An Unhealthy Fear of Horses

By Bonnie J. Hilton

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo What to do with an unhealthy fear of Horses. Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Bonnie J. Hilton.
© copyrighted horse article.
What about unhealthy fear of the horse or riding ? Why is it a risk management nightmare? What are the physical and mental ramifications and how can you help someone deal with them? I presently know a beginner rider who was seriously hurt during initial instruction. They have not been on a horse since. They have voiced an interest in trying to get past their unhealthy fear by working with me. What happened to them, in my professional opinion, was avoidable, but the result will not be nullified by a lawsuit. This person really wants to get past this and I think that is the first priority that has to be addressed.

Once the physical healing has taken place where do we start? The mind is the first place I want to go. Does this person really want to change the unhealthy fear into a helpful fear and how do we go about it?

One minute you were sitting on your horse, the next you were in the hospital. I had a student who was on alert for ground bees because of just such an accident. Ground bees were found near where her accident happened and it was assumed that her horse was attacked, she was bucked off and subsequently injured. She doesn't remember a thing. Because of this accident, members of her barn developed a helpful fear and they did limit their outside open riding in areas that were not inspected.

For accomplished riders who develop an unhealthy fear after a nasty fall with injury I attempt to go into risk management mode and try to evaluate every aspect of what happened. I had a horse fall with me in an indoor and I sailed through the air into a heap next to the wall. (Wonder why I am an approved hard hat advocate?) Although I knew what happened and why, it didn't make it any easier for me to get over the unhealthy fear of falling with him again and continuing on with our training.

Is it a fallacy? Should a rider who has experienced a fall get right back on and continue? Will you be able to prevent unhealthy fear by doing so? In today's litigious society, I have to temper my words! As an instructor I no longer can just ask if the dumped rider is OK, because I am not a medical doctor and have no professional ability to ascertain that they are truly OK. At least that is what I have been told to remember by several lawyers. It all depends on the individual and the accident. I really don't think that getting back on right away is going to make all that much difference and you need to talk the accident through if you are there to witness it as an instructor. I know that statement runs contrary to what the teaching has always been. Please remember that I am old enough to say I am a "Thelwell" student and any reader who has seen a copy of Angels on Horseback or other books by Norman Thelwell knows what I am talking about. I grew up on ponies and falling off and getting back on was part of the experience that I took into work with horses. Much has changed in 40 years and it is truly sad to me that the Thelwell type experience has disappeared in many areas.

Schooling cross country in England in 1971 I came off over a gate. The horse was caught, I picked myself up and vaguely remember being asked if I was OK and I was up and back on to continue the class. No one was thinking that a trip to the emergency room was in order. Fear was not part of the equation back then either, failure was. However, When I was finally up and around (with my cracked ribs) I wasn't too keen on having a repeat cross country performance anytime soon, but my instructors had other ideas. Get me up, on the same horse and deal with it or very simply, I could pack my bags and head back home. The accident was explained to me. I had been left behind when the horse I was riding put in a much larger effort than I was prepared for and I didn't follow. A chink had been found in my jumping foundation. By the time my instructors were done with me, I had a much better understanding of the mechanics of jumping big. Here again, it would always be a "back of the mind" issue. I knew that I had come off left, very common, but I didn't truly understand why. So, I became that "tough" rider with Velcro butt! If I was going to continue to ride cross country over fences, I was going to be fit enough, supple enough and savvy enough to do it with some sense of safety. The product of unhealthy fear of injury is sometimes the overly tough rider that will over-ride.

Fifteen years later, along with many other instructors, I started the study of body awareness and how this approach could be used with fear management. The study was about learning to read your own body, to feel yourself and know your limitations as being your best guide to your performance. Bilateral assessment, unilateral development and the mind body connection is all part of enlightened instruction now. I'll agree that all of this information is way too much to put on a five-year-old student, (and many teenage students who just want to have fun!) but as I recently wrote, don't be surprised that some 5- year-olds have a better ability to assess what they feel for body usage than the 50-year-olds. I have found that this "inner approach" if you want to call it that, helps to assess fear when you have a good working relationship with your students. I learned about right side domination, as well as range of motion imitation and how learning to think my way through a quick check list of awareness work from my head to my heels.

In my initial work I realized why I had that fall so many years ago and some subsequent falls after, it was my unilateral development that I had never even known about, until I finally felt it. Now, each and every year, I work on keeping myself in better bilateral usage as part of my fear management routine.

Fear has been defined by one doctrine as "false evidence appearing real" and I will totally agree with the theory that the mind is the primary battlefield. The ramifications range from sleepless nights, inability to eat, total body aches and pains, avoidance and then self loathing for having let the fear control you. Depending on the severity of the accident and subsequent injury, only the student is going to be able to tell you what they want to do and from where you will have to start. I absolutely hate the expression "lost their nerve" as it is applied to someone who is battling with the unhealthy fear in their mind. Years ago I was given statistics on repeat falls after initial injury and I didn't give the study much attention. I know now that after the body has healed and even if the fitness is brought back off the horse, we still have to develop a much sounder mental approach.

If I am approached to start the aforementioned individual who was seriously hurt during initial instruction I already know I will have to start with their mindset. I will be teaching them privately. I will be teaching them from the point where their fear enters their mind. I may have to start with a phone call to their home and meet them at their car and help them breathe their way into the barn. If in several sessions we can get back to the point where they can sit on a horse, a suitable horse, without holding their breath and aving a panic attack, then that is where we will start. There may be a lot of tears and there may be a lot of anger. You may have to lead them around and keep them on the longe for a long time, as they work to dispel the wrong thoughts and replace them with honest, positive feedback and develop ways to keep themselves from being on that statistic list.

Unhealthy fear will often cause limitation of range of motion and in my opinion the number one reason for the repeat fall statistic. I presently have an older student who will "stiffen up" when her horse trips or spooks. There have been falls in the past which haunt their mind. On good days it seems that this student is really an experienced rider. On bad days, they are learning how to stop the fear in their mind, focus (look) at what they are doing and listen (feel) their body and go immediately to those movements learned in warm-up stretching that will help them regain their range of motion. They are also embarking on a program of strength and suppling training that, in my opinion, is a positive approach to confidence building as well.

How fit should our riders be? There is absolutely no guarantee that a horse will not spook or trip and a strong seat (core muscles), set of legs and arms with corresponding range of motion are not developed on a couch. Obviously, if the student is not serious about their riding, this approach is not going to work. The last issues about unhealthy fear to think about are overmounting and the expectations based on peer pressure. Here again ridership has been the culprit and it is a simple fact of our business. I have stated before that professionals are under immense pressure from a public that wants "more bang for their buck" and results in an ever shorter amount of time. Our students are sometimes unknowingly putting themselves at risk as well. We are often working with individuals who don't have an honest assessment of their present riding level and what their short term and long term goals should be.

I have met children and adults that suddenly had the unthinkable happen (because it was never taught to be considered) and suddenly they were scared, but still trying to continue. As a clinician, I remember especially a little girl who was crying prior to working in a class with me with several of her peers. Some weeks before, she had come off "rent a pony" and nothing had been done to address her fears. The parental push was to keep up with the other kids and on this day, she literally broke down. The pony was obnoxious and needed to be schooled and the little girl needed to be put on something to build her confidence to the level that she could deal with the pony in the future. Suffice to say that my advice did not go over well and that I was told the following year that the little girl was no longer riding.

Take the time to evaluate your students and put their handling and riding skills in perspective to what their future goals are. Honesty is still the safe policy and develop that rapport with your students. When fear starts to creep in, you will know it and will be able to deal with it.

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