The Hidden Gifts of Fear, Worry, and Anxiety

Guest post by Katie from H.E.R.S. Equine.

Is it just me, or does it seem that we live in a climate that pressures from all sides, telling us to ”Get out of your comfort zone!” and “Reach farther than you think you can!” or “Just do it!”? (I literally got anxiety just typing all of that.)

These statements have a great place in the world and can inspire great things; however, one thing that I don’t think we necessarily are in need of in the equestrian world is inspiration.

It’s not that inspiration isn’t important, it’s that we already have loads of it. There is something inherent about horses that evoke more inspiration that we could ever consume.

And this is why I question the use of above slogans around a barn.

The thing is, I have worked with horses and horsewomen for a long time, and I believe that this is one of the most passionate sub-set of people that you will find anywhere.

I am regularly blown away by the obstacles overcome and the goals attained when you mix together women and horses. And in all of the years I have spent coaching and training, do you know what I never once had to say? “Work harder.”

One thing that I have regularly addressed with horsewomen is functioning in the face of fear, worry, and anxiety. These also seem to be in abundance in the climate and culture that we live in. And the women that experience these so often treat them as opponents to be conquered.

Like champions, they put on their armor and do battle to fight to show up and do something that they love. And they do. And it is amazing. But I would like to suggest that fear, worry, and anxiety don’t always have to be the enemy.

In fact, I would like to suggest that they can make you a better horsewoman.

Let me ask a question. Do you think that, as we work with animals who are not able to talk to us to impart information, that it is important to be intuitive and discerning? To “tune in” closely to the horse and our environment? I think that these things are immensely important.

What if I told you that individuals who tend to experience fear, worry, and anxiety may have more access to intuition and discernment? May notice more small details that can inform effective and safe practice? What if I told you that if you stop fighting fear, worry, and anxiety and start listening that you may be a better partner for your horse? A more astute rider? A safer one?

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Elaine Aron, a psychotherapist, has developed a groundbreaking theory on something she calls “Highly Sensitive People.” According to this theory, approximately 15-20 percent of a species has developed to be highly sensitive to stimulation from within and around them.

This makes these individuals exceptionally perceptive of what is going on in their environment, what is being done and experienced by others, and what is being experienced themselves.

Considering these concepts further, highly sensitive individuals tend to be better at noticing details (including errors or potential dangers), exceptional at tasks that require vigilance and accuracy, and highly conscientious of their own actions and how they may affect others.

Stop for a second and read that last sentence again – what part of this would not be highly valuable as an equestrian? Especially is the “other” is your horse.

Now, pause for another second and consider that if you are noticing so much of what is happening around and within you, doesn’t it make sense that you would identify more dangers? And if you are aware of more dangers, this may well lead to fear, worry, and anxiety. Do you see how these can come as a package deal?

Okay, so before half of my readers self-diagnose as “Highly Sensitive” lets regroup. Whether you are highly sensitive or not, I think that we can all take away valuable information from Aron’s work.

It reminds us that there is an adaptive benefit from perceiving potential dangers. If there is a benefit, then perhaps we should stop waging an all-out war on the associated negative emotions (worry, fear, and anxiety).

Perhaps, if we can see these as beneficial in some ways, we can better co-exist and even learn to appreciate them at times. By becoming aware of these traits within ourselves, we may very well be able to prevent injury or harm to ourselves, others, and our horses.

According to Aron’s work, the highly sensitive individuals within a group function to maintain the overall health and well-being of the group because they can spot symptoms of disease, injury, and danger before anyone else. And once these things are noticed, they can be responded to.

The key here is to allow the details that you notice to inform your actions. When you detect things that evoke fear, worry, or anxiety, take a moment and consider some of the details that you have noticed.

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Are there aspects of what you are doing or plan to do that should be addressed? What changes may need to be put into place prior to initiating your task?

To support your understanding, let’s consider a common scenario. Let’s imagine that you are preparing for a ride on a crisp, fall day that is a little more breezy than normal. You notice a slight kink in your horse’s tail and that he seems more alert than usual. His ears are fully erect and he breaks into a jog on the way into the barn. You take notice of these factors and begin to worry that he has excessive energy today and that he may need to be lunged prior to your ride.

Now you have a choice to make. You know that other riders would “Just do it” and jump on their horse, riding out any kinks. You experience some internal pressure to skip the lunging and just get on. But there is the nagging fear…You put on your armor and begin to “fight it off.”

Here is where I suggest that you pause and consider the facts. Your horse obviously has extra energy. You need to consider your skill as a rider as well as your ability to attain a state in which you are able to function at your best. Are your skills in the saddle sufficient to keep yourself and your horse safe if he acts out this extra energy? What about your emotional state?

When we are experiencing fear our brains are not functioning at their fully capacity, limiting our access to skill. If you take 5 minutes to lunge your horse and it calms your fear, you may actually be a more confident and competent rider. This would make your 5 minute investment well worth it.

This is how you make your fears work for you. You acknowledge them and then make informed decisions rather than ignoring them or simply fighting them off. And in the end, your ability to notice details and make adjustments accordingly improves the ride for both yourself and your horse, which is something I think should be highly respected.

The idea of “making fear, worry, and anxiety work for you” leads us to the conclusion of this blog post and a bridge to the next.

Step one is to gain knowledge. Step two is to use this knowledge wisely.

In my next blog we will further consider how to use fear, worry, and anxiety adaptively, as well as how our own personal experiences shapes our Comfort Zones, why these zones are important, and how to make adjustments in order to bring your work into your zone.

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With all this being said, I want to note that there is a very serious side to fear, worry, and anxiety.

If we are overwhelmed and see danger everywhere, this becomes maladaptive. I in no way want to minimize the distress that these emotions and experiences can cause. I simply want to posit a different way of viewing them. And then I want to take this new perspective and put it to work for ourselves and our horses.

I want you to be empowered the next time that you experience these. Not only because you understand them a little better, but because they can make you a better partner for your horse.

Note: I need to pause here and clarify that within this blog post I am treating fear, worry, and anxiety as somewhat interchangeable.

There are important discrepancies between these which can be salient to tease apart as you dive further into these concepts; however, it is outside the scope of this one composition. If the concepts within this post speak to you, I encourage you to “dig deeper” – there are countless resources available!

Read the follow up post here: Getting Into Your Comfort Zone

Katie Pacheco, OTR/L, is an avid horsewoman who has always believed in the unique power of horses to change lives. She is an occupational therapist and has developed the H.E.R.S. Program which is aimed at facilitating performance, engagement, and intention for the horsewoman. To find out more about the program and to read her blogs, visit Katie is actively working to grow this program in order to reach more women. While on the website please consider sharing through social media!

Disclaimer: Katie Pacheco currently works as an occupational therapist and is not professionally involved in equestrian training or coaching at this time. The ideas presented as part of the H.E.R.S. Program are within the scope of her knowledge as an occupational therapist, as the work of an OT centers around supporting meaningful engagement in daily activities. Katie truly believes that horses are a significant source of meaning, confidence, and joy for horsewomen and she hopes to support those ideals with her program. This program is not designed as a riding instruction program, or to take the place of an equine instructor.

1 Comment

  1. Sam
    October 21, 2019 / 2:05 pm

    I really needed this article! Since becoming a new mum in February I’ve felt nervous with my own horses for the first time in years. Two are slightly unpredictable so that I could understand, but I felt nervous riding my sweet boy who’s never put a hoof wrong. Then the guilt really set in, being scared on him just didn’t make sense to me at all! I’m really hoping I can work through my issues with my other two and maybe start riding them again soon, they deserve more than I’m giving them at the moment.

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