Equestrian Confession: It's ok to be scared
To the casual observer, horse riders are a naturally brave bunch. I mean, we climb on top of massive animals and give over a sense of control to the whims of a living creature with its own opinions on a regular basis.
Horses are generally considered both magnificent and dangerous - they kick, bite, people fall off and become paralysed. These are all things that suggest to non-riders that to ride a horse at all means we're fearless around them and on top of them.
It's an assumption that might seem flattering at first, but that can create a certain amount of anxiety and shame when we do feel scared.
But here's the thing - it's OKAY to be scared to ride your horse.
It's also OKAY to just feel scared about certain elements of riding, like cantering, or leaving the arena, or riding off property.
It's also perfectly normal to feel fine one day and scared the next.
It doesn't make you any less of a competent rider, nor does it mean that you can't overcome those fears. In fact, a healthy knowledge of your own mortality can be an asset when you ride. Yet, I know that plenty of riders of all disciplines, myself included, feel deeply ashamed to admit that they're scared when it comes to anything to do with horses.
So where does this sense of shame come from?
As a novice adult rider, who came back to riding after a six year break when I was in my twenties, I was naturally in awe of more experienced riders and the comfort and ease with which they handled different horses. I would watch my coaches occasionally hop on one of the riding school horses who was being tricky, and immediately resolve whatever the issue was with no qualms or concerns, while the original rider stood quivering in the middle of the arena, gobsmacked.
Sometimes a rider I admired would get on a horse that was being particularly tricky, and it was clear to me that their ability to sit a buck or ride a nervous horse through their spooking or shies was part of what gave them cultural cache as a rider. To be unflapped, to never be intimidated by any horse - that was the ultimate goal to me.
Skip forward five years, and whilst no riding school horse phased me anymore, I was in for a rude shock when I bought my own horse. I purchased an eight-year-old Clydie X TB mare who was basically bombproof on the ground. She seemed like the perfect beginner horse.
But in those first few months, when I actually got on her, Penny transformed into a more challenging ride. At first it was just head tossing and planting her feet, but soon this escalated. I came off her once from her bolting, she began doing pig roots and baby-rears (one time she bashed me in the face rearing and managed to split my lip). I felt like I could barely control her, and I started dreading the moment when she would throw down in the middle of a ride.
Putting aside the frustrations and fears I had about the relationship itself and my ability to get the best out of Penny, the feeling of fear filled me with a lot of shame.
I mean, I was on a Clydie X! Other people in the barn were on massive warmbloods, performance horses with much hotter personalities! How could I possibly justify being freaked out? Did it mean I was just a crap rider? Was I too much of a beginner to have my own horse? Would I ever be able to get on Penny without being so scared I needed to do a nervous wee first?
It took a while, but what I eventually learned was that the illusion of unshakeable courage that some riders inspire is just that - an illusion.
Show me a rider - even at the highest level - who doesn't feel some rush of fear (and the associated adrenalin) ever when they ride, and I'll show you a superhuman who probably is in denial.
It turns out, we all get scared. But it's the courage to push through the fear and keep trying to build our relationship with our horse that really defines us. I've watched people who I think of as being at the height of equestrian talent have moments of fear or anxiety, even some full-blown meltdowns, and I have never thought less of them for it. In fact, I have found it profoundly reassuring, and quite instructional. Because I don't focus on their fear - I focus on how they push through it, and I learn from that.
It's taken two years, but I can genuinely say that I am not scared of Penny anymore. I still get nervous when we do new things, and I definitely don't actively interrupt her when she's eating (you should see her mare stare, it's enough to cause a spark of fear in anyone), but I am not afraid of her anymore. I trust her. I trust myself to reasssure her or push her when she needs it.
Recently, I've observed friends and riders at my stables purchase new horses, and begin that journey from scratch. One of the difficult things for many is realising that when you move from a horse you know and trust, or from school horses who are uniquely special (because all school horses are saints, frankly), is to find yourself becoming nervous about things you haven't been afraid of for yonks.
Riders who have previously felt completely confident find themselves nervous riding on certain parts of the property, because their new horse is still adjusting, and is reactive, or because there are new behaviours they're having to cope with that they didn't face on their previous mount.
I find myself regularly telling these friends about how shit-scared I used to be of my horse. I tell them, because I want to dispel this myth that 'good' riders are never nervous, and to comfort them with the knowledge that it gets better. (Or at least, the things that scare you now become mundane, while new scary things evolve!). I certainly don't see myself as a role model, but I do think that by pushing through the challenges with Penny, I have an element of hard-won wisdom I can impart.
Horse riding is such a unique sport, and it's one that is already difficult to navigate and perfect without adding a fear of being afraid to the mix. I would love to hear more from established and professional riders about the challenges that they face and how they overcome them, instead of just a constant picture-perfect display of their exceptional riding.
It's only by being genuine and authentic that we can help each other to overcome our fears and enjoy the journey - because riding a horse is such a privilege, and one that teaches us so much.