“You should never ride a horse again”

It was a death sentence handed down to me by doctors when I was 19 years old.  Two months before I was seriously injured in a bad car accident.  I was a passenger in a truck that missed a stop sign on a highway.  We were hit on the passenger side.  My right elbow was shattered so bad the doctor told my family that he could only clean it up and hope for the best.  There was no fixing what was destroyed beyond repair.  The larger concern was the traumatic head injury I had and what kind of brain damage I would be dealing with.  Because of these injuries, doctors felt it would be unsafe for me to pursue what I passionately loved.

I was born loving horses.  As a young girl, I watched every western movie I could find.  If I was in a car and saw a horse, my face was glued to the window. It was a hopeless dream because my father thought horses were hay burners.  I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin where horses had no place.  My parents finally allowed me to buy a horse after I trained my cow, “Bambi” to ride.  I could ride Bambi anywhere including down the road.  I once rode her through the county fair on a dare from some friends.  Bambi and I calmly walked through that Saturday evening crowd.  I was 14 when I bought my first horse, so the accident 5 years later was completely devastating.

I quickly decided after that meeting with the doctors that I was not going to live my life in the “What ifs?”  My family and the doctors were concerned.  What if I fell from a horse or what if I was hit in the head by one bumping into me?  I asked “What if I tripped and fell walking down the sidewalk or had another car accident?”  Ignoring the doctor’s orders did not mean I had not heard them.  Getting back on a horse to me meant going against the expert’s opinion.  This inspired a deep fear in me.  I was sure I was going to get hurt.  My balance was unsteady and my coordination was severely compromised.  Although the severe damage to my right side was limited to my elbow, the rest of my body felt stiff and tight.  My headaches were like minor explosions going off at any time of day.  What if the doctors were right?  Was I going to die if I tried to ride again?

Fear does exactly that, provoke thoughts of the worst situation you could think of and horrible outcomes.  Fear serves a purpose in preventing you from risking too much but it can hold you down in risking too little.  Fear is a natural response by our bodies and minds.  Taking a look at fear from a different angle, we can make the choice to react to what IS happening not what could happen.

What I have discovered about fear is this, fear happens when we feel unable to take care of ourselves in the situation.  The second we feel out of control, the thoughts spiral to “What If?”  Sometimes, it is just a momentary thing and then we focus back.  But, if we are out of our comfort zone and out of control, fear is like being on a runaway horse.  Everything is moving so quickly.  It seems like you can’t think.  The horse won’t stop.  It won’t turn.  You are gaining speed.  You are falling.   Oh, God, there is a fence!  In seconds, it is over and you are just thankful you survived this time.  That is fear.  Every time you survive a case of serious fear, you feel thankful you’re alive but you did nothing to overcome it.  You survived. That is it.  The same fear will be there again and again until you take some actions towards confronting it.

Fear is a very personal thing.  What scares one may not scare others.  Another observation I have made is that people have very little skill at handling their fears.  For many, we were not taught in any way to talk about or work thru our fears.  Sometimes, we won’t acknowledge that a fear is even there.  We act as if it is all okay until something goes very wrong.  Suddenly, fear is staring at you right in and the face and you feel powerless to do anything about it.

Gaining confidence and trust in yourself so when things go wrong you can handle it is one way to overcome fear. That sounds simple so it should be easy.  Actually, it is simple but hardly easy.  It does require time and the commitment to follow through.  I have outlined a few other tips to help you start working on your fear issue.


Be kind to yourself

         When I first started riding after my car accident, I went back and forth between denying there was any fear and being thankful I survived another ride.  I was an accident waiting to happen.  It finally did one winter afternoon almost one year later.  It was school break and I was bored so I decided to go for a ride on my Arab/Welsh pony gelding.  Like many people, I was going to be brave in the face of my fear. Because my right arm was bandaged from my hand to above my elbow from a reconstructive surgery the week before, I planned to go for a nice walk around the farm.  Natural Horsemanship techniques were the new hot training idea at the time so this walk would be a great time to just use a halter.  All was fine until we got to the back of the property, then my pony ran off for home.  I had his nose to my left foot but he was gaining speed.  I had never practiced a one-rein stop.  I was only picking up bits and pieces of this training method and that wasn’t one I really understood.  Finally, he went left and I went flying right.  To protect my elbow, I slammed my right shoulder into the frozen ground.  I was 40 acres from the house with no pony, a separated shoulder, and the thought “my mother is going to kill me for this one.” 

                It quickly became apparent to me.  I needed help.  Ignoring or denying my feelings were going to get my injured or even killed.  I had to stop bullying myself to overcome this fear.  Kindness is listening to your heart.


Be realistic about your abilities

         So many times, I encounter people who are putting themselves at risk because they think they can handle whatever the horse gives them.  I gained a huge amount of respect for a friend I was riding with on a trail ride recently.  The borrowed horse he was on was barn sour so when we turned for home the horse started bucking.  At first it was just little minor fits and my friend said he was fine to keep going.  As we continued, the horse got worse and stronger in his bucking.  My friend is not a trainer just a guy who wants to go out and enjoy his day.  This was getting to be no fun.  Suddenly, the horse bucked hard then launched forward with my friend coming way up high and forward.  I yelled for him to get his eyes up which brought him back into the saddle so he could stop the horse.  Then I asked if he wanted to get off and he was not afraid to say “Yes.”  Luckily, another horse was being ponied along so we could switch out.  My friend was being very realistic about his abilities.  He is not in this to make a horse do something it didn’t want to do.  Maybe he could ride it out but then again what about that one moment he can’t follow the motion?  Accept that you have nothing to prove even to yourself.


Find the appropriate horse

         When you are working on overcoming a fear, do just that, work on YOU.  This is not the time to work on training the horse or to think that you will learn together.  It was hard to admit my pony was too much for me at the time because I loved him.  He was the wrong mount for me to relearn my balance and relax though because he was clever and fast.  Switching to a different horse that can help you obtain your goals makes the time it takes to gain confidence and trust in yourself shorter.  If you have to work with what you have, work safe and smart.  Remember this is about you, so having to train the horse to be a willing partner gives you less time to concentrate on learning to relax which is important to becoming a confident, effective rider.  As you become confident and effective, you can enjoy more challenging horses.


As long as I ride, that big “What if” will be there but I have learned through the years how to lower the volume.  Overcoming the fear is not about making it disappear.  It is acknowledging fear is there and then choosing to do the action anyway.  You are choosing with the knowledge that you can handle whatever happens in a calm relaxed safe manner.


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