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Battle Of The Nerves - 3 Steps To Managing Your Riding Fears And Harnessing Their Power

Riding jitters. We all experience them at one time or another. That hostile flutter of butterflies in your tummy, the nauseous feeling at the back of your throat, the sweaty palms and the need for a nervous poo! We have all been there, whether it is related to competition day, jumping, trying something new or even just getting on board and riding our horses, we all feel the fear at some point.

I know all of those feelings only too well, having spent several years battling my confidence demons, and there really is nothing more inhibiting or demoralising than letting the nerves win and allowing them to prevent you from doing what you want to do with your horse. In fact, all of the photos peppered throughout this article are photos from across the last four years at points where I was in the clutch of nerves and, usually, had spent some time before, during or after riding in tears!

I have spent a lot of time fighting the fear and tried so, so many different things to conquer my nerves and overcome them. Some have worked, others have been useless! I also know I am just one of millions of riders who face this same challenge, whether just upon occasion or every single day, so I wanted to share with you some of the more successful methods I have employed to face the fear and do it anyway!

First and foremost, I will point out that never feeling fear at all is an impossibility and actually not something that any of us should endeavour to do. As humans, if our brain feels fear it is to protect us from putting ourselves in harm’s way; it is a warning and a totally natural human response. Without it we would all be undertaking death-defying stunts on the regular with no regard for our own safety. So the aim should not be to eradicate the fear entirely but to manage it and harness it so that you can use it to your benefit.

1. Identify the Cause

I would start by analysing what it is that's causing your nerves. Are they linked to a particular activity or event, such as competitions or cross country? Is your anxiety the result of a bad experience or a fall? Or does it seem to be simply a fear of getting hurt? Whatever the cause, until you can identify it you will not be able to manage it, so spend some time trying to work out what your anxiety trigger/s are. You can then employ prevention measures whenever you know you’ll be putting yourself into a situation that will cause nerves to flare up.

For me, my nerves are not linked to a specific event or experience, but more to my own self doubt and my phobia of being judged by others. I hate being watched when I ride, it makes me very anxious and, usually, as a result, I ride like rubbish! I also overthink EVERYTHING and wind up visualising worst case scenarios and talking myself out of being able to do something before I even get to the yard. I also have a secondary element of fear linked to good old self preservation; the older we get, the more value we put on staying alive and well, and therefore the scarier the prospect of falling off and getting injured becomes.

2. Plan Your Approach

Once you have worked out what sends your tummy into a tizzy then you can start to adapt your routine and your approach to the things that cause you stress, in order to better manage the situation both for you and your horse.

For example, I know I am a huge overthinker and so if I plan something too far in advance I will have invented a million scenarios of what could happen and have talked myself out of doing it before I even get to the day itself. Therefore, I very rarely plan anything too far in advance these days, if at all. Lastminute.com is my approach to anything new and/or scary and it has worked a treat.

The other thing I do is approach every part of my riding with a goal and a focus in mind but with a large emphasis on baby steps. When we set ourselves too big an expectation we are piling on the pressure immediately and, often, this results in us feeling unaccomplished or even a failure when things do not happen quick enough or well enough.

I prefer to set my daily goals as small as possible; it may be that my goal is as simple as to have an enjoyable ride, or to ride a new pole layout, or to run through a dressage test start to finish, or even just to improve upon my last ride. I often keep them quite vague and within the realms I know I am more than capable of. The idea being that they are 110% achievable and that I am likely to finish a session having exceeded my goal for the day.

There is nothing wrong in having a future end goal in mind but remembering that it takes baby steps to get to that goal and focusing your mind on those smaller, daily aims diverts your attention to the here and now and makes for a more positive outlook. The last thing you want to do is over face yourself or your horse.

Lastly, I tend to think quite carefully about the environment I am putting myself and my horse in, particularly when I am trying something new or something that I know will make me or my horse feel anxious. I make sure that the first time I attempt something, I am somewhere I know, somewhere we both feel comfortable and at ease, and I will usually plan it so that the only people present are those I have asked to be there (e.g. my instructor). If my environment is controlled and calm, the likelihood is I will be too, and I will also concentrate on the task in hand rather than worrying about the outside factors.

3. Coping Mechanisms

I do love a good old coping mechanism and the right ones for you can really help contain the nerves and, sometimes, snuff them out entirely. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of different methods you could try and it really is a ‘suck it and see’ approach, as no one person is the same.

I will share with you the coping mechanisms I have found to be most effective for me:

  • Feel the fear and do it anyway!

The first and the best one for me has been to feel the fear and do it anyway. Possibly not the miracle cure you were hoping for but, frankly, the main thing that will get you past knee knocking, white faced terror and out the other side is to grit your teeth, pull up your brave panties and get on with it, with determination. I have spent years questioning whether I really want to ride today, whether I have the ability to execute the task in front of me, whether I am going to end up face down in the sand… BUT the only way I was going to find out and be able to do what I loved and enjoy my wonderful horse was if I just got the hell on with it and kept doing it until I wasn’t scared anymore.

  • Positive Visualisation

I was very fortunate about eighteen months ago to be offered some sessions with a life and confidence coach and one of the main techniques I adopted from my sessions was positive visualisation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Something we all know already. Yes it is, but do we practice it most of the time? Nope! However, if like me you tend to err on the side of negative visualisations and ‘what if’ scenarios, changing your mindset towards the more positive side of things is game changing.

Visualising how something is going to pan out is a natural and unavoidable part of the way our brain works, however, we can use this to our advantage by controlling how we do so. So, to explain, if you know you have a dressage competition in the morning and you know you will be lying in bed unable to think of anything else, then allow yourself to imagine the day ahead; bathing, plaiting, getting ready, warming up, riding that test – the whole shebang! One catch, though, visualise it all going incredibly well. Your horse and you are looking amazeballs, your horse behaves impeccably in the warm up ring and you are feeling calm and ready and the test goes like a dream. I promise you that if you have a positive mindset and envisage something going very well, more often than not it actually will. If you feel confident, you will ride better, fact. If you think you are going to win, you are far more likely to than if you think you will fail.

  • Support Network

This, for me, is vital. In a world where we all fear criticism, embarrassment, and judgement, having a strong network of cheerleaders on your side is gold. I am very fortunate to have a fantastic group of friends and supporters to cheer me on and boost me up, including two of my best friends and my instructor. Having the right support is so important, as is making sure that the person or people helping you are the right ones; whether that is an instructor, a riding buddy or a yard owner – it is vital that those around you are a positive and encouraging influence, not a negative one.

  • Quiet Time

I talk a lot on my blog about ‘stopping the noise’ and ‘life being too noisy’ and this was another thing I identified as a cause of my riding anxiety during my life coaching sessions. We are all super busy, with most of us juggling jobs, families, social commitments and households on top of our horsey life, and there is a tendency for us to be rushing around like mad from place to place and one activity to the next. I know I was, and what it meant was that I often left work, ran into the house to change into my jods, screeched back off the driveway to the yard, groomed and tacked up at lightspeed and threw myself aboard my horse ready to ride, always against the clock. This was, without me necessarily realising it, feeding into my riding, my nerves and my horse’s behaviour and anxieties. I now try very hard to build ‘quiet time’ into my yard routine, irrespective of how short or long a time I have to spend there. It doesn’t need to be anything complex or for very long, just a few minutes sometimes to groom her without distractions or have a coffee sitting in her stable before a ride. It massively calms me and clears my head, ready to tune in to my ride and my horse, and it has made a massive difference to the results I get from a ride.

  • Patience

My last coping mechanism may seem an obvious one but, again, it is something not many of us have the virtue of. Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor is becoming the rider you may endeavour to be.

It takes years of practice and experience and it takes the right partnership between horse and rider. I have owned my horse for four years and we are still building our partnership and gaining trust in each other, however, the stronger it gets and the more time we spend together, the braver I get and the more confidence I have in her and myself. Spend the time building your relationship with your horse, do the groundwork, hang out together, chat rubbish to them, learn to trust them and, in turn, you will gain theirs. It is invaluable and as much as the wrong horse can destroy your confidence, the right one can make you soar!

I could go on and on but I am going to stop here – thank you if you have stuck with me and made it this far down the article. I still have days where the fear grips me, or I have to swallow down the bile threatening to make an appearance in my mouth, but the good days tend to outweigh the bad these days and when they don’t, I revisit the cause, the approach and how I am going to defeat the fear in order to make tomorrow a brighter day.

Hopefully you may be able to take something, even just one little thing, from all of my ramblings today to take away and try within your riding life to see if it helps you battle the nerves and feel braver. Don’t give up and don’t stop trying.

Oh, and if all else fails…drink gin! Lots of gin!

You can follow Cara's journey with Dee on her blog, Devine Intervention, or follow her @seekingdevineintervention on Facebook or Instagram.

Cara Winter - Devine Intervention
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 13-08-2020
Cara is a horse rider and equine blogger based in Surrey where she also keeps her horse, Dee. She has many years of experience around horses, however, a five year hiatus from riding saw Cara’s return to the saddle marred by crippling nerves, and it has been a slow road back to confidence. Her blog, 'Devine Intervention', documents her journey with Dee to regaining her brave pants and has proven popular with many, and especially relatable to the everyday rider, due to the honesty, humour and down to earth way in which Cara writes. In recent months that has also included a diagnosis of Kissing Spine for Dee, along with the subsequent treatment and rehab on her road to recovery.