway that lead back to the barn, he started trotting faster, I pulled back on the reins (I didn’t know to pull only one rein and try to have him go in a circle), but that only caused him to trot even faster, now heading onto the trail back to the barn. Soon the trot turned into an uncontrolled canter, and having a loose girth, I slid off as we reached a fence, and he made a sharp turn. He ran all the way home, with the saddle hanging off the one side! I told myself “That’s it! I’ve had it with this horse”, but for some reason, I didn’t quit.

In hindsight, I should have let him run loose in a pasture or lunged him to get some of his energy out first. Also, I was taught later how to prepare for a ride, by doing groundwork exercises, to make sure the horse is in a good frame of mind and will yield to me. Now, in late summer, I have not had any more accidents, but I am very fearful of riding Tuffy. Anytime he lifts his neck up and points his ears, I stiffen up and get tense, as if he is going to run away with me, buck me, or do something else unexpected. He is a 15.2, very strong and fast horse, and he intimidates me. I have ridden a friends smaller mare a couple times, and I had no fear, although she had a very fast walk and trot. My trainer said I shouldn’t even think about getting a young horse, even if it is gentle and smaller. So she is encouraging me to work it out with Tuffy.

So I need your advice – what do I do? I greatly appreciate your insight.

Hi Maria! It does sound to me as though you would be much more comfortable and secure on a smaller and quieter horse. Tuffy sounds like a horse that would be a good second or third horse for you, but perhaps isn’t quite right as a first horse. You may still be able to work things out with him, but either way, I think you need to ride something else for a while, and I think you need to ride under supervision, so that you aren’t sitting in the saddle holding your breath and praying for a miracle whenever something goes wrong.

Right now, if Tuffy stepped in a hole and tripped and you fell off, you would (a) take it personally, and (b) be so frightened that you might not want to ride ANY horse ever again. That’s too much of a risk! I think that you should re-think your riding and lesson strategy.

Don’t be ashamed of being afraid. Fear is useful — it tells us when we feel incompetent or out of control, and if we pay attention to our fear instead of trying to deny it, we can use it and learn from it!

If you’re afraid of losing your balance, don’t hold your breath and grab the saddle, talk to your instructor about your fear, and she’ll be able to put you through a series of exercises to help you get and keep your balance on horseback, first at a standstill, then at a walk, trot, and canter.

If you’re afraid that you can’t stop your horse or get him to go in a particular direction, and trails are frightening instead of fun, ask to take a trail-riding lesson (or two, or three, or ten). If your instructor rides out WITH you, she’ll be able to help you deal with situations as they arise, and eventually you’ll learn the signs of Things About To Happen, and you’ll be able to deal with situations BEFORE they arise. That’s how riding works — once you’ve learned to read your horse well and communicate with him clearly, you’ll be able to sense when he is beginning to worry about something, and you’ll be able to reassure him and send him past it before he gets well and truly frightened.

Out of the saddle — at home, in fact — you can get an exercise video and practice basic yoga or Tai Chi. Either, or both, will help you with your balance and with your breathing. Controlling a horse is much easier when the rider knows how to balance and breathe, and those are skills you can learn and improve at home. ;-)

All of this will take time. It may also require the use of another horse, since you’ve had some scary experiences with Tuffy and you are becoming tense and anxious whenever you ride him. You may need to learn on another horse, then practice on Tuffy, under supervision, when you feel very competent and confident of your skills when you’re riding the other horse.

You’re 38 and you have two small children. Anything that happens to you will affect your family, not just yourself. You are RIGHT to be anxious and you are RIGHT to be afraid of falling off or being run away with. These are valid concerns, since these things have happened to you! Fear is a perfectly sensible and reasonable reaction.

Your instincts are telling you that you can’t handle your horse and that you aren’t in control, and your instincts are telling you the truth. Listen to them, and arrange to take a series of lessons (ground work, riding indoors, riding outdoors, and riding on trails) on another horse, a very quiet and steady horse, so that you can focus on yourself and on the skills you’re being taught. When you feel completely confident and a little bit bored, ask your instructor to teach you the SAME series of lessons on YOUR horse. By the time you finish them, you should feel much more in control and much more confident in yourself and in your horse. (And by the time you start riding Tuffy again, you should have all of the turnout and feeding issues under control).

If you find that even this isn’t enough to let you relax and trust your horse, then you’ll be able to look for another horse, knowing that you gave yourself and Tuffy every chance to become a good partnership. Sometimes the horse that “everyone thinks is perfect for you” isn’t perfect for you after all, and if that proves to be the case, it won’t be your fault or the horse’s fault. But if you take the time and make the effort to do everything I’m about to outline, you’ll be able to trust your decision, whether you end up keeping Tuffy or getting another horse instead.

If you DO decide to get another horse, I have to agree with your trainer about the idea of getting a young horse: Don’t. Green horses and green riders don’t mix well — in the color scheme of riding, green-on-green equals black-and-blue. ;-) One of you needs to be experienced and calm, and it’s going to have to be the horse! But that doesn’t mean that you need to rush out and buy one. Here’s what I suggest:

Talk to your trainer about your lessons; tell her that you need to learn everything from the ground up. Explain that you won’t be insulted if she treats you like a beginner — you ARE a beginner! ;-) Handling a horse on the ground is an important skill, but once you’ve learned that, you need to learn how to apply it to your riding. That’s so important that I’ll say it again: Groundwork exercises are great, but there’s no instant, automatic carryover to your riding. You still need to learn how to “read” the horse from the saddle, and how to talk to the horse clearly and calmly by using your position, weight, and aids. If you’re secure on the ground and insecure in the saddle, the horse will understand that YOU are the leader on the ground, and he will understand that HE is the leader when you’re in the saddle. Someone has to be the leader, and if you aren’t, your horse will be.

But being a leader isn’t the same thing as being dictator or even a boss — it’s saying “Hey, come on, let’s go do this together”, not “HORSE, DO THIS!”

There are things you can do with Tuffy that should help when you start riding him again. One thing you can do is to check his diet and be sure that he’s getting enough grass hay, and very little else. Most ranch-type Quarter Horses are easy keepers, and do best on a diet of grass hay, water, and salt. If they are fed alfalfa instead (effectively doubling the amount of protein), they can get “high” on it. One old cowboy friend of mine would always look at an overfed, bouncing-off-the-walls QH and say, “He just can’t stand prosperity!” High-protein feeds like alfalfa hay and grain mixes are great for horses that need the nutrition: very young and very old horses, lactating mares, and horses in hard work (four hours a day). Ordinary, healthy, mature horses in light work (1-2 hours a day of light riding) should do very nicely without it. Talk to your vet about this, and ask about diets and energy and actual nutritional needs! In most cases, if you need to supplement the diet of a horse on good grass hay, the supplement should be MORE HAY. ;-)

Another thing you can do is to be sure that your horse is getting enough exercise and enough time outdoors. If he’s out in a field 24/7, he’s far less likely to bounce and leap when you come out to ride him. Horses are designed to spend all day and all night walking around outdoors. When we keep them indoors, locked in a tiny box, overfeed them, and then come out, saddle them, and expect them to be quiet and calm for half an hour or an hour of riding, we’re asking for trouble.

Timing matters too. Don’t take your horse away from his dinner so that you can ride him. It’s not good for him physically or mentally. If he lives in a field and has pasture and/or free-choice hay, it’s not such a problem to take him out and ride him whenever you like, but if he is in a stall and being fed twice a day, you shouldn’t ride him just before he eats, during his meal, or for an hour or so afterward. Taking him away from his food is guaranteed to make him anxious and very preoccupied with the barn — and it’s bad for his digestion.

Your horse’s comfort matters. Tack fit is very important. You need to be sure that your saddle and bridle and bit are the right design and size to fit your horse comfortably, so that he can focus on you and not on whatever is hurting him. Enlist your trainer’s help here — and your vet’s. Have your horse’s back and teeth checked.

Set yourself up for success by being AWARE. Know what horses are like, and know what affects them, and how. If your horse has been locked in a stall for a week because of mud or ice, or if he’s confined to a tiny paddock instead of being turned out in a large field, don’t expect him to come out for a ride and act sleepy and slow. If your horse has been overfed for a week or two or three, don’t expect him to be quiet and sedate. If the weather has changed and it’s suddenly cold, expect a much more active animal. If it’s a very windy day, consider turning him out instead of riding him. Horses will always react to windy days — in nature, windy days make it impossible for horses to tell where the predators are hiding and when they’re about to jump out and grab a horsemeat lunch. Since there are sounds and smells coming from all directions, and everything is MOVING, horses become very, very alert and tense on those days, and if you are a nervous rider, it’s better to use those days for something else (tack-cleaning?). ;-)

You might also consider that horse ownership isn’t for everyone, and there are times in your life when owning a horse may be more practical than it is right now. After all, you have a full-time job and a family — that’s two shifts right there! Not everyone can work three shifts every day, and a horse does require a certain amount of daily time. It might suit you better to have a half-lease or even a one- or two-day-a-week lease on someone else’s nice, gentle horse. That way, you could enjoy your rides, have fun, and not feel guilty about riding only once or twice a week. You can’t put more hours in the day, or more days in the week, and you shouldn’t have to feel pressured and guilty because you just don’t have enough time to be a full-time horse-owner.

Good luck, and let me know what happens!

Sincerely, Jessica

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.

CommentLuv badge