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Fearful in the Saddle?

I recently read the results of a poll taken by Horse & Rider magazine. Apparently, 71% of respondents reported being fearful in the saddle “sometimes” or “often”. I was shocked! Are there really that many of us astride our equine companions who consistently ride with fear in our hearts?

A quick Google search turns up page after page and article after article about this subject. Obviously, it is far more prevalent than I initially realized. Where is this fear coming from? Is it primarily because of fear of injury? A Horse & Rider article I read indicated a rider doesn’t need to have their own wreck to become fearful. Simply knowing someone else that was seriously injured can be enough to instill fear.

Google also provides evidence that athletes involved in other sports can experience fear of returning to their beloved sport after an injury. An article by Sports Health has this to say:

A sports injury has both physical and psychological consequences for the athlete. A common postinjury psychological response is elevated fear of reinjury.

Understanding fear with sports in general

My daughter, Laura, was an accomplished gymnast in her early years. She trained hard and devoted many hours a week to the sport. Ultimately, she had to quit because her feet didn’t hold up to the abuse. She is 34, and she still has some chronic back pain and other residual issues related to her gymnastics. And yet, she loved it and remembers it as a huge chapter in her childhood.

I don’t remember ever asking Laura if she experienced fear while participating in her favorite pastime. So I did… and this was her response:

I wasn’t a risk-taker so learning new skills made me really anxious. I was also fearful while running because of my asthma. Summers in gymnastics were so brutal for me and I had insomnia for a while because of fear.

Her gymnastics years were spent in hot, humid Kansas. Before each workout, the girls had to run outside. She often struggled to get a good breath.

She continues to battle asthma. In fact, it was her asthma that prevented her from ever enjoying horses with me. She rode a few times until she had a severe asthma attack in the tack room. She did share with me that she never felt fear when she was on a horse… but she had very few opportunities to do that.

Self-imposed expectations coupled with real physical limitations

I asked her what motivated her to stay in gymnastics.

I stayed in gymnastics for a lot of reasons. One was that I loved it. Another was that it was my identity and I didn’t know who I was without gymnastics. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to get a college scholarship to repay you guys for all the time and money you poured into me. That was never anything that you guys communicated to me in any way, it was just an unhealthy pressure that I put on myself. I would never have changed anything I did with gymnastics. It still remains one of the most important chapters of my life.

My fear over running was definitely different than fear of learning new skills but I suppose both were a fear of safety. My fear of running was more of anxiety which then made my asthma worse. I suppose my fear of learning new skills was also anxiety. Honestly, I think the fear of running was about 75% of my issue with summers and the other 25% was learning new skills. I absolutely loved the perfecting of skills I had already attained which was why I loved competing so much. The learning of new skills part of gymnastics was never my favorite.

How many folks who struggle with fear are afraid because of unrealistic expectations of themselves? And how often is it related to actual physical limitations? (More on this in Part Two of this series.)

How would YOU respond to the poll?

Of course, we all look at the world through our own filter. In trying to understand the incredibly high percentage of fearful riders, I must start by looking at my own experience. How would I answer if I took the Horse & Rider poll?

My answer would be rarely. And even then, what I think I feel is a rush of adrenalin, and the absolute awareness that I am engaging in a risky activity. I am aware that things could go wrong, and I could get hurt.

The Finnster

My best example of this is the two years I spent riding Finn. I wrote many blogs about Finn. I acquired him as a 5-year-old. He was bred to be a Hunter Jumper show horse. After two years of taking him on the trail, I finally recognized that he was never going to make a safe trail horse. I summed up my journey with Finn in two blogs, When to Hold and When to Fold, and Part Two of that title.

As we all know, we can get hurt around horses in or out of the saddle. Finn gave me a concussion in the trailer in October of 2019. His fear of having to head down the trail had morphed into fear of GOING to the trail or fear of being SADDLED for the trail. He hated what I was asking him to do.

If I had continued to ride Finn, my answer to that poll would have changed. I didn’t trust him. Furthermore, I was asking him to do something he was never going to be comfortable doing. I really believe that. I couldn’t make him a confident horse in a trail-riding scenario. Initially, I thought I could… but I was wrong. You can’t change people (they have to want to change on their own) and you can’t change some horses. Finn needed to be an arena horse.

Do you trust your horse?

Many of the articles I found on the topic of fear-free riding say the same thing. You must trust your horse. I do trust Kadeen, my gray gelding. The articles all discuss building that trusting relationship with your horse. (But that’s not to say he can’t be a stinker sometimes, and raise the risk odds a bit…)

In Part Two of this topic, I will try and summarize the numerous recommendations presented in the plethora of articles on this subject. Sadly, there is no magic fix. Most suggestions revolve around concerted efforts to develop a trusting relationship with your horse, plus taking additional steps towards ensuring your safety.

Because of my lack of trust in Finn, my initial response to my awareness of my vulnerability involved adding a Hit-air vest to my bag of tricks. Honestly, I was shocked at how much comfort I took in the knowledge that my torso, spine, and vital organs were protected. That new-found peace of mind was unexpected. I was already wearing a helmet. And, of course, I wore a medical Information tag on my person.

Protect yourself and the ones you love. Coming soon… a❤️ Valentine’s Day Sale ❤️ on ID MyHorse Emergency Medical Information Tags.

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