Coming to Terms with Fear: the six stages we have to go through before we can move on

Coming to Terms with Fear:  the six stages we have to go through before we can move on

I see a lot of people with fear.  I see tense riders, forceful riders.  Riders whose hands are tight on the reins – -or whose reins are tight.  I see riders who cannot breathe while on their horse – and I see horses tense and armoured against the abrupt, grasping movements of their frightened rider.

I see very few people riding without fear.   I see very few calm, relaxed people who step onto their horse as they would onto a friend, and who can sit with a loose rein and rub their horse as they greet their partner.

Fear is the enemy of riding.  It is particularly the enemy of the ART of riding.  It produces tense, tight people who make tense, tight movements – and who cannot help but use force as that is the only logical outcome of fear.

Fear leads to armouring, not being able to “hear” or “listen” to an instructor – let alone the horse; fear leads to bracing that feels unnatural to the horse, causing the horse to brace and worry too – and so become unable to do what we are asking – which means we feel out of control and that just increases the fear.   Fear makes our muscles tight and even when we TRY to move softly and lightly, the tightness from the fear means our movements are bigger, jerkier and cruder than we can imagine.  And the biggest thing about fear?  With fear, we cannot FEEL – without feel we cannot CONNECT – and that means that there can’t be any harmony with our horse.

So – we need to let go of fear.  Easier said than done!

Of course – we need to recognise that fear is our unconscious letting us know it doesn’t think we are safe, so fear is most often our natural intelligence telling us something – and to just simply REMOVE the fear would be dangerous – so let’s talk of ACCEPTING the fear to the extent we can WORK with it, and work with our reality, rather than stay in our armoured world where it is impossible to ride well.

How can we do that?  As you know from my previous blogs there are lots of things involved in fear:  knowledge, understanding, trusting ourselves, investing in ourselves, self awareness – MANY things

I am going to give you one word that relates to removing fear from our horsemanship:


When we know we are balanced, physically, emotionally and mentally – the fear resolves.  When we know our HORSE is balanced, physically, emotionally and mentally – then even unconfidence can fade away.

But again, knowing we need to be balanced, and being able to get there are two different things.

For most of us, fear is such a natural, normal integral part of who we are – that it is actually very difficult to let go of it.  To some extent it defines us and if we give it up – what do we have left?

And realising we HAVE fear and letting it go – is like losing a part of ourselves.

Or for some of us our image of ourselves has NO fear, so to accept that we are actually frightened is too much for us – and so we don’t go there.

Then something happens to bring it in to focus:  a fall, a scare, a moment when we realise how close we were to NOT being safe – or just our age changes things…

What I have seen is that when we realise we are frightened, we go through the six stages of letting go – just as happens in so many important areas of our lives.

Let me go through these stages, and you tell me which ones you recognise – in yourself or friends – and how realising this can help you in your plans for moving forwards.

For many of us it is an absolute SHOCK when we realise we are frightened.    And when we recognise that feeling inside us as fear, we are often confused, frustrated and even disoriented.
Often we have to go away from our horse, and hide out somewhere safe and secure we feel so disturbed by this realisation.   This shock can be quite a deep one and threaten our very identity – so this can be a very uncomfortable and scary time.

The next stage is to pretend it isn’t happening.  I come across a lot of people who are in this stage.  People who say : “I had a fall, I had a fright  — but I’m fine now”;  “yes, my legs wobble and I cry a bit – but I’m fine really”,  “I always have butterflies but my instructor tells me to get over it and once I am on I am ok”; “this isn’t happening to me, I ‘m not afraid!”.  Sometimes I can see they are telling the truth – but other times the tightness and tension in their body gives them away – they are most certainly NOT fine.
The risk of getting stuck in this stage is that your HORSE most definitely knows you are not ok – and this is often where the spirals begin – your nerves feed your horses nerves which feed your nerves – until you are in a very bad place. Often this bad place is what finally spins you out of denial.

How to get out of denial?  Well you often can’t do this by yourself – and for most people it’s their HORSE who sends them out by saying “sort yourself out!” – most of the people I work with come to me because things with their horse are going wrong.

The first step out of denial usually involves anger: anger at yourself for being so weak and ineffective, for being out of control of your horse and of yourself.  Your inability to STOP feeling frightened irritates, annoys and finally angers you.  Some people stop at this stage – and stay angry at themselves, using that anger to motivate themselves to keep going.  In this stage I see people with gritted teeth, short sharp breathing – and staccato movements and voices.   The anger comes out in big clumsy movements of the ropes and reins, and this is where pulling is at its worst.  Sometimes the anger internalises, and you become endlessly self critical.  Almost always, the horse responds to this stage by becoming defensive, putting effort into avoiding you and your movements – -and can be seen as aggressive when he protects himself from your emotions.  The good thing about the anger – it can make you sit up and NOTICE there is a real issue here, which can lead to ACTION

The most common action we take is Bargaining. “I’ll just do ten minutes, and I’ll be safe”;  “I’ll just go and walk around the block, then nothing bad will happen”;   WE bargain with ourselves.  We also bargain with our horses: “I won’t ask you to do canter, if you stay safe and reliable at trot”.  Most of our horse bargaining happens at a subconscious level, but when I talk to people about this stage they often laugh and share the bargains they now realise they were making in their horsemanship and riding.  “If I never ask you anything you don’t want to do, you will keep me safe” is an impolicit bargain a lot of us have in this stage.  The great thing about this stage is that we feel back in control again:  by making the bargain, we feel we have managed our fear, and it will let us get on with our lives.  In fact what we have done is created for ourselves a tiny comfort zone where we will stay stuck forever creating new bargains unless something else happens.

Ask yourself – what bargains have YOU made with your horse?

Luckily though, this stage almost inevitably leads to the next one – as the bargains we make end up being broken…
Our horse DOES buck in trot, our horse DOES nap even when we take a safe route – and so on.  When this happens, the next stage is

Depression usually comes out of a failure to meet your own expectations – eg when bargains are not fulfilled.  When the horse lets us down by returning to the behaviour that scared us (not surprising really since the horse had no idea he had signed up to the bargain in the first place!)  — then our expectations have not been met and we feel let down, sometimes even betrayed by our horse and our horsemanship.  Sometimes,  when our horse DOES by accident live up to their side of the bargain – we realise that this hasn’t really fixed anything, we are still scared and now we are “stuck” with the bargain and can’t move on – well that leads to depression too.
A challenge with depression is that it is a mental state that is associated with Inaction – -so it is quite hard to get out of by yourself.  This is where having friends and other people who can support you is key to moving on to the next stage.  Otherwise you may end up staying in the land of Kisses and Kittens (see the earlier blog of that name for more on that!)
When we are depressed we don’t feel like doing anything – what is the point?  Why bother?  Maybe I should find him a better home – he’s wasted with me – and this is where people often get out of horses altogether.

And yet it IS just a stage in the process, and if we have the support network to get through this stage, then the chances are we can move on to the last stage:

Nothing really changes – we still have the fear, we still are scared of things we want to do – and yet everything has changed – because now we ACCEPT we are afraid – unconfident, worried – and the fear is REAL and affecting us.   And now we accept it – we can decide to do something about it.

This is the stage when people look around and ask for help – -from friends, colleagues, yard owners – confidence coaches (LOL) – and are ready to move on.

Only once you are at this stage can you accurately analyse your fear and decide whether it is rational (ie it IS keeping you safe)  or irrational (you ARE safe but need to persuade your unconscious to believe you) – and make a plan to move forwards.


For yourself, knowing these stages are a natural part of the process will allow you to relax and go through them: maybe you will recognise where you are in the journey – -and yes, a good coach can help move you along a bit faster.  There is no fixed timeline on this path – some people move through all the stages in a single conversation – -others take longer – it depends on many things.  However, knowing the stages in the journey can stop you from panicking when you find yourself feeling angry or depressed – and you can say “ah, I’m at THAT stage now”

By not fighting the process, but understanding it – you can manage it better and give yourself permission to experience it in order to get to Acceptance as soon as possible and start moving forwards

You will also know when you are “stuck” – which increases the chances of being able to ask for help.

Another way this matters is when you are helping other people.  These stages are necessary.  If we skip a stage, we end up looping back to it – so if you notice a friend who is frightened or unconfident – and you understand this process, instead of chivvying them along, or telling them to get help – work out where they are and be with them in THAT stage.  Connect with them in that moment, and help them where they actually are – if you can do that, then their journey will be shorter and sweeter and they will be able to move on much sooner than if they are rushed along, or if your support doesn’t match where they are in the process.

If you have ever wondered why someone doesn’t follow your very sensible advice – well take a look and see where they are in this process – that might explain it!

For ourselves and our friends – giving permission to be where we are in coming to terms with our fear is important to us not getting stuck and reaching the acceptance stage where, finally, we can ask for – and hear – the help and support that is all around us

And when we ask for help — we can start working on that elusive BALANCE — physical, emotional and mental — but that’s another blog!

Yours, in Confidence




15 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with Fear: the six stages we have to go through before we can move on

  1. I am finally at the acceptance stage and working on the balance, a great group of friends and instructors are helping me along the way. Thank you Cathy for making me realise this is such a common problem. My fear is irrational I know and it is early days but my instructors are supporting me and all say “take the time it takes” – even the non Parelli ones!

  2. Thank you for the well written post. I had 2 very serous falls within 6 months of each other and my confidence was shattered. 8 months later I am finally at the acceptance stage, and can ride with more confidence. I think it is also important to note that if one injures themselves badly (like I did twice) fear is also a protective entity..protecting your body..which in turn causes stiffness and dread. Balance is the key, and also realizing it is your problem, not the horse. Thank you!

  3. Just at the right time just as I prepare to ride again after a long break thru illness, so all the uncertainty looms. Thanks!

      • I think you are a God sent Angel Cathy!!!! Never came across somebody that “sums up” a situation so 100% like you. After reading this article I am busy realizing that my bad fall had a much greater impact on me mentally than I thought. It is soooooo wonderful to have a website where you can share your fear of riding (and the progress you making) experiences, cause like a friend of mine told me, people don’t realize it is not just a case from getting back on the horse, the fear is still there and that takes a while to let go. Am busy having riding lessons, did the canter, I lost my balance and hit the ground very hard (the other riders told me my head was VERY near to the ring pole, but thank goodness, I have no recolection of that and I don’t want my brain to remember every detail……), and now it is a torn gluteal muscle later, the bruising took a month to heal. Any case, at the next riding course the other riders were doing the canter while I looked on, and you cannot believe the extreme fear that took hold of me watching them do that!!!!! The 1st week I was put on an other horse and I (think) it went quite well. The next week I was put back on the horse I fell from. In the stable and when catching him in the field I absolutely had no fear of him (still love giving him way to much horse cuddles!), but my 1st time on him I was quite terrified, as you can imagine, I was more than just tense. But, the days after that I started to feel a bit more comfy on him, and it felted sooooo good riding him and some people even told me that I am handling him much beter. And to me, being on him again was a uge accomplishment to me. And unfortunally I cannot do anything about the fear of the canter, cause my injurie to my butt does not allow it and I must admit, it frustrates me, cause I NEED to overcome this fear, cause it is holding me back. Sometimes I feel like I am in control, then other times it feels like I wanna fall apart…….is it just me, or are there some people who fall of a horse and just get back on with no fear at all and then some people who needs time to get over the fear?

        Once again, thank you very much for your articles, I know it will help me understand my fear and doing something about it.

        Keep up the good work.

        Belinda Viljoen (South Africa)

  4. This is an amazing article. It’s helped me understand me and the way other riders are acting…….Thanks a lot……………

    • Hi Bob — glad you enjoyed it — and yes, it helps me understand other riders better – -if I can see where they are in this process, I can think of better ways to help them, which makes a huge difference


  5. Hi Cathy, I am enjoying your blogs, so greetings from New Zealand! One I found particularly interesting was your “six stages” theory. Now, I am writing a little manual for local horse owners, mostly to do with horse care, but it will have a chapter on basic horsemanship, and I have just created a chapter on confidence. Would you mind if I listed your six stages in it, and of course credited it to you? The manual will probably only have a print run of 150 so nothing major. Let me know if you’re OK with it, and all the best! Regards, Rita Virtama

    • Hi Rita – go ahead and use them — the 6 stages are common in many psychological things so they are not mine — all I have done is taken them and applied them to fear — so share away — if you put a mention of the blog in that would be much appreciated — sounds like a great book to be working on x

  6. Thanks – it was great to read your very relevant article and realize that it no longer makes me sad when reading about this subject. Which shows how far I have come this last year. Have been afraid for so long while riding, know all the stages very well and know exactly what you are talking about. Was working on the fear for a long time, but only got really into it when my horse got sick. I am pretty sure that his illness was related to my fear. Now we are in a much better place, where he is allowed to be a horse and no longer needs to be so careful, which he was before. Now he can act up or get frightened without me getting all scared. It is a great feeling, and I enjoy it so much. Hope that everybody else out their with this fear will find a way to lose it like I did. I will never be a great rider, and some situations will continue to be difficult for me, but what I am living now is worlds away from before. If you can´t believe that your fear will ever leave: see my example and believe in yourself: if I could learn to deal with this, then you can, too. But man, it was not easy 😉 The worthwhile things never are.

  7. O wow, i needed to read this SO much. Had a great fall almost 2 months ago, broke my coccys (tailbone),now I’m scared to death to ride this particullar horse again and making up any excuse not to, even tough it wasn’t his fault at all. Thanks a million.

  8. Hi,
    This is a great article. I am a 4 H Leader for 35 years. I teach horsemanship lessons. I have one student that I am currently working with but I can’t seem to get to stage 2 with her. She is also Bi Polar . I am one of the most patience person around people tell me, but I have hit a snag. I need help !! =) Also is there any way some of these articles are on a site I can copy and be able to reread them….. or put on a flash drive and copy ? Thank You !

    • Hi there Jo — sometimes I find the only way is for people to get the understanding themselves — maybe leaving this article for her to read might help? As for downloading — we are working on making that possible from the site but in the meantime there is a “best of the blog” book available on the kindle — not sure if that has the entries you are particularly interesting in!


  9. Pingback: How can you be more confident around horses? - Page 4

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