Almost everyone suffers from some degree of anxiety. We all feel stressed from time to time. This is normal and something that we learn to live with to a point. However, if you are someone who suffers from riding-related anxiety, you’ll know that this specific anxiety can get in the way of you doing something you love.
The sources of riding-related anxiety and how you cope with it are very individual things. No two people are going to feel exactly the same or worry about exactly the same things. However, there are some helpful strategies most people can use to help themselves feel more confident and less anxious. Here are two of the most useful:
Have a plan!
One of the biggest causes of anxiety is uncertainty. Not knowing what might happen is a horrible feeling! In order to reduce this, it’s a good idea to sit down and consider what it is that you’ll be doing and what could happen – both good and bad – and really think through the possibilities.
This is true whether you’re going to a competition, having a lesson, schooling at home or going for a hack… Whatever activity you’re going to take part in, think about what you will be doing and go through everything you need to be ready for. If you feel that something could happen that you’re not ready for, try to prepare for it first!
For example, if you are hoping to compete and you’re worried your horse might be spooky, instead of just turning up to a show unprepared, trailer your horse to some new places in advance and find out how he/she reacts in an unfamiliar environment. If all goes well, perhaps take your horse to some local competitions and enter them in a fun in-hand class to begin with, or turn up to a fun ride where you don’t necessarily have to take part but can expose your horse to the atmosphere. That way you’ll know exactly how your horse is likely to behave at a competition and you can be ready to deal with the situation. Alternatively, you can decide to spend more time taking your horse to new places so that they get used to it before you try to compete on them. Take control! Once you know what to expect and the uncertainty is gone, the choice of how to proceed and prepare is yours!
Another common source of rider anxiety is not knowing what to expect from a lesson and fearing that your instructor might push you too far. Many riders worry about being asked to do something in a lesson that they find intimidating in some way. The simplest way to prepare for this situation is to be upfront with your instructor and explain your worries. Or if you want to be pushed but also want to avoid uncertainty so you can practice beforehand or mentally prepare, simply ask your instructor well in advance to tell you what kinds of things you’re likely to do in your lesson. Most instructors can sense when you’re anxious about something specific and will be relieved to hear you be honest about your feelings. Once it’s all out in the open, your instructor can begin to help. An empathetic instructor won’t force you to do anything you feel uncomfortable with – and certainly no instructor should ever ask you to do something they believe is beyond your ability to do safely!
Visualisation can help to put things in perspective. Once you have a plan in place and know what to expect, picture what’s going to happen and how you’re going to deal with it. That doesn’t mean picturing all the bad things that could happen. What you really want to picture is what you have planned to happen.
For example, if you have a dressage competition the next day, picture how you’re going to warm up and run through riding the whole test in your mind. Picture what you need to do and how you’re going to do it and what it’s going to look like. For instance, if you know your horse is going to want to rush in the extended canter, picture how you’re going to ask them to re-balance and slow down and what their response is going to be.
If you feel under-prepared and don’t know what you’re going to do, you haven’t yet dealt with all that pesky uncertainty! So make sure you visualise what you’re going to do well in advance and repeat the exercise a few times. Try not to leave any unknowns that are going to make you worry!
And whatever you do, remember, always stay positive! Chances are that you took up riding as a hobby and no matter how important it might feel to you right now, ultimately, it’s all supposed to be fun! So when it stops being fun, there’s no reason to keep pushing yourself. Take it easy and stick to the things you do find enjoyable about horses and perhaps at some point you will feel like riding again. But if not, there is plenty more you can do with a horse besides riding. If you need inspiration, try this non-ridden activity generator for ideas. After all, horses don’t need to be ridden and there is so much more that we can do with them to nurture a strong and positive relationship.