We’ve all experienced the chest-squeezing, butterflies-in-your-belly, dry-mouthed moments of anxiety with our horses. Whether it’s before a performance, or if your horse is injured, when your horse moves one way and you go the other, or when there’s a new obstacle on the path.
But what happens when anxiety becomes more than just an occasional occurrence? What do you do when anxiety begins to affect you and your riding, or your horse and his performance? What if anxiety is hurting your bond and your partnership with your horse?
Anxiety is not just something that you must push through, push down, or live with. It is something that can be conquered. You can rise above it. Here are 5 tips to conquer your anxiety.
#1. Safety first
If you are anxious about your physical safety, get off, back away, or do whatever you must to feel safe. It’s as simple as that. Whatever bad habits some say your horse develops as a result of you getting off or backing away can be dealt with once you’re safe and calm. You’ll do more harm than good trying to prove something to your horse by staying on despite your anxiety about your physical safety. Your horse needs a calm leader. Calm yourself first, lead your horse second.
#2. Check your emotions
Be very intentional about your emotions. Be aware that your horse, and your ride don’t make you feel anxious. They don’t reach inside you and make you feel anything. You are ultimately responsible for your emotions. Even the perfect ride on the perfect horse cannot make you feel less anxious; it’s something you must do.
Ask yourself, how do I want to feel when I’m riding?
Do you want to feel calm, composed, confident, at ease, joyful?
Practice that. Work it out like a muscle. Be intentional and practice in each moment feeling how you want to feel. Go to your heart and feel how calm and joyful it is.
Practice feeling calm and composed as often as you can:
- throughout the day, in the shower, with your morning coffee, in the car
- before your ride
- during your ride when things are good
- during your ride when things are tough
- after your ride
While it is important that you practice this feeling as frequently as you can, the most critical time is before you interact with your horse. Set aside five minutes to sit quietly, focusing on your heart, and practicing feeling calm and composed. Then bring that emotion out to your horse. (You can find a free resource to guide you through this preparation process at https://www.elainesanders.com/startwithheart)
#3. Take care of your emotions
It is damaging to push a horse through his fear, to force him to do things he’s uncomfortable with. The same is true for you. Just as you take care of your horse’s emotions, take care of yours too. Ask yourself, what am I comfortable doing with my horse today?
Are you comfortable hanging out, grooming, leading, tacking up? Are you comfortable getting on, riding out, or arena work? Are you comfortable walking, trotting, cantering, or something more intense?
For now, stay in your comfort zone. Do only the things with your horse that you’re comfortable with.
Avoid the temptation to consider the day a failure if you did not go for a ride.
The day is a success if you stayed calm and composed. Be patient with yourself, as you would with your horse.
After a week of doing what you’re comfortable doing, your comfort zone will begin to grow; you’ll start to do a couple new things that you’re now comfortable with. In a month, you’ll be doing things you only dreamed of – all while feeling confident and at ease.
#4. Do something that helps to build your horse’s confidence
Your horse’s confidence in you is only as great as your confidence in yourself.
Do some confidence-building activities with your horse. The purpose of these activities is to boost your confidence in yourself. As a result, your horse will naturally be more confident in you.
While you perform these activities with your horse, be mindful of staying in your comfort zone and your horse’s comfort zone. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
- praise your horse for all the little things that you normally take for granted
- go for a walk together
- tack and untack, without going for a ride
- walk from one grassy patch to the next
- introduce new obstacles, such as pool noodles, tarps, flags, and balls
These activities aren’t like other training sessions with your horse. There’s no attachments, no should’s and shouldn’ts, rights and wrongs; just you and your horse being aware of each other. The only goal of these activities is to feel calm together. The moment one of you isn’t feeling calm, don’t forge ahead; back up.
Again, avoid the temptation to believe that these activities aren’t getting you anywhere. On the contrary, they are building your partnership more than you can imagine.
#5. Lighten up
Do you remember when you were a little girl and all you wanted was a horse? Do you remember when you first got a horse and you loved every minute? You took things in stride, you rolled with it, you laughed, you made light of things, and you didn’t take yourself so seriously.
Laugh at yourself a little.
Laugh at your horse a little.
It’s all good. It’s not a race. It’s life. Have fun.
Forging ahead despite anxiety is a recipe for more anxiety, disconnection from your horse, and possible injury. Anxiety is a serious thing that you have to work yourself through, just as you would a horse. Your anxiety won’t go away by pushing it down or by pushing through. It’s there, but it’s ok. You can conquer it. It may take time, but it’s time well spent if you come out the other side truly confident and joyful.
Elaine Sanders is an Equine Partnership Coach, Stress Consultant, and born horse enthusiast. She has a degree in Nursing, a certification in Equine Partnered Psychotherapy and Coaching, and is a certified HeartMath Coach. She is passionate about creating true partnership with her horses and she knows that the harmony she wants with her horses first starts inside herself. She teaches others how to be calm, composed, and confident so that they can not only be successful with their horses, but also so that they can have meaningful relationships with their equine friends. Elaine is a compassionate and honest coach who combines sound science with horse sense to help you have the partnership of your dreams. Elaine lives with the people she loves on a farm in rural Manitoba with her bird, cat, dog, and four horses. Find her on Facebook, email, or at her website.