Riding Fear Free Help for Fearful Riders and Their Teachers

Less Is More

In the journey to riding fear free, less is more. It’s a simple statement, but it’s a difficult concept to master. Because fearful riders just want to get rid of the fear (i.e., put on your big girl pants and cowboy up), you try to work past it by force. You think if you work hard enough, you will outwork your fear.

Riding Fear Free
Riding Fear Free

However, doing hard work twenty-four hours a day will not override your fear if you do not include mental and emotional work into the equation. When you begin to feel fear while doing a particular task with your horse, it’s tempting to think, “If I just get past this one problem, I can be done with all this fear.” But the job is not the problem. Emotions are the problem. When you feel the desire to push through your fear, that’s a good time to pause and take stock. Instead of forcing yourself to complete the task, try doing less!

Do you find yourself thinking like this?

“If I push past this one area, I’ll be able to enjoy the ride.”

What happens next? Usually, you just do it. You push past the fear and do the scary task despite your fear.

But here’s the thing: If you stuff your fear and force yourself to do it anyway, you are reinforcing the fear.

You pushed past the very thing that spikes your fear without addressing your emotions! Pushing to mount quickly, jump, or canter before you have prepared your emotions, you will only bury your fear deeper.

Instead of further ingraining your fear, you need to stop, take stock of your emotions, and mentally prepare before you try and do the thing that causes the fear.

Riding Fear Free

Fear Extinction and Memory Replacement

To learn more about fear extinction and memory replacement, see chapter 2 of Riding Fear Free: Help for Fearful Riders and Their Teachers.

Do Less

Doing less will help you prepare mentally to do more. Let’s use loping in a dark corner as an example. Before you attempt this task, ask yourself these questions:

  • ♦ Can you walk your horse in hand there?
  • ♦ Will the horse stand quietly at your side while you think about loping the corner?
  • ♦ Will the horse stand there as you practice mounting and dismounting in the scary corner?
  • ♦ Once mounted, can you stand quietly in that part of the arena?
  • ♦ Can you ride at the walk while controlling your horse rate of speed in that corner?
  • ♦ Can you incorporate turns, circles, squares, and figure eights at the walk in the difficult corner?

Add a Little More

You’ve gained confidence by doing less, now it’s time to add a little more.

  • ♦ Once you can do all this at the walk, add speed and energy by trotting.
  • ♦ From a slow jog to an extended trot, work that part of the arena all while imagining you are cantering.
  • ♦ Do lots of serpentines, figure eights, and other figures at the trot in the scary spot, but do not lope yet.
  • ♦ Walk and trot into the scary part and lope away from it. You may not even start the lope until halfway past the scary part.

At this stage, you may be tempted to push and canter the scary spot. But this is about rewriting your emotional triggers by loping in a short burst anywhere but the scary spot. Your emotions need time to be overwritten. You need to experience many small fear spikes while just thinking about loping as you work that corner at walk and trot.

Do More Differently

It’s time to canter the scary spot, but not the way you might think! As a final step in helping to override your fear, choose a different spot in the arena as the scary spot. Select the area in the arena where your horse gravitates to rest. Maybe it’s the brightest spot, the gate, the fence closest to the rest of the herd, or the middle of the arena. Choose the place you and your horse hang out peacefully.

Canter past this spot, but pretend it’s really the dark, scary corner.

Now celebrate! You and your horse just comfortably cantered past the scary spot! Feel the joy and pride of easily loping past it. Proclaim your excitement at easily loping past. Praise your horse and do a little jig like you had the best ride of your life.

Finally, Do the Scary Thing

But First Reassess

As you walk and trot past the scary spot, take stock of your emotions. Are you still getting fear spikes?

If you no longer feel fear, then you are ready to lope closer and closer to the scary spot. But do less! Don’t just go straight there at the canter!

  • ♦ Lope past the corner in stages at a distance, like riding a circle in the middle of the ring. As you go around the last difficult corner, imagine you are right next to the fence.
  • ♦ Keep shortening the distance to the corner and incorporate everything you have been doing so far: serpentines, circles, figure eights, and canter departs away from the scary spot.
  • ♦ Do this until the scary spot has shrunk to nonexistent and you can canter the whole arena in peace.
  • ♦ Then celebrate! Reward yourself for taking the time to do the task fear free instead of pushing through.

By slowing down doing less in the scary area and working all around it, you never force yourself to ride despite your fear. Instead, you learn to accept, process, and release the fear in proximity to the scary spot but never let it spike so high that you can’t function. Instead of ingraining the fear in your brain, you have weakened its grasp on you.

So next time you have a fear spike, ask yourself, “What if I do less instead of pushing harder to do more?”

Laura Daley

Laura has a God-given passion for horses and for helping riders in their horsemanship journeys. She grew up on a large-scale Arabian breeding ranch and has spent her entire life learning about horses. Her first horse-training experiences came as a child, but she never stopped learning. As an adult, she became a Brandi Lyons Certified trainer. Laura firmly believes in continued education and shared experiences, and she often attends clinics with highly respected trainers such as Pat Parelli, Richard Shrake, Ken McNabb, Raye Lochert, and John and Josh Lyons. In addition to her horse training experience, she is knowledgeable about natural hoof care, equine massage, and chiropractic care. She believes in and merges conditioned-response training methods with physical therapies to create a balanced, peaceful, and willing equine partner.