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Fearful in the Saddle? (Part 3)

A recent Horse & Rider poll stated that 71% of respondents indicated they were fearful in the saddle “sometimes” or “often”. I had no idea that so many people had such mixed emotions when they were riding. That revelation resulted in a blog series about this interesting topic. (Part One and Part Two.)

I am on the LinkedIn platform, and I have connected with a couple of individuals who have made a career out of helping people overcome their fear of riding. Recently, I posted a question to my LinkedIn connections, asking for input on the scope of riders experiencing fear. One reader offered the following response:

There has been a recent study that a horse is able to hear and/or feel a human’s heartbeat. That being said, could the heart beat fast in a certain way to let the horse know a fear factor? Could this be the reason more accidents happen in situations with horses? Sports with inanimate objects do not have that extra factor. Something to think about.

Diane M. Chavez, Professional Horse Trainer
Two Bodies, One Heart

I was curious about that information, so I found the article. It is titled Two Bodies, One Heart: Horses and Your Heartbeat. This is a MUST READ article! Here is the gist of the content:

Horses have incredible hearing, with the ability to hear the heartbeat of a human from four feet away. In the wild, horses will synchronize their heartbeats to the other horses in the herd in order to sense danger more quickly, and recent studies have shown that they use those tactics in domesticated life as well. When our horses interact with us, they tend to synchronize to our heartbeats as well, meaning they can sense slight adjustments in our mood. This means when us riders get nervous about something, we inadvertently translate our fears and anxieties onto our horses.

Haley Rosenberg, JumperNation

This is HUGE! Probably at some level, most of us understand that our mood impacts our horses. I remember when I was a teenager experiencing the usual challenges of getting along with my mom. The conflict in my family relationships seriously impacted my state of mind. Although I forget the specific circumstances, I remember a big fight occurring while I was preparing to compete in a big show. Our show performance was horrible… I was so stressed out.

Control the environment?

Most or all of us have ridden with fearful riders. Many fearful riders attempt to manage their fear by trying to control their environment. They won’t ride if it is windy. They won’t ride with someone who has an “energetic” horse. There are a thousand variables for potential excuses not to ride. Additionally, they are hyperalert for any potential threat or circumstance that might trigger a reaction in their horse. However, it is impossible to control your environment in such a way as to always avoid surprises or triggers.

The article I referenced describes a study that clearly demonstrates the impact a fearful rider has on their horse. Here is what is says:

In her study, “Investigating Horse-Human Interactions: The Effect Of A Nervous Human,” Linda Keeling, PhD, tested the relationship between human and horse heart rate with fear as an indicator. The study had twenty participants of varying riding ability walk or ride their given horse from Point A to Point B four times, and participants were told that on the fourth pass an umbrella would open. The umbrella was never opened, but the heart rates of both the riders and horses increased in anticipation when the human expected the umbrella to open.

I’m not sure that I would have been able to ignore the thought that soon, something was going to happen that might spook my horse. I trust my horse, and my relationship with him. We have many miles together and I am very familiar with his responses and nuances. Nevertheless, I probably would have had an elevated heart rate in anticipation of a known “spooky” event.

Not strangers, but a team

But that doesn’t mean that every minute of every ride, I am anticipating a problem. As I have alluded to in the first two parts of this series, so much of the advice given to address fearful riding revolves around knowing your horse. In other words, having a relationship with your horse. Obviously, that takes time, effort and commitment. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have far more trepidation about my safety if I was regularly riding unfamiliar horses. I’m not 20 anymore and I don’t bounce as well. But I feel safe on my horse because we are a team.

Another response to my LinkedIn query was this:

I used to be a fearless rider growing up. But when I was late in my teen years I had a bad accident on my horse. After, when I got back to riding, it was like I had PTSD. I could feel my heart rate go up if I was going downhill with another horse in front of me. Now, years later, I still get fearful on certain horses, if their feel is different from mine.

Juli Cain, Business Owner at Upon A Horse

If you want to see how much impact a solid relationship with your horse can have on your safety, watch this video. It is awesome!

What causes our fear?

A personal wreck, or personal knowledge of another’s serious wreck, can result in a form of PTSD. As we age, we feel more vulnerable and less confident about our ability to “bounce back”. Also, we are more aware of the inherent risks of horseback riding, such as the potential for serious head, neck, and spinal injuries. Heck, even the NFL has had to up their game when it comes to preventing head injuries!

How do we overcome our fear?

According to this article in Horse & Rider, trust is the key to overcoming fear. And there we are, back to that relationship and teamwork thing. As long as you and your horse are strangers, you will struggle with trust. And the way to get past stranger danger is to make a commitment to become a team. That might involve professional help.

Interestingly enough, professional help can come in many forms. As I mentioned above, there are “coaches” available to help riders overcome their fears. Obviously, a professional trainer can help you and your horse become a team. But there is one other suggestion that I’d like to make…


I have personally sought out another type of therapy aimed at addressing fear. In my case, my fear had nothing to do with horses. But it was a result of trauma. The therapy I tried is called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing. I first learned about it when I was dealing with troubled children. My initial assessment was that it was akin to voodoo! It seemed preposterous that it would be effective.

EMDR is based on the premise that alternately stimulating opposite sides of the body can connect the two hemispheres of the brain in a more complete fashion. This stimulation might be as simple as the therapist sitting in front of you and rhythmically tapping one knee and then the other. This enhanced brain connection allows you to process your fears in a deeper fashion, using both your “thinking brain” and your “emotional brain”.

I was blown away by how effective it really was. I had two long sessions, after which I was able to face my fears with a calmness I would never have believed was possible. My first challenge was to enter a building where ugly things had happened to me, at the hands of people who were still there. It wasn’t hard at all! Read the linked article above and consider finding an EMDR therapist near you.

Of course, EMDR isn’t going to help you learn to trust your horse. That is a different path. The Horse & Rider article linked above tells us that fear breeds fear…

“Fear works off avoidance. There’s a physiological response involved that’s conditioned by the action of avoidance. Turning away from and avoiding fear ‘feeds’ it. It then persists and actually grows stronger.

Dr. Larry Beutler of Palo Alto University

Don’t let fear ruin your time with your horse. Get help… whatever kind of help you need. Become a team and revel in the beauty of being one with your horse. Good luck!

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