Dealing with uncontrollable fear by Gincy Self Bucklin

No matter how many years you teach, there is always going to be someone who doesn’t fit the pattern. Although she lives in the Netherlands and I’ve never met her, I worked with the woman who wrote this story, and helped her somewhat, but there came a time, as you will see, when my knowledge failed her. Fortunately there was someone at hand who had the skills she needed at the moment she needed them. This is Brigit’s story, in her own words. I asked her to tell it for another pupil whom I recognized had the same problem.

“Here is the gist of what I think I’ve learned since that fateful day on which I found I was so scared I could not ride if you gave me a million dollars. This happened to me not long after I’d first bought my very own horse, an Icelandic straight from Iceland.

Nökkvi was young, eager, and extremely gentle, only I did not know that last bit then. I talked myself into thinking he was Much Too Good for me and before I knew it I was scared to death; not just on him but on any horse, including ones I’d ridden zillions of times and that I totally trusted.

My really bad experience, the one that eventually turned my riding life around, came at a clinic I was attending. The following is a re-write from my diary for that weekend.

Day 1, Friday. Had a lovely day auditing at all the clinics that were going on concurrently, then wandered off to the car park to meet my Fluga, a gentle Icelandic mare I had borrowed for the clinic, who was trailered in every day and taken home after my ride. Happily I greeted her, led her to a stall, saddled and bridled, took her outside, mounted…

And then, only then, without any warning whatsoever, I panicked. And made her panic. And scrambled off before anyone knew what was happening. If these were the Middle Ages, I would have called in an exorcist. I had not an inkling of what would happen beforehand. I felt not in any way apprehensive. From one moment to the next I went from being relaxed and happy to feeling as if I was going to die here and now! As if something external took me in charge.

By an enormous stroke of luck it turned out I was in the best possible hands imaginable. There was Kathinka, who was conducting the clinic: a trained psychologist and top-level dressage rider. There was her assistant, Freda, also a psychologist who was into dressage and used to suffer from more phobias than she cared to count. Finally, there were two of Kathinka’s dressage pupils, young girls of about 17, very calm and at the same time just as sympathetic as Kathinka and Freda.

Freda immediately helped me back on, firmly holding Fluga, and started walking us, never letting go of the horse. It was so pathetic, I sat there sweating and trembling and trying not to cry, cramped and crouched over Fluga’s neck, grabbing the mane as hard as I could.

By yet another stroke of luck the hall in which the scheduled lesson was supposed to be held was not yet available and there were only two other participants. So we used a field nearby; Kathinka declared the lesson as such cancelled and took me off Freda’s hands, who went to work with the other two riders.

Kathinka took me on a lunge line. She was marvelous, telling me everything was acceptable but for one thing: I was not going to dismount. After half an hour I was walking on Fluga at the end of the lunge line, then a break, then another half hour at the end of which I was tölting (well, sort of!). I was still terrified, but I kept on and most of the time managed to no longer grab the mane. Nobody belittled me, or patronized me, or made me feel like a patient. Or gave the impression of seeming to doubt that I really used to know how to ride. From the very first there was just sympathy, as if for a real friend, and a general sense of absolute certainty that everything would be back to normal in the foreseeable future.

We agreed that the clinic was not for me, and on Saturday and Sunday Kathinka worked with me in private, after the regular program was over. Incidentally, she refused any payment.

Day 2, Saturday. As the agreed time drew closer, I got more and more fearful. Burst into tears when someone I knew asked how things were going. Noticed hopefully that the field where we were going to work was still being used by others. This time when Fluga arrived I did not greet her so happily!

Kathinka turned out to be an incredible woman. At first there were only two rules: I was not allowed to dismount and I was not allowed to grab the mane. Pretty soon I was not allowed to slow down either. As soon as there was a resemblance again of a rider on a horse, as opposed to a trembling wreck, she started to distract me. Not with useless things such as singing or joking, but by addressing what by then she could see: the fact that my body does know how to ride a horse even if my mind didn’t. She started teaching me to do the turns in the classical way, pretending to do a regular dressage lesson with a regular rider who was ready for the challenge. And at the end of that lesson, which started on the lunge line, I was (ever so slowly) tölting round the field, all by myself on a loose rein. Fluga even did a minor shy and I did not grab the mane.

On Day 3, Sunday, Kathinka’s clinic was over by 4 and her husband had driven off with her horses, but she and Freda and the two girls stayed behind, just for me. No lunge line today; it took 15 minutes before I could walk around the arena more or less at ease. The fear lesson this time was, “It’s fine to be afraid, go ahead and be afraid if that’s what you want, but don’t burden your horse with it, it’s your problem!” The dressage lesson was transitions. And at the end of that lesson I was more often than not riding again, using all of the arena, asking Fluga to speed up and show these big-horse-dressage people what a proper tölt looks like!

I dismounted and found I had my own audience. My friends who own Fluga were there, and their daughter; and both of Kathinka’s dressage pupils; and Freda; and two women whom I’d met only the day before. And they were all starry-eyed, telling me how great I’d done near the end, how marvelously Fluga had gone under me, how well my body knows how to sit a horse. Kathinka once again refused payment, the girls kissed me goodbye.

So now I went back home and had to do things myself, without the ‘emotional blackmail’ of an instructor giving so much of her time and energy to a stranger, and that of a friend bringing in his own horse every day. Nothing to force me to ride; and since the fear sat inside my own mind I needed to be forced.

What Kathinka had taught me was to treat my fear as a separate entity; and a malicious one! So that for me became Trick #1: that fear is not part of you, think of it as some sort of demon, something you’re going to defeat. War!

Now you win a war by winning lots of battles; and you win a battle by picking only those that you can win. This is Trick #2: Set the battles up so that you are guaranteed to win them. In my situation, I felt I could just about bring myself to go into the arena, mount, and stay on board for ten minutes at a walk. I dreaded the thought but I felt I might manage that. And I did! Every single day I would go out to my horse and force myself to do 10 minutes at a walk, without grabbing the mane and never ever bailing out.

I needed something else to think of whilst I was doing this horrible thing called riding, so I took the opportunity to concentrate on simple things¾are my seatbones in full contact with the saddle all the time? It’s amazing how something like that can help take your mind off your fear, at the same time being extremely useful for all your riding! That’s Trick #3. [Editor’s note: that’s a Centered Riding™ Trick!] Later I went on to¾are my hands as soft as I would like them to be, all the time? And¾are my lower legs in place, falling straight down, heels down? But only one of those at a time, or you will be tempted to try too hard and you will be reminded of how terrified you are, which is exactly what you are busy not forgetting but ignoring.

As I was doing this Trick #4 presented itself. Just a re-write, really, of #1 but a useful one. If the fear is separate, then there’s no reason to let it define your actions. You may think it’s you wanting to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing but in reality it’s not you, it’s your fear. Don’t listen to it. Refuse to listen to it. It’s there, there’s no denying that; but you can refuse to do as it tells you.

After two or three days of this I realized I was no longer quite so terrified! So I started tölting. And from then on, every single day I set out to do no less than the day before. This is the thing that did it for me: Trick #5: Never look back. What you did yesterday, you do today. But very importantly, neither should you plan to do more! Force yourself to do just as much; then if on the spur of the moment you feel the time has come to push yourself further, do it there and then. From then on, that new thing is part of the baseline. But if you start planning beforehand, you have time to find reasons not to do it, so you are setting yourself up for failure. And what I did was pick battles I could win, setting myself up for success.

Take baby steps, but it’s all a matter of forcing yourself to indeed take them. The moment you decide it’s time to go for step C then you must do it, it’s too late now, if you change your mind at that point then your fear has scored one over you.

To make a long story a little shorter, things went ever faster, soon I was picking (and winning) a new battle almost every day. I was out of the arena in a week (mine’s an Icelandic, remember, arena work is not standard fare). I went all the way round the farm (15 minutes) in walk and tölt after the second week. Some time during that second week my little eager friend from Iceland spooked and took off for a few strides; and I calmly took him back and realized I had not lost my composure at all. [Editor’s note: when Brigit and I first started communicating, the very thought of galloping made her turn pale!]

After two-and-a-half weeks the day came when instead of turning right to complete the short ride around the farm I turned left which is the way to the trail that we usually ride. Big moment! I turned round soon afterward, but after three weeks I rode my first full ‘standard’ trail round. Oh I was still scared! But I could make myself do it. And my Furry Friend, although a little dubious still, was content to trust me enough to take me on that ride and see us both safely home.

I don’t know what your baby steps might be. If you cannot start as I did, then start by sitting still while someone holds your horse. Or take your horse into a round pen for your first step if you have access to one. Or even a stall that’s big enough for him to turn round in. Why not? {Editor’s note: just be sure there’s enough head room.] The point is, pick the battle you can win and start from there. Then keep pushing yourself just that little bit further all the time, until you’re back to where you were before this fear thing happened. Refuse to give in to it. Treat it as the enemy. You’re the boss, not it! If you allow it to take your riding away from you, who knows what it will think of next. Perhaps it will be there grinning at you from your seat on an airplane, one day. Or you might find it in your car. Or whatever.

I thought I’d never ride again, and certainly never enjoy riding again. Now, all this happened about eight months ago. This morning I took out my Furry Friend for one hour of splashing through the mud; tölt, trot and canter and very little walk. I felt like a mischievous 12-year-old out playing in the puddles with an equally mischievous friend. We came back both covered in mud, tears streaming down my cheeks from the wind, my little horsie asking, “ Can we go for another round, please?”

Personally I am extremely grateful that when all this happened to me I was not with someone who told me to “take the time it takes, never do anything you don’t want to do.” For me, at that moment, it would have been the wrong thing and I might never have ridden again. And I certainly would never had so much fun again on a horse as I had today!”

More Insight

Another friend confirms what Brigit says about the fear transferring to other areas. Again, in her own words, Claudia’s insight:

“I flew in a plane recently for the first time in many years and was dismayed to find that the Fear unleashed in the horse riding adventure has affected this too. I used to be glued to the window having a blast. But not this time. This time, in my fear-ridden imagination, I was just waiting to plummet to the earth…

While doing so I occupied myself with trying to learn more about the fear, what it does that a horse could feel and how to release it. It seems that when the plane drops in an air pocket or rolls so the horizon tilts impossibly, what my center tries to do to make it right doesn’t work in a plane.

What worked the best was a physical ‘lightness’ that had to do with surrendering control: a buoyant quality a bit like sticking with a shying horse. Along with that was something like flipping a switch to the trust side, recognizing that there’s nothing I can do and forcing me to trust the pilot. This made my monkey (emotional) brain release so that the reptile (reflex) part actually came to terms with the natural alarms that were going off. I seemed to find a rightness in what was happening so there came to be a shred of fun, something like a curiosity for learning. Hard to describe, but I thought I’d discovered something about what fearless people do on a bucking horse or one that is bolting zigzag through the woods. It’s a quality like trusting the horse that turns on the ability to be in the zone where Michael Jordan can fly or I can rock-hop down a creek without looking. If you allow that buoyancy which you are painstakingly teaching, suddenly the body has a celebratory response to challenge, kind of a natural high.”

And in Conclusion. . .

Fear is present in everyone’s lives to some extent, but fear of riding is more common than it should be. To those of us who love horses, being able to keep fear out of our lives as much as possible is very important, and even essential to our enjoyment of life. Riding is meant to be a happy experience¾perhaps something in this chapter will change your approach to riding and thus change your life.



  1. This is just the article I needed to read. I have just the same fear issues about horses that others talk about, even though I was a capable, and darn good, rider as a younger lady. Today we got two more horses added to our ranch. A 9 year old riding horse and her 8 month old filly. The other three horses we have are all ridable as well, but my fear has kept me from riding any of them in …7 months. With the help of other people wanting to ride now, and reading this article, …I think I can get back up on my 14 year old girl. She really does like to go. And maybe now I can leave the fear monster locked up in the garbage can while I go for a leisurely ride. Thank you.

  2. I had tears in my eyes reading this. I am taking up riding again after a 20 year hiatus. The other day, after weeks of quietly riding in the paddock, bareback to practice my center, I finally took her out to the field for a little walk. Well, Rosa bucked me right off, (thankfully I had just done manure pickup). No serious injuries, just a nice bruise on my thigh because her hind hoof caught me on the way back. I haven’t been on her since, although I do exercise her on the longe line each day. I have been afraid to admit that I am afraid. 20 years ago, the falls weren’t so scary (I am 40 now). Funny, I am a police officer and can charge blindly into danger, but I can’t make myself get back on the horse.

    Well, I guess it is baby steps all over again.


  3. Cheryl and Cassandra, (and anyone else feeling in need of encouragement as you address your fear issues), I highly recommend Gincy’s “Riding with Confidence” egroup, which has a link in the bottom of the right side menu. This is a wonderful group of horse people who are, or have been, in the same situation as you. Day by day, we offer each other advice, encouragement, and a sympathetic ear during the baby steps process of rebuilding our confidence. People in this group have helped and supported each other in moving from being afraid to even sit on their horses, to showing in dressage and eventing or taking long, fast trail rides. Plus, it’s like having your own personal cheering section for every accomplishment on the way.

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