Fear by zanhar

When we are young, we are seldom afraid.  I don’t mean the fear of the unknown – the first day of school type of thing that we overcome as we grow in experience and confidence.  I mean that clenching knot in the solar plexus that can’t be reasoned away, because it is fear of the known, of the experience that is proven BAD.  The natural sense of self-preservation that has exploded beyond our attempts at control it can snatch away what has been the joy of our lives – riding.

I was a city girl, but by the time I was 10 I found my way to horses, hung out at a stable, cadged rides with friends, and finally, when I was 16, managed to save the money to buy my own horse and board it.  I had no fear – like most kids I did no end of crazy, wonderful things with my horse and my friends – the bumps, the bruises, and the broken bones never mattered.

1964 – Galloping down the beach…

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…and nursing a broken arm.

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Horses left my life for 15 years while I married, raised kids and established my career but in my 30s I returned to them.  I reveled in the sport I had loved so long, still bold enough to know no fear packing through the mountains, racing down the beach (although now I was smart enough to wear a helmet!), taking up jumping for the first time.

1994 – A 10-day camping trip    

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In the years that followed I noticed a strange thing – many of my riding buddies – all women – started to lose confidence.  They stopped riding as much, eschewed more challenging trails and several sold or retired their horses completely.  When I turned 50, I began to understand – for no reason I could fathom, my confidence started to wane – the old hormones were having their say.  I was not prepared to give in to them and went on riding, eventually we came through that – with a new personal understanding and an undiminished love of the thrills of jumping.  I had suppressed the fear until it went away.

One fateful day, however, it all changed – at a local show I took a fall I could not recover from with guts – I broke my back.  I was off riding for six months and could not stand, sit or walk for more than five minutes at a time.  The pain was indescribable. The surgery was a miracle.  As soon as I got the ‘all clear’ I was back on my horse – but everything had changed.

Just riding into the ring clenched my gut with fear.  I had no core muscles left and wobbled like a new-born.  Since I had just turned 60, the task of rebuilding muscle has been a long, slow battle (going on seven years) but far worse has been the battle against fear.  For a long time I didn’t admit it – I held it inside and tried to deal with it the way I had my previous drop in confidence – I suppressed it.  The first show I went to I had a meltdown in the warm-up ring and my secret was out.  Since then I have attended seminars on fear and one-on-one counseling with a sports psychologist and I have an excellent, understanding coach but the battle still is not won.  I ride comfortably into the ring now – even into the show ring which once sent me into a panic attack.  I have no fear on the trails and even take tumbles in my lessons when I flub stuff and it’s no problem.  But when I face a fence, even an 18” panel I will often white-out freeze.  It happens without warning, sometimes after I have just happily jumped two or three identical fences.  That has ended my competing, even curtailed what I can do in lessons

I still love to ride, and have taken up dressage to challenge myself a different way – but I haven’t given up on jumping.  It was so much fun I’m not willing to let it go.  One day I will beat that last bugaboo.

So what is my point here?  In my heart I know a lot about horses – but in my gut I know about fear and here is what I know: 

  • Fear is a state of mind – but your mind is a powerful thing – don’t discount it.
  • You can hide it – you can suppress it – but that will never cure it.  One day it will explode.
  • You have to bring fear out into the light of day and take it apart and then deal with it one piece at a time
  • Don’t dwell on the incident that caused you pain – stop imagining scenarios where you could be hurt – your mantra should be ‘I am going to be fine’.
  • You are not the only one.  Many people deal with fear – some better than others.  The more years we ride, the greater the chance something has   happened to shake our confidence and the older we are the more we understand the consequences of a wreck.

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34 thoughts on “Fear by zanhar

  1. Wow. How many of us could’ve written the same story with only adjustments for dates and thankfully elminated the broken back? Fear is a destroyer, an instinct of survival that can take the life right out of us. My BFF suffered a severe, life changing kick to the face. She literally lost almost 3 months of her life not knowing who she or her family was. She knew me early on, maybe because I held her hand waiting for the helicopter to whisk her to the hospital. Or that I regularly spoke to her while she was in a coma. She survived, she had a severe brain injury and a severely broken face. She kept her horse (not the offender) and smiled ear to ear her first visit to the barn, 4 months after the kick. She rides several times a week and still has a big smile and rogue determination despite a permanent disability. She is my inspiration.

    I, on the other hand squirm like a wussy-cat when it comes to jumping. I was conquering this fear, or so I thought, last year. All it took was one unexpected leap of my horse over a river embankment when I expected a walk-through, into deep, wet, slimy mud sending with me landing next to her. Horse was thrashing, I kicked free. Basically no harm, no foul. Neither of us hurt, pride bruised. But wait,….that 2′ cross-rail is looking pretty big, um, stride is wrong, going to take off long, um, reins tighten a notch, clench teeth, stare at jump, stiffen up, throw reins away, almost fly off the back. Square one once again. Fear can be evil….and it isn’t REAL! It’s a PERCEIVED threat! Sigh. I ride on, dust off, move past and ignore. If fear consumes me, riding is done. That is not acceptable and I will fight it to the death.

    • You got it ,blondemare. Some years ago when I was fighting tears of frustration in a quiet corner, a friend said “Just quit doing it. You don’t have to jump – the only one who cares is you.” Exactly. And I care passionately.

  2. I know exactly what you mean – I very badly broke both ankles coming off a tb when he bolted with me in the school (miscommunication, my fault as much as the horse’s). It has taken me a good few years to be confident enough to canter and I’m still not as confident in a school as I am out hacking and still have issues with feeling out of control but the more I ride the better I get 🙂

  3. zanhar, you broke your back for cryin out loud. I think that anyone going through such a traumatic incident would have fear – a car accident, etc. would put anyone in a tremendous amount of fear. I commend you for not giving it to it, since you love jumping so much, but you have had a very natural reaction to your accident.

    As for kids being unafraid, some kids don’t survive accidents. It’s sheer luck I didn’t die as a kid in a horrendous accident (on a horse I should never have been allowed to get near).

    As seasoned citizen myself, I have had to ask myself, what is my goal with horses? For me personally, it is to ride on the day I drop dead. When my old guy goes to that big pasture in the sky, I will be looking for quietest and probably smallest horse that will suit me.

    So good luck with your jumping, but if you were to ask my advice, if you feel fear, don’t go over that jump.

  4. Thank you for submitting this writing.
    I am grateful for my clydie x for a reliable ride 🙂
    I love the last picture, because it reminds me of my pony, you have to feel hard to find the hip bone, so that I can measure my loin to back length…;)

  5. I’m young, I’m only 19, so I can’t say I feel those fears as badly. Mine revolve more around my dear old horse getting hurt. I applaud you for working through your fears and having the courage (and let’s face it, stubbornness 😉 ) to not give up on the thing you love just because it’s scary. You’re a very tough woman, zanhar! Bravo!

    Not long ago, I got one of the calls every horse owner dreads. The “your horse is injured call”. She’d gotten a puncture wound in her shoulder. Her legal owner (she owns her on paper, but according to her and everyone else, Savannah is mine) says she thinks it was when she got loose in the forest and twig must have gotten her. She was limping badly. She couldn’t lower her head to eat or drink. I got scared. They say she’ll be alright, but I still worry. She’s old, she’s 23/24. She’s stubborn and tough, but I have to remember she is old. I went out to see her a couple days after the call and I sincerely hoped it wasn’t as bad as they’d made it sound.

    She could put her head down now, but that was where it stayed. I walked up to the arena and was heart broken. My proud, spunky, tough mare look so utterly defeated and miserable. I reached the gate and the sound of the gate lock rattling caught her attention. She turned and when she saw me her face lit up. She limped quickly over to the gate, nickering to me the entire time and coming to stop only when she’d mushed her head against my chest and sighed, relaxing as I wrapped my arms around her head and held her. This is not an affectionate mare. She is the kind of horse that every nicker must be cherished, and you have to appreciate the little things. This gesture of coming up to me and falling asleep in my arms was huge. When I let her go to go make sure she still had some water in her bucket, she was never more than two feet away from me. She wasn’t herself, though. She wasn’t spunky and chipper, she was just following me and snuggling me at every chance I gave her. Seeing her in pain like that really woke me up, too.

    Savannah was always this indestructible force in my life. I would always have her with me. She would always be there and she would never break down. Then to see her like this. My image of her completely changed. She was suddenly a frail creature that I needed to protect.

    She’s completely healed and back to working now, but I still get a knot in my stomach driving up to the property she’s on. I get that fear that I’m going to go out to the arena and see her looking so sad and defeated again, or she’s going to be down and injured or struggling. Small things I get worried over because I worry it could turn into something big. Bald spot on her butt from Willie biting her? Examine for a while until you’re absolutely sure she’s not injured. Small cut that’s not even bleeding on her leg? Wash it off then worry about it like crazy because what if it gets infected and she dies? I have to keep reminding myself that she’s always getting little nicks on her legs because she’s on 24/7 turn out and fields have little rocks and twigs that she could nick herself on when laying down and getting up. She’s always getting bald spots on her butt because Willie always picks on her. She always gets minor allergies during the winter/spring transition. She’s ALWAYS been fine. The more I see her being her normal self, the better my anxiety gets, but it will always be there and I will always have that horrid image of her in my head.

    • It’s very sad that we do outlive our dog, cat, horse pets. Savannah is older than you. When you loose her, you will grieve. I still miss my old friends that have passed on. It’s part of life’s lessons. When you get that knot in your stomach, picture her at her best. That is what she wants you to do. I am not pretending that a horse has human emotions, I am saying that if she were human, that is what she would want you to do.

      • I do exactly that and it definitely helps. I have an image of her from a couple summers ago when we let her out just after bathing her. She was down in lower field on bright green grass with a tall pine forest around her, little flowers dotting the field. The sun was beginning to set so the sky was filled with vibrant colors and everything had a golden glow to it. And she was standing there, all clean and shiny with her new summer coat, just looking up at me from where she was. At that moment I thought she was the most beautiful creature, despite her crooked legs, wimpy mane and the chunk missing from her nostril. I’ve arranged with her owner that when she goes, I get one of her shoes and a lock from her tail to keep as little mementos. I’ll be sad when she’s gone, but I’m going to cherish every moment I have with her, even her bratty ones, haha.

  6. Thank you Zanhar for about your fears. I’m 31 and have noticed for the last few years this little nagging in the back of my head that resembles fear. I have always been an overly confident rider but for some reason my confidence has decreased a little every year. I have only fallen off once in the last 8 years when my hubby was giving me a leg up bareback on my daughters horse and she bolted. Pretty sure I never actually touched her back but I ended up with a decent concussion out of it. That little fall took my confidence with it. It’s amazing because as a teen that wouldn’t have even made me bat an eye lash. It took all I had that day to get back on that horse. I hope I am able to work through my fears the way you have. What an inspiration you are….

  7. Thank-you for your insightful post Zanhar. I think everyone goes through the fear stage at least once in their riding career. I used to become so stressed at shows that I wouldn’t eat the entire day. Thankfully that has changed now. Through self-discipline I managed to conquer my fears and at the end of the day, even at a show, all I want is to do my best and have some fun (rather than worrying about winning or looking bad).
    I also suffered a fall two years ago in which my wrist was badly fractured. It took me many months to gain the confidence to get back on but I did it. I still worry, as the type of fracture I have could result in a split bone and serious surgery should I fall the same way again, but I am learning to deal with that fear. I started slowly (walk/trot on my old steady-eddy-type mare) then worked my way up. This year I started jumping again.
    Don’t let fear hold you back. Conquer your fear and live the life you want to. You only get one life and I want to enjoy every moment. 🙂

  8. I have to say, I’m only 22, but I’ve had that experience with fear. My first horse was a 5 year unbroken paint (Yeah, yeah, I know, lol) and everything went smoothly for the first 12 months or so. But after that things started to go a bit awry. His back changed shape so there were some saddle fitting problems, which led to some bucking problems. During the training and breaking process I came off him a few times but I always bounced right back up because it was usually my own mistake and I saw what I’d done wrong. It was easy to get back on then. But after he’d deliberately bucked me off two or three times, for no apparent reason (this was after we’d refitted his saddle, but by this point it had become a habit), and the third time I’d actually jarred my spine quite badly, I found myself getting very, very tense whenever I had to get back on him. There was this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I got on, and my muscles were tight. We got through it, and we recently won Champion Show Hunter at the local show, but I certainly know what it feels like to have that fear of getting on. And that was just from a couple of little falls I can’t imagine what it would be like if I’d ever really hurt myself.

    Thanks for sharing your story Zanhar, you’re obviously an incredibly brave woman! it just proves how nuts us horse people are, doesn’t it? 😛

  9. I loved reading this. I have never become smart enough to be scared of anything until this year when I decided that, unable to ride anymore, I was NOT finishing my gelding to drive myself. All my cyber friends were telling me to get in the cart and push him through the “silliness” but all my cyber friends were safely in front of a computer screen, NOT trying to reason with a demon in harness! There is no way on this earth I am getting behind that until someone a lot younger and stronger than me as called it’s bluff- 65 years old and finally engages it’s brain!!!

    • Hey good for you. If I ever get to the point where I physically cannot get on a horse I will get a small pony and a cart and go “trail riding” that way. And I did a lot of wild riding when I was young. And enjoyed it. But at my age, I want to continue with horses. If I’m uncomfortable with something, I have no problem backing off. We’ve earned it.

  10. Good on you Zanhar for learning to face your fears.

    I also have experienced horsey fears, however I have found that my fear improves my riding. I keep my horse between my hand and leg because I fear bolting. I teach her not toss her head, because I was scared she’d rear. I practise correct bend, so she can’t see/spook at something in the distance. While my friends muck around, I focus on keeping my hands stable and my back straight so I don’t fall. Fear forces me to ride and school my pony correctly, and, while I have a while to go before I’m half decent, in some ways I thank my fears because they make me a better horsewomen.

  11. Thanks for this piece, I love to read about people’s journeys in the horse world.

    Like most everyone I have battled with fear and mine was also with jumping. Not as severely as yours but also, I have no single traumatic instance to blame. I had riding on the back-burner altogether for a while and then spent a few years just riding recreationally. When I finally had the funds and a horse to get into lessons, jumping and showing again, it turned out that my comfort zone for jumping had somehow shrunk rather dramatically in the 10 years since I had last jumped.

    For me there was a no magic trick, just a long slow journey with good horses and good coaches. Repetitive work over small, simple fences on honest, forgiving horses to strengthen my position and my skills. And very, very slowly, my comfort zone has grown again. It’s not where it was when I was 17 and I’m sure it never will be. I still get a tingle when my coach puts the jumps up. I still mentally high-five myself when I successfully land any jump that’s over 3 feet (and sometimes I’m so busy congradulating myself that I miss the turn to the next one, oops). But it’s working. I set myself the goal of being able to show at 3′ and feel comfortable and confident doing it. And because I met that goal summer 2012, I’m on to the next one… show at 3’3″ and feel comfortable and confident. And we’ll see where it goes. It might take me another year to get comfortable with three lousy more inches but that’s okay. The feeling of realizing that I’m doing something confidently that seemed terifying a few years ago is just mind-blowing.

  12. As a middle aged returning rider, I know I will never have the nerve I had as a teenager (and I wasn’t even a particularly fearless teen). But I have more patience, and I’ve been lucky enough to have instructors that took me seriously enough to want to completely rebuild my skillset, and I’ve learned something about how to learn in the intervening years. So I’m a different rider now than I was then, and I’m starting to think that overall, I might even be better, something I didn’t think would be possible.

  13. Zanhar my friend, well put. Your blog was just the pick-me-up I needed as I sit here practicing R.I.C.E. , fretting about how long it will take this time before I can ride again. You are my inspiration… Watching you ride lends me courage to dream larger….Coming as a newbie to the sport of ridings in my fifties, I didn’t have much of a clue as to what was possible, what goals to reasonably set for myself… Meeting you was a real stroke of luck. You are always willing and ready to share your wealth of knowledge and experience

  14. This post was fascinating to me. I had a bad wreck a couple of years ago on a horse that spooked after an insect sting (we think). From my point of view though it came out of the blue, while we were standing loose-rein in a pasture doing nothing. Suddenly there was no horse underneath me and I landed flat on my back at a full gallop…ended up with a few permanent injuries to one leg and hip but it easily could have been much worse. I’m still riding, but only western saddles for the time being–the english saddle is covered with dust. Birthday 51 is coming up and though I don’t feel terror, I most certainly have pretty wild scenarios running across my mind screen that have to be squelched, and I can hear the voice in my head saying ‘let’s just longeline him today, it’s windy!’

    I am also into horse carriage driving and got a mini for CDE (we don’t go fast ). It’s interesting since the accident though to be places with the mini, and to hear comments floating around in the spectators about ‘typical’ mini owners/drivers all being ‘overweight middle-aged women’. One young 20ish person was rolling her eyes about it being the equivalent of ‘fat old ladies with poodles” (poodles = minis).

    Wonder how many of these mini drivers are ex-riders who ended up getting the minis because they were being realistic and sensible about risking injury on riding? I know of a few but it would be interesting to ask them all and get a number.

    • I’ve been launched like a rocket just like that. Standing in the middle of a field and in the next second flying through the air and having plenty of time to think ‘This is going to hurt when I land…*splat*’ Same deal, my horse was bit in his sensitive part.

      Stereotypes are an interesting phenomenon. They exist because there’s an element of truth, but by definition they are an oversimplified concept as you’ve clearly proven.

    • I am glad to see this important subject still being discussed. Even though I seem to be in the minority here; if I was afraid to do something with my horse, I would not do it. And I would not care what anyone said about it.

      • You are absolutely right – you should never do anything with horses you are afraid to do because someone else tells you to do it – as in ‘Don’t be silly there’s nothing to it!” But neither should you give up something you love because someone said you should should ‘Just forget about it’. This is about the conflict of wanting desperately to do something that fear is stopping you from doing – and holding on to the assurance you CAN beat that fear. This is a decision you make for yourself and only for yourself.

  15. Trailrider20 I agree with you. Zanhar, and Mercedes I think you have a big handle on how this fear + getting older realization thing works. I knew while in rehab that I’d want to ride again when I could, but I found another home for that horse.

  16. A year and a half ago, I was thrown and knocked unconscious. I only have a memory of walking up the steps to the house 15 minutes later, so I cannot say what happened to put me off the horse. (Yes I had a helmet). 8 months later a second horse died beneath me withoug warning (aneurysm?) and fell over on top of me. (Yes, I was still wearing a helmet!) 2nd unconscious episode, but no memory loss so not as severe, just a torn mcl in my knee. I am 58 and have ridden horses since I was 10. The place that brings me most joy in life is to slip onto that saddle and settle into the stirrups, but I have to ask myself whether I should continue this. With acute knowledge of the mechanics of traumatic brain injury (I am an accident investigator), I know that I do not want to have a head strike again. I have bought the best helmet I can afford now, but am facing a stable of 3 year olds (and we know what they can be like). I am seriously considering switching from show ring riding to dressage, so I do not have to consider what other riders/horses are doing beyond my control. I can carriage drive, which I have done in the past, but frankly, if you really want to have a wreck, drive a horse in harness.
    I do not know that I am facing fear so much, as a self-preservation instinct that is yelling at me to not do stupid stuff anymore that can really, really injure me!

    • For me it is not so much self preservation as just the love of riding. I want to keep doing it, and as many of us do, I have a minor physical concern. That’s why I have trouble understanding why zanhar would want to do something that has such fear attached. Zanhar says doing a few jumps is fine, then the fear can hit. Why not just circle the horse when that happens?

      • I do just that because to push through at that stage means taking back and jerking my horses’s mouth. He will likely stop and it was a hard stop at speed that slammed me into the fence and broke my back to begin with. I have progressed from freezing when I rode into a ring with jumps present, to riding the course with the jumps down (poles on the ground) to tiny cross rails, to small verticals. At present we are stringing verticals together. I watch other riders fly around the course and deep down I remember what that felt like and I know I can do it. For me at least it hasn’t been like in the movies – you face your fear and then its over – I wish it was……

        • No, it’s not like in the movies. This is real life. I just hope that you continue to enjoy riding. I don’t want to hear that you have had another accident. That’s cause I care.

  17. I had a carriage wreck in January. I was thrown from the carriage and my mare took off. After repairing the carriage and healing my broken bones, I am back at it (wearing a helmet and one of those inflatable vests). My goal is to compete in CDEs.

    My best friend has quietly (and kindly) pointed out that I need not do this particular sport. But my world would contract and my passion would be gone. Yesterday, I drove the little Morgan and felt afraid several times. I would look at a ditch and imagine the carriage tipping into it. I don’t know if I will get over this. Fear makes this no fun.

    • Hi Tarr – perhaps this will help – of all the tools I’ve used to come back, this helped me the most.
      When you have a wreck, you obsess about it, think about it in the ambulance, in the hospital, at night when you can’t sleep – you run it through your mind repeatedly until you make a mental recording of it – a DVD if you will. Ever after,
      whenever you meet that same circumstance – or think you are going to – your mind pushes ‘play’ and that starts the cascade into fear.
      What you do is to make yourself another DVD – think back and remember the best ride (or drive) you ever had. Remember the day, the smells, the sights – the feeling it gave you in as much detail as you can and obsess over that. Replay it to yourself whenever you can, washing dishes, grooming your horse, lying in bed at night – it will probably help you sleep!. At the same time stop yourself from thinking or talking about the accident – I don’t mean forget it happened – you never will and you probably learned a few things from it anyway – but remembering isn’t ‘re-living’
      Now whenever you start to feel that warning tingle of apprehension – or even proactively, before you even step aboard your cart – put your new DVD in and
      push ‘play’. This may sound corny but it was a strategy I learned from my sports psychologist and its the one (of many) that has done the most to bring me as far as I have come.
      Good luck, Tarr. Be careful but follow your dream.

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