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Wrangling on the Range #166

Self Help for Fear



Identify the demons holding you back in your horse life,
recognize how to overcome them, and then banish them for good,
with six self-discovery exercises. 


If you're a midlife woman who's finally made the leap from horse
lover to horse owner, you've joined a significant horse-owning
demographic. The American Horse Council Foundation tells us that
of the 9.2 million horses in the United States, 75 percent are
owned by women over the age of 40. That's a lot of women, out
pursuing dreams with horses.
Sometimes, though, despite your most diligent and disciplined
study and conscientious effort, and sometimes even after
attending clinics and working with instructors and trainers on an
individual basis, you might still find yourself full of doubts,
apprehensions... fears.
After all, when the lesson or clinic is over, you take your horse
home alone. You're left to face roadblocks on your own-obstacles
you might not have the confidence to tackle on your own.
Here, I'll discuss how to put your concerns in their place, and
then offer exercises for putting them in the rearview mirror.


Admit it: 

Sometimes, you're just plain afraid. Sometimes there's a good
reason; other times it's just that vague awareness of what could
To help you learn to stop the fear snowball before it rolls right
over you, I talked with Dr. Matt Johnson, a certified sport
psychology consultant and licensed professional counselor in
private practice in Fort Worth, Texas. Johnson frequently works
with members of the Texas Christian University equestrian team
(as well as other TCU athletes) on performance-based issues,
anxiety, and fear. Dr. Johnson agreed to help dissect the very
real fear you could encounter, so you can put the potentially
debilitating struggle in its proper place and get back in the
saddle with newfound confidence (leaving white knuckles in the
Fear, as much as we dread the feeling, is not a bad thing in and
of itself. Often, it's the very thing that keeps you safe. When
it gets out of proportion to actual danger, however, it can be,
at worst, debilitating, and at best, a big damper on your fun
with your horse.
"Fear is a natural part of being human,"Johnson says. "Your job
is to separate the productive fear that helps keep you safe from
the non-productive fear that hinders your performance."
Because fear is such a powerful emotion, he goes on to explain,
the more you think about it and try to force yourself through it,
the bigger and more powerful the fear gets. Because anxiety is
related to our perception of our skills and knowledge, fear can
distort these perceptions and make everything seem much worse
than it actually is.
Sometimes fear comes not from something that actually happened,
but from the idea that something bad might happen. I have to
assume that this has something to do with the mothering gene,
which has been on high alert for signs of danger since the moment
our babies were born and began to move around on their own.
You've been scanning the horizon for potential hazards for years,
so it only makes sense that it can play a factor in your midlife
horse journey.


Even though your midlife horse journey may have had romantic
beginnings, it's only to be expected that the hard truths of
having and riding horses will rise up and challenge you along the
way. In other words, "the road ain't paved the whole way." But
when fear keeps you from truly enjoying your horse and all he has
to offer, don't lose heart. Fear is a conquerable thing, and
something about which you can be proactive.


To put fear, whatever its cause, in its proper place, and work
through "fear distortions," Dr. Johnson offers six written
exercises to tackle. Grab a notebook and a pen, and work through
each of the tasks.

Exercise 1: Why do I ride? 

To help you remember your passion for riding horses in the first
place, first ask yourself why you want to ride and what you want
to get out of it. Writing as fast as you can, without censoring,
)ot down anything that comes mind about riding a horse that makes
you want to do it.

Exercise 2: What are my goals? 

If fear weren't an issue for you, what would you want to do with
your horse? Trail ride? Compete? Liberty work? Make a list of
specific goals you have-or would like to have (your "horsey
dreams," if you will). Rank your goals in order of importance,
and spend 15 or 20 min - utes each day imagining yourself
fulfilling one of your goals.
Don't just picture yourself doing these things; imagine how it
would feel. Engage as many senses as possible, and imagine the
sensation of a sliding stop underneath you, followed by applause
and whistles from the crowd; the motion of your cutting horse as
he gets after a cow; moving in perfect synch with your horse as
he completes flying lead changes; trotting down a beautiful trail
on a perfect spring day; sleeping under the stars while camping
out with your horse; or swimming with your horse in a lake.

Exercise 3: What can I do? How well can I do it? 

Make a list of everything you can do related to the horse,
starting from the second you get to the barn or pasture, all the
way up to whatever you're afraid of-catching, leading, tying,
grooming, saddling/bridling, mounting, walking and trotting,
performing a one-rein stop, cantering.
What can you do? Write each of the above questions in the
affirmative and personal (e.g., I can catch my horse).
How well do you do it? Rate your comfort level with the items on
your list, from 1 to 10 (1 being "No way, Jose!" and 10 being
"Piece of cake!"). You'll probably be surprised at how much you
do know, how many things you are confident about, and what a
small part of the big picture the fearful thing really is.
What's it going to take? Now, choose any act on your rating scale
that you marked less than a 10, and ask yourself why you chose
that rating. Write your explanations, followed by your initial
thoughts on what it might take to move the rating to the next
number closer to 10.

Exercise 4: What am I afraid of? 

Identify exactly what you're afraid will happen, starting with
the biggest, baddest fear and working down to the smaller, more
annoying ones.
Write down your fear. Use as much detail as possible. Leave space
beneath each entry, because you'll come back to them.
How do you currently respond to each fear? Under each entry,
write down everything you can think of that you might do in
response to the particular fear. (Note: Squealing, wetting your
pants, and running away are all respectable answers here.)
What skills would you like to have to address this issue? For
example, if you're afraid your horse will start bucking when you
ask him to canter, you might want to learn to recognize when he's
about to buck. Or you might want to learn how to ride through a
buck. Maybe both.
Assess where you are now. Rate your ability (from 1 to 10) right
now to perform the skill(s) you identified above.
Map your path to a 10. Make a list of all the possible ways you
could acquire or improve the skills you need to respond
effectively to each fearful situation you identified.

Exercise 5: Visualize success. 

Use all your senses to visualize the situation. The better you
are at multi-sensory visualization, the more powerful its effect
will be. If you can visualize vividly enough to make your brain
think you've done something before (and your subconscious has
that memory), it will know that you can do it again! If you can't
visualize it at all, it's important to move back down the list of
competencies you made in Exercise 1 and find something you can
visualize yourself doing well.
Imagine the fearful situation. See yourself in the fearful
situation (such as a horse that's kicking up or starting to
buck). Hear the sound of his hoof beats. Smell the sweat on his
flanks and neck. Feel his back rise underneath you as the dreaded
hump appears in his back.

Imagine yourself responding effectively. See yourself remaining
calm during this exchange. Feel that hump disappearing as you get
your horse's feet moving forward. Hear his feet come to a stop
and his sigh as he relaxes underneath you. Smell the sweat you
generated when you made his feet move.

Exercise 6: Create an action plan of small, accomplishable steps.

This is where the process becomes very individual. You must
determine exactly where your starting point is and which steps
you'll take to get from that place to the place you'd like to be.
Visit to read more from this author, about safe
habits and protective gear for horseback riding.

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