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…
…and nursing a broken arm.
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
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.