Building your confidence for the scary moments

Why do some riders have serious fear and confidence issues after a bad fall, while others with the same bad experiences seem unaffected?

This question came from a poster on my Riding With Confidence Yahoo group (the source of a lot of good questions and discussions!) The second part of this question, of course, is how to deal with those moments of fear when they recur? Here’s how I answered:

Keep in mind that emotions originate, not in our conscious mind, but in the body and reflex brain, a very deep level with which our conscious brain has no direct connection.  We can only reprogram ourselves by retraining the body, with repetitive, safe activity until it gradually learns a new pattern. That’s what the Seven Steps are about. 

Nonetheless, if you get what appears to be a repeat of the original frightening situation, your body will react the same way it did the first time — unless you have been retraining very carefully. I tell people to practice over and over imagining themselves in the scary situation, then imagine themselves using the Seven Steps until their body goes back into ‘confident mode’. I have had students and people on the RWC list who have been able to do this successfully.

And why do some people seem to be unaffected by the same sorts of frightening situations? I think, first, that they have a higher pain/fear threshold, and second, they are more tuned in to the adrenaline rush, what I like to call the ‘roller coaster mentality.’  Think of a person on a roller coaster: her body is terrified, screaming and hanging on for dear life, yet when the ride is over she says, “Wow, that was fun! Let’s do it again.”  Some people are so addicted to the adrenaline rush that eventually they take too big a risk and get seriously hurt or killed.

I have known a couple of very brave people (the kind we think of as ‘fearless,’ but who, really, are simply ignoring their body’s subconscious fear), who got the crap scared out of them by a bad fall, and could barely get on a horse after that. I cured one of them in a couple of months, but he had only one bad experience.

I also have seen many, many ‘fearless’ riders who had appallingly bad positions, because their bodies were terrified, and they were ignoring it. Their adrenaline addiction was stronger than the fear. Again, eventually the fear usually won, but often only after something drastic happened.

If you are not one of the ‘fearless’ riders, a big reason why you may have a lot of trouble getting past strong fears is having riding peers who do not support or respect your riding preferences. If you have to ride with people who show contempt or impatience for your desire to be cautious, this increases your fear by undermining your overall confidence.

I used to have a wonderful horse who could be very dangerous because he had been abused. One day I was on a trail ride with a group of people who did not know me well. My horse started to lose control, so I hopped off. You should have seen the looks I got from these know-it-alls! I could see them thinking that I was some kind of wimpy idiot. My reaction (to myself) was “Shove it, you jerks. If I put you on this horse right now, you’d last about five seconds, and then we’d be picking you out of a tree!”

And after a few minutes of leading my horse I remounted and he was okay again. But just because I didn’t wait to get thrown, but chose to reach the ground under my own steam, these ignorant people thought I was stupid.

I hope this puts things in perspective for anyone facing these kinds of issues and these kinds of intolerant fellow riders! As long as your dismount is controlled, not a panic reflex, there’s nothing wrong with using it if you need it. And the way to avoid the panic reflex is to dismount before things get out of control. If you get sneering looks from your companions, just smile and say, “I prefer to be the one who decides when I should dismount.”  Similarly, if you don’t want to canter because your horse isn’t listening, you can say, “I don’t want my horse to be the one to decide what gait we should ride at.”

The world is full of riders who, because of bad training, think that being out of control is a normal part of riding.  I would just as soon not be along on a ride with them, and you probably wouldn’t, either.

Stand up for your rights and beliefs, you sensible ones!


Building your confidence for the scary moments — 5 Comments

  1. How timely, Gincy! I just got on my horse again after an abscence of eight weeks because of abdominal surgery. I have to admit, I knew I was tense for several reasons: I didn’t know how my tummy would feel, I was riding one day BEFORE I asked the Doc if it was OK and I knew my body was not used to riding. However, I admitted to myself that I was nervous, did some of the 7 steps, mounted up, loosened up my shoulders and concentrated on my horse and the ride. It was wonderful! I DID relax and learned to let my body SLOWLY readjust to riding again. Thanks for all your help!


  2. Hi Annalee,

    The first step back is usually the hardest. Sounds like you handled it well. Which doesn’t surprise me!


  3. Hi Gincy!

    The thing that seems to be most difficult to me is that scary situations are usually over in the blink on an eye.

    So I’ve started to practice being in a low-level scary mode by using a somewhat skittish horse that I feel I can handle – in our indoor arena that is covered with some kind of fabric – in moderately windy situations. It sure takes it out of me, though – I can only do it once in a while, but as you say, I think it should help me to retrain myself to feel more confident if something happens.

    Luckily, I’m in a small adult riding group where everybody seems to be scared from time to time, and our instructor is very helpful by encouraging us to make smart decisions – even if it means dismounting in face of a potential problem.


    (By the way – I really am getting to be a better rider by referring regularly to your (old) book and trying to implement what you say. Thank you thank you thank you!)

  4. You have just answered a question which has been plaguing me for several years. Why did I feel abnormally fearful around my recent previous trainer? Reason: because her name wasn’t Gincy Buckin. All fun aside, knowing that my theories, ones you taught me, were inconsistent with this particular trainer’s, produced serious fear. I knew what was right and was being told something completely different. When I did get fed up with quick fix antics of this trainer, I brought my horses home, went back to my fundamental roots, and the abnormal fear went away. In its place, healthy caution, by doing what’s right for the horse and rider. Thank you, Gincy.

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