Anxious about riding — but ok once I am on…..what can I do?

I lack confidence in trail riding on my young arab when it`s wet, windy, and I`m anxious about riding on roads although horse improving confidence with cars and vans. Once I`m out there I`m ok and manage fine, but I seem to have a problem getting started (and my horse is the same!)

Interestingly I was talking about this today:  how we often feel fine once we are on board, so we carry on as if we are confident – but then we end up with more and more problems getting started……so what is going on here?

First of all, unconfidence is our unconscious working hard to keep us safe:  by causing us to feel anxiety or fear, it stops us doing things it considers unsafe or risky.  Now this risk can be physical risk (we don’t really have to think about avoiding the flames of an open fire, it happens automatically – unconsciously) – or it can be emotional – where it is working to stop us from feeling bad, or experiencing negative feelings.

So when we feel anxious, or unconfident – it is our unconscious saying it is not happy for us to do something right now.

What a lot of us then do is over ride this voice, get on and go for a hack anyway – once we are on, we feel ok – although I wonder if when you get off you go “phew” and breathe out – which means you have been not exactly relaxed on your ride?

The problem is, if we don’t listen to our unconscious when it whispers – then it starts to shout.  And what begins as anxiety that we can ignore, ends up with us being physically sick at the thought of tacking up – or even being ill when we see our saddle.  Or we end up being strangely distracted by other things and don’t make to the yard one day, or the next…we find we are “too busy” or have too many other things we just have to do.

Whatever happens, it stops being fun to be with our horse – and isn’t that what it is supposed to be?   Fun?

The seductive thing about this is that we remember feeling ok once we are on, so we push ourselves to get on – and trust that all will work out for the best.  It doesn’t help that sometimes our friends and fellow riders are encouraging us to do exactly this.

But, and this is important – while this may work SOME times (see an earlier post called “Why just getting on with it doesn’t work”) it usually doesn’t, and gritting your teeth and getting on with it is going to make things worse, not better.

So what are three steps you can take to change this situation?

1. Learn to be aware of your unconfidence

Earlier in this blog (the second post) I talked about how you can keep track of your confidence (  where I talk about first learning to be AWARE of your confidence – giving it a number from 0 to 10 and recognising where you are on that scale.

 2. Never do anything over a 5

The second thing is to never do anything that puts you over a 5.  If you do anything over a 5, then you will end up LOSING confidence over time, as by doing this you prove to your unconscious that you don’t hear it when it whispers and it ends up shouting at you.  Now, this doesn’t mean you will NEVER  do anything that is currently above a five – what it means is that instead of gritting your teeth and just doing it, you will sit down and ask yourself: what can I do to bring this 7 below a five?

3. Learn to change your score!
Let me give you an example.

I remember very clearly a day some time ago when, out on a hack, there was a small (18inch high)  log across the track – with no way around it.  Now, I have to admit when I saw it lying there, my score went up to a 9!  There was no WAY I was going near that.  There are all sorts of reasons for this – my horse cat leaps, I don’t have much jumping experience, my horse was green – the thing is though, that I was NOT below 5.  Now, as I looked more closely, my initial score went from 9 to 6.  Not a panic – but I was definitely not happy about jumping this.

So I said to my unconscious – ok, jumping this is a 6 – therefore I am NOT going to jump it.

As soon as I said this, I felt my stomach calm, and the tightness that had been up in my chest, settled and lowered down into my belly area.  That felt better.  Now my unconscious knew I was not going to put myself at risk, it allowed the feelings to settle down enough that I could think.

The next thing I did was ask myself – so what COULD I do that would give me a score of 5 or under?

Now, I have taught my horse to walk over poles.  And small jumps.  So I was pretty sure if I just walked her slowly up to this log, she would step over it rather than try and jump.  She is also a horse who likes to conserve energy, which helped me believe this.

I asked myself – what score do I have when I picture myself walking up to that log and stepping over it?

I listened for the answer:  it came back as a 3.

So that is what we did.

So in your example – if you feel at a 7 about going to see your horse – what will bring that down to a 5?  Maybe you say to yourself – -well, I will go to the yard and just spend ten minutes grooming him – and IF I feel below a 5 then I will tack him up…..

You will find that doing that, enables your unconscious to realise you CAN be trusted to stay safe, and it will allow you to go there for the ten minutes.

As you groom, you can say – yes, I am below a 5 about tacking up – but my heart races when I think about getting on – so I will tack up and just lead him around for a few minutes and won’t get on until I am below a 5…

If it’s windy, and you are at a 7 – then do some groundwork with your horse until you realise that HE isn’t bothered by the wind – which will help you come down below a 5…..

Every time you make that promise to yourself – that you won’t do something unless you are below a 5, your unconscious will ALLOW you to do more…you are proving yourself trustworthy!

The hard part here is coming up with ways to bring things below a 5 – being able to work online, long rein – to be able to hop on and off your horse as you go on a hack – can all help give more options – and when you have more options, you have more choices – which gives you more control.

At the moment, you are dealing with an “all or nothing” scenario: it’s either “get on and get on with it” or do not ride – and that binary choice gives you no control and so saps your confidence…..

I hope this post gives you some ideas – of course there is a LOT more we can talk about, so feel free to ask any follow-up questions – but for now, this should give you some things to start off with!

Yours, in confidence



2 thoughts on “Anxious about riding — but ok once I am on…..what can I do?

  1. Thanks for your constant blogs and thoughtful and caring words on confidence. 🙂
    I had not realised that I was suffering from the “all or nothing” scenario. Even things that I had conquered with my horse have become fearful again because I now realise I was using the progress that I had made to convince myself that now I could just “get on and get on with it” in the future. This led to steps backwards and less confidence overall!
    I shall endeavor to try and assess my confidence level as I go along in future, as more of an organic process. Its not just horses that have thresholds that must be respected to gain trust, its my trust in myself too!

    • thanks for your lovely words Jess! and this is great that you have recognised a way you can move forwards in your confidence — let us know how it goes!


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