If we’re really honest, most of us have, at some point, been scared up there on a horse. OK, maybe not so much if you’re a young lad in their teens/ early 20’s and still believe yourself to be invincible but that’s normally only because they haven’t yet hurt themselves badly enough.
Riding is, after all, a risk sport. As the saying goes, “if you work with horses, it’s not a question of if you’ll get hurt, it’s just when and how badly”. I think that, fundamentally, if you can’t accept that, then riding probably isn’t the sport for you. Us horse riders are a funny bunch.
That said, clearly there are different risks to different situations – jumping on an unbacked sports horse or going Point to Pointing are generally regarded as being in a higher risk category than going for a nice little ride on a twenty-something been there, done it, got the T-shirt cob. So, clearly, there is already a lot of scope for riders to match their risk appetite to the sort of horse they choose to ride and the activities they then choose to do with that horse. We find the sort of horse and the sort of activity we like and we will generally then stay within that comfort zone – and each person’s comfort zone will be different.
So, far so good. But what happens if we want to expand our comfort zones and start doing something more risky. Or something happens and all of a sudden our comfort zone is smashed and we find ourselves bloodied and broken on the floor?
Well, this happened to me last year and only really now am I feeling sufficiently past it to tell the tale and hope that some of what I’ve learned may help others.
A lot of my friends seem to regard me as a brave rider (more on that later – be careful who you compare yourself to!). I guess I am fairly game. I’ve ridden since I was a child and spent many years feeling pretty invincible and being one of the kids at the yard that got chucked on a lot of new horses. I’ve also had a fair few significant falls in my time, including a full rotational fall out hunting, falling thanks to a dog under my horses’ feet and cracking my head open on the road (I know, I know – the last time I went out hacking without a helmet), busting a hip out eventing, not to mention the obligatory broken ribs, etc. However, amazingly until 2013 I never really had a fall that bothered me quite so massively. In fact slightly the opposite – oddly enough when I cracked my head open I had a strange sense of euphoria at not having died! Same after I regained consciousness following my rotational fall.
My fall in 2013 was different, though. I was backing a young horse and really thought I had prepared her well and indeed I generally really enjoy starting young horses albeit I feel very keenly the responsibility of starting a young horse’s ridden education. I could get on and off her, move around up there, etc. However, what I hadn’t bargained for was how worried she would then become when she was first asked to walk and have my balance affect hers in motion. I felt her back go up and my unfortunate reaction was to push her on forwards. Bad move. The broncs continued to escalate, as did the speed and it became clear that the situation was beyond recovery so it was all I could do to look for a place to land that didn’t seem to be on the school fence. As I landed (badly), I was then vaguely aware of the horse then continuing to gallop in laps around the school and being thankful that she had the good grace not to do me any more damage until Trev managed to catch her for me. I know now that with this horse that forward was not my friend. I should have stopped and rubbed her until she regained her composure. Hindsight is not a great gift when you are reeling on the floor.
The difference with this fall was in part that it really hurt (shoulder dislocation being the main injury) but actually I think the main reason was psychological. I just didn’t see it coming. I probably should have. I have never (and hope never again) to be the reason for such a violent reaction in a horse. I was mortified. Not only was my judgement so wrong but now I’d gone and given the horse a bad start and scared her all the more by coming off. I had failed.
To say that my confidence was dented was an understatement.
At that stage, even if I was mentally ready to get back on that horse, physically I couldn’t – at least until I was sufficiently sure my arm would remain in its socket. However, I wanted to repair the mistake I had made with my mare as soon as I could so I found a competent, lovely young jockey to help me (the aforementioned type of young lad in his 20’s who still believed he was invincible), while I provided ground control. I was (and am) very grateful for his help but I’ll admit that it did nothing for repairing my bond with her. I sat on her a bit myself also but it was more an exercise in self-control on my part to do so than anything else.
As fate had it, though, our work with the mare in 2013 was cut short by a terrible accident. Some unexpected daytime fireworks let off by someone in a neighbouring field left my mare careering through several layers of fencing and galloping up the lane. Fortunately she was apprehended by some good neighbours. However, her injuries required many stitches and a long period of box rest.
2013 also wasn’t a great year for me for other reasons. In particular my other mare, then a 5yo, was bucking a lot under saddle, which, many vets bills later, was found to be as a result of bilateral hind leg PSD. Later that year I started looking for another horse. I wanted something I could crack on and event so spent a lot of time looking at 5 and 6yo’s who had already been with a variety of different pro’s. When you’re already feeling a bit shaky, I can assure you there is nothing worse for you than going and riding event horses ridden by full on pro’s (or, for that matter, horses that bronc on landing…). I’m a competent rider but I’m no Mary King. To top it all off, I also had a couple of crashing falls out eventing.
2013 was not a good year for me.
Roll on 2014 and it was time to restart my mare. I had a choice. I could have my invincible young lad jockey for me again or I could cowboy up and get back on the horse. I chose to cowboy up (or, as Trev calls it, MTFU – Man…. Up). That’s where it starts, with a choice.
Unfortunately, somewhere between the accident, the prolonged box rest and the time off, my mare had gone right back to square one in terms of accepting anyone up there on her back again. So, Trev ran ground control for me and I jockeyed. We took it really slow. Glacial. We’ve had a few set- backs along the way with saddle issues, etc. and she’s still a long way from being the finished article but we’re definitely back on track. The point is, though, that she and I have done it together – and I think it’s done as much to mend her as it has me.
I did, though, have a good amount of help along the way. Living with a counsellor certainly has its perks. These are the things that really got me through:
- I understand that some fears are there for a reason and of course there is a line somewhere between bravery and stupidity. However, so long as you know something is within your skills set, life is too short to let your fears hold you back. Feel the fear and do it anyway (which, by the way, is a very good book that I would highly recommend reading for a pep talk).
- Knowing that at some point, most people, even the likes of Mark Todd, have lost their nerve. It happens. It’s what you do about it that then matters.
- Having a really good horse who reminds you that actually you can still ride! Fin, as ever, is an angel in white fur for me, for this.
- Push your comfort zone, but don’t feel you have to actually break through it all the time. Sometimes we need to live in our comfort zone a bit before we can build up the brave to come out again. Just make sure you know that’s what you’re doing.
- Find things that you are good at with your horse and focus on doing them well. Set yourself up to succeed! (we use that phrase for horse training but it applies equally for training yourself).
- Be careful who you spend your time with. Spending it with 4* eventers who you can’t help but feel look at you with a certain sense of dismissal is not a good plan. Find the ones who help you feel brave again – the good ones will know what to do, even if there is an unspoken understanding that you don’t admit to each other you lost your nerve.
- Look at what else is going on in your life. A loss of confidence rarely happens in isolation. Have a think about what else you need to work on to get where you want to.
- Think about what it is you want, rather than what it is that you don’t want. So rather than sit there thinking “don’t buck”… think about the footfalls of the walk. Count them in your head and let your body move with them.
- Having a really good horse who reminds you that actually you can still ride! Fin, as ever, is an angel in white fur for me, for this. Did I already mention that? Good, it’s probably one of the most important things. Buffy (who I then bought in 2014) has also exceeded my expectations for how genuine and generous she has been. That helps.
- In the meantime, until you get your mojo back, there is quite a lot that can be done to “fake it ‘til you make it”. When we’re scared, there are a lot of physical symptoms that come through. If we can overcome them, that’s half the battle.
- Don’t get tense (since when did that ever help when we sit on a horse anyway, but of course we all still do it…. Unless we make a point of having a regular mental practice not to – run down each muscle group, head to foot, and tell those muscles to relax!);
- Keep “soft eyes” (so use your peripheral vision – don’t go tunnel vision, that never helped anyone and it’s what we do when we’re nervous);
- Keep your breathing regular and relaxed, and from your belly.
- Oddly enough, licking your lips slowly can also really help; when we’re nervous, often our lips go dry – licking them can counteract our body’s tendencies to show physical symptoms of nerves as well as relaxing your jaw.
Last but not least – give yourself a pat. Remember – someone that is out there trying is already way ahead of someone who simply leaves their wishes in their dreams. If you don’t get scared every once in a while, how can you practice being brave?