“Your horse is normal”, I said. My client explained, “I’m scared when she runs around loose in the arena and throws a buck.” I responded, “So maybe she wants to run around a bit, go ahead and let her free-school. It's okay if she throws a few bucks, it's healthy and normal.”
All too often our expectations for our horse's behavior are either unrealistic or based upon our own fears. Sometimes, when our fears get the best of us we want to control our horses even more by making them stand perfectly still, not allowing them to run or play, and preventing them from acting like a horse. The truth is, you can never control a horse. You can teach your horse discipline and respect, so that she listens to you, but you can’t control a horse. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes adult amateur re-riders sink or swim in their riding endeavors. This year I had two students begin lessons in May with major fear issues and complicated horses (one bucking, one running), and both succeeded and overcame their fear issues thus far. What enables a fearful rider to persevere? Here are a few of the factors that contributed to my students’ progress.
I’m writing this blog post specifically for adult amateurs that are too afraid to get back in the saddle. For these riders, getting on and going for a walk, controlling their horse (steering), and a little trot work is an emotion accomplishment. I’ve written this blog post specifically for this group of riders. However, I understand that we all have fear issues under saddle, so perhaps these tips can help in other areas as well.
1. Realize your horse is normal: It is normal for horses to run, buck, and play. Instead of trying to control their actions, think of ways to manage and redirect their behavior. You can’t expect a horse to stand like a statue unless you’ve instilled the discipline and respect necessary to command their attention and understanding. It takes time and training to achieve this in many horses.
2. If you are afraid of the saddle, stay out of the saddle. It’s true. If you are afraid of riding you biggest confidence boost will come from learning how to manage and control your horse from the ground. Can you move the shoulders and the hindquarters? Do you know how your horse responds to pressure? Horsemanship is key to teaching riders how to be more confident with their horse. Once a rider has command of the horse from the ground it’s time to saddle up.
3. Good equitation and biomechanics are essential: You won’t be successful in the saddle unless you learn how to coordinate your aids and ride in a balanced manner. Think you can get away with gripping with fear on an OTTB? Think again, they will use any excuse to go forward. The softer and lighter your aids and communication, the better.
4. Try try again, and when it doubt, do groundwork: The only way you will overcome your fear issues is by confronting these issues on a regular basis. Can you ride at least three days per week? Half the battle to becoming a successful rider is just showing up. I have two clients with DIVA dominant mares that have their own ideas about work. When these mares act out due to separation anxiety, hormones, or they are just not listening; it could be potentially dangerous under saddle. That’s why it’s important for the rider to recognize when their horse is safe and listening, and that some days it’s best to just do groundwork.
5. If you’re really really scared: It’s just like starting a young horse – go back to the lunge line. There’s no shame in going back to the lunge. I always take my fearful students back to the lunge line with their horse. Then they have a sense of security and can work on seat and biomechanics. After we hone our basics we graduate from the lunge to a handler walking by their side, and eventually to the instructor standing in the center of the arena while they work independently. The speed at which you go through these steps depends on each individual rider. I’ve had it take as long as three months, to as little as one or two lessons.
6. Speed doesn’t matter: Your goal is to become comfortable with your horse – it doesn’t matter how long it takes, it takes whatever the time it takes. You know that you’re ready for speed when you desire to go faster and you feel really confident at the gaits you’re currently working at. In the meantime, have fun riding your horse from place to place at the walk, make patterns and designs in the arena, change direction frequently, and have fun. Also, the canter can be a pretty scary gait. If you’re still learning to canter, or a re-rider that’s fallen out of practice, by all means have your instructor put you back on the lunge line at the end of your lesson to practice your canter work.
7. Beat the clock: One of the best exercises I’ve found for fearful riders is to challenge them against the timer on my cell phone. Perhaps today we’re working on serpentines; and we practice timing how long it takes to make a serpentine. Then the students tries to beat their former time. It seems ridiculously silly, but changing the focus from “OMG I’m afraid” to “OMG I need to ride this serpentine at the walk better than I did last time” does wonders for focusing a fearful rider. (and note, we aren’t running or racing, we are staying within the walk or within the trot when we do this exercise).
What makes one rider with fear issues persevere over another? I don’t know the answer to that. However, I do know that sometimes you have to really assess your skill sets and find the right instructor that can help meet your needs. As the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Last fall I blogged about my challenges with my mare Gracie. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t convince her to go forward. She would buck, balk, kick out, and do a host of things to evade. I worked with Stephanie Durand in both August and November, and by fall we had consistent progress, albeit with a few added bucks here and there.
Although we made progress, it wasn’t like Gracie was 100% better. I knew a lot of it had to deal with horsemanship, and her resistance to going forward wasn’t really an under saddle question. I focused a lot on horsemanship and then with the onset of winter gave her time off. I realized when spring came around that I was procrastinating our work. I was apprehensive about starting the process again and suiting up with the mental armor to deal with her bucking. I was ready for the worst and preparing myself to start from scratch again.
But two things happened instead. First, I spent the winter doing horsemanship, which had a profound effect. Second, I learned how to find my frog legs and was no longer blocking her with my thigh and knee. The result: a horse that willingly and comfortably moved freely forward in all three gaits. It was like turning a key and unlocking a door that you’ve been knocking on with no answer for a year. I didn’t realize that those little details could make such a huge difference in the way my horse behaved.
More recently I’ve tried to keep Gracie focused doing other activities. I try to keep her jumping at least one to two days per week. I put out cones and barrels to ride her around, and then slip in the dressage between those activities. I also try to ride her in the outdoor arena as much as possible. She likes to “people watch” and observes all the people and traffic from the road nearby and the local businesses across the street. Mentally, I was also able to let go of any ideas or plans for dressage. Kind of like loading a difficult horse in the trailer – you’re always more successful if don’t have plans and the intention of taking all day if it’s necessary.
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