Part Three: Riding Above Fear


This is what we knew then: It started with a dream of dancing hooves and a flowing mane. He was strong and fast, and you couldn’t tell where he stopped and you started.

This is what we know now: Your horse is frightened and you know it. Or you’re frightened and your horse knows it. And it doesn’t matter who started it. You’re here now.

(Part One explained how a horse’s anxiety gets confused with disobedience when we don’t listen to his calming signals. In Part Two, we redefined fear. Now we call that emotion common sense.)

Then Corey left this comment: So the only few lines or paragraph I would have liked to have seen …is the one describing all the methodologies out there one can try, with time and patience and constant forgiveness, before sending a misunderstood horse away to yet another home where lordy knows what will be done to him. IMHO……..

Okay, here goes. If you think this frightened horse is almost within your skill range and you have the aforementioned time and patience and constant forgiveness… or if you have acquired a huge dose of fear common sense but think your horse would be okay if you relaxed…

Begin here: Make sure your horse is sound. No, really, have the vet check him over. Call a chiropractor who does acupuncture. If the horse is the problem, he usually has a problem. Then, be safe. Wear a helmet. Remove your watch and work in horse time. Take good and kind care of both of you.

Anxiety is normal on both sides. Pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t the same thing as releasing it. Acknowledge the weird balance of dread and enthusiasm. Forgive each other again. Then know that this process will take some time.

Words matter. Negative corrections aren’t effective. Yelling “NO!” is a dead end. It isn’t instructive to horse or human. It’s right up there with yelling “Don’t be afraid!” or “Quit grabbing the reins!” or “Stop running!” Telling yourself or your horse what to not do is like trying to deny reality. Instead, create a new reality by using simple, clean, positive words like “Walk on.” “Breathe.” “Well done.” In other words…

Less correction. More direction.

Start at the beginning. Is there resistance during haltering? At the first sign of anxiety, pause and breathe. Humans tend to speed up when we get nervous. Before we know it, we’re wrestling with a thousand-pound flight animal, when slowing down in the first place could resolve the anxiety on both sides while it was still small and manageable. Go slow.

Then do something mysterious. Take the halter off and leave.

When you both volunteer for the halter, proceed to ground work. Ask for something small, like walking next to you, but you stay out of his space as much as he stays out of yours. Walk together independently. Take time to get it right; let him test your patience.

Think less about whether he’s right or wrong, and more about what your senses are telling you. Practice being less complacent. What are his ears saying? Use all your senses to “listen” to your horse. Soften your visual focus by using peripheral vision to see a wider view of your surroundings. In other words…

Less brain chatter. More physical awareness.

Listen to his calming signals. Cue his movement with your feet instead of your hands. Laugh when he gets it right, and even more when you do. Keep at it until both of you have let go of all the breath you’ve been holding. Then feel the anxiety begin to shift.

Stay with ground work for as long as you want. Build confidence by ground driving and doing horse agility. Your horse doesn’t care if you ever ride him again. Your relationship isn’t defined by proximity; it’s defined by trust. If you don’t share confidence on the ground there’s no reason to think it will magically appear when you’re in the saddle.

When it feels right, groom him and tack up. Go for a walk in the arena and stop at the mounting block. Check the strap on your helmet and climb the steps. Lay a soft hand on his neck and if he’s nervous, breathe until his poll releases. Until his eyes relax. Until he is peaceful and your belly is soft.

Only go as far as the beginning of anxiety and stop there. Release it while it’s still just a flash of an idea.

Then be mysterious again. Step down and go untack him. Remember where you started and celebrate the progress you’ve both made. Know there will be setbacks, so let this time be precious.

Find a good ground coach. Someone who is calm and breathes well. Then take tiny challenges, one after another. Slow and steady, throw your leg over and sit in the saddle at the mounting block. Breathe and feel your thigh muscles. They might need some air, too. Remember you love your horse and melt what is frozen. Dismount without taking a step and call it a win.

Next time, take a few steps. You don’t need to feel like you’re alone on the high dive… ask your ground coach to click on a lead rope and walk beside you and your horse to start. Take baby steps so everyone succeeds. There is no shame in working as a team. Then climb off before you want to.

Think rhythm. All good things for horses happen rhythmically: chewing, walking, breathing. All bad things come with a break in rhythm: bucking, bolting, spooking. Good riding for the horse means rhythm so that’s your first concern.

You can count your breath, focus on your sit-bones like a metronome, or ride to music. Whatever you like, just so it connects your spine to your horse’s movement in a slow, confidence-building rhythm. Then walk on.

When emotions arise, notice them. Refuse to demonize yourself or your horse. Breathe until the feelings get bored and leave.

This is the secret: Remember that science says that a horse’s response time is seven times quicker than ours? While they come apart ridiculously fast, they can also come back together quickly, if we ask them to. Humans believe in a snowball effect; if the horse shakes his head or any other small infraction, the inevitable end is a train wreck.

It isn’t true. If you take a breath as soon as you feel anxiety in your horse, and he will do the same. Other days, your horse might notice you go tense and blow his breath out so loud that you hear it and take his cue.

It’s a partnership; sometimes we carry them and sometimes they carry us. It doesn’t matter who starts it. Just so we all come home safe.

Then one day you notice that the dark thoughts are rare. Instead, you’re distracted by something bright and shiny. It’s your childhood dream, balanced with common sense, right here in real life.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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66 thoughts on “Part Three: Riding Above Fear

  1. Pingback: Part Two: Now I’m Afraid – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

  2. Erica Saunders

    This reminds me so much of my mare. She was so anxious when I got her. She’d bounced 6 places in 3 years. The advice of a highly trusted friend was that she needed to learn to drop her head (relax).

    We backtracked to me sitting on her and doing just that for most of a week, people at the barn thought I was nuts. Once that was reliable, progress to getting a drop of the head at the halt, then at walk. Once we had that at walk, move on to trot which took a few weeks. Canter took a few months. On an anxious day, always reverted to walk until she’d drop her head.

    Its paid off massively for both of us. Many laughed, many ridiculed behind the scenes and it is their loss

    1. SA

      Erica Saunders – thank you for posting. I’m going to implement your strategy with my mare. And yes, I’m sure I will also have a heckler. I’m married to him.

  3. Geerteke Kroes

    Oh Anna Blake, Anna Blake, Anna Blake I love you. This is the/my/Marcello’s process….a process we continuously come back to, can come back to….
    Thank you!!
    Namaste with so much love 💛

  4. Hilary Stearn

    How apposite. I used to think like this and as I have aged some of this trust in myself to build the partnership has disappeared – also I think I have been looking at too many subscription videos and stuff and learning mechanics. Having read this I just feel so liberated and more confident to start trusting in myself and my feelings and emotions and relationship with my horse. True, I do need techniques but you have written this just at the perfect time for me Anna. Thank you so much. It has made me much more confident in trusting the vibes I am getting from the horse and giving to him. 🙂

    1. So much is about perception and I don’t know how a video can teach that… so while you are listening to your horse, give yourself a good listen, too. Thanks, Hilary, for a thoughtful comment.

      1. Jini

        Anna you could show this process in a video if you just had someone filming you while you walked through it over the days, months this process takes. Then edit it all together – maybe it is 1-1.5 hours long in the end. Who cares. During the edit, you add a voiceover – where you narrate what’s going on in your head, the signals the horse is giving, the body/mind dialogue you two are having, how and when you call it a day, and so on. This way you could illustrate everything you talk about here. OR shoot one video for each point in this article – yes, I like that idea better. Will be easier for you too (not one big overwhelming project) and easier to keep on track. 🙂

  5. Karen

    Amen to “Time and patience and constant forgiveness”…….In my book, there really is no other way when it comes to a partnership with my horse.

  6. Acknowledge the weird balance of dread and enthusiasm. Love this! And, Your relationship isn’t defined by proximity; it’s defined by trust. Something that needs to be told to jealous (insecure) husbands. Once again, the school of life holds forth in the horse arena.

  7. Tracey Sands

    I love how this and all your columns combine philosophy and sound, kind, practical advice. I had a small experience yesterday that, for me, exemplifies what can happen after years of building the relationship as you describe. My Morgan gelding, now 18, has always been a highly alert and vigilant soul. He has done some spectacular spooking in his time, though to his everlasting credit, it has never included an attempt to unseat me. Still, yesterday we were walking up the long (unpaved) driveway of our boarding stable. I was riding bitless and on the buckle, with a bareback pad (but at least I’ve learned to wear a helmet after decades of riding in a cap). My boy perceived something concerning, and he reacted, but his spook was just a small step to the side and a momentary tightening of all his muscles, no more than that. So I patted him and told him he was fantastic and that I’m very proud of him. And we walked on and that was that. This after many years of accepting that occasional spooks are an honest reaction to a perceived (and thus genuine) matter of concern, and not a personal attack. I’ve spent years telling him that things are okay and just moving on. For those of us who spend our lives with horses at the more alert end of the spectrum, your advice about using peripheral vision to scan the area with soft eyes is especially important. Know what is out there as soon as the horse does, so that you are a) not taken by surprise when the horse reacts, and b) able to reassure the horse, honestly, that things are okay. It helps, with such horses, to have a good enough seat and reflexes that you can stay with the horse if a reaction occurs, and also to be able to relax your own muscles quickly. I find that anxious horses appreciate a rider who can be an extra set of eyes without also becoming anxious. When the partnership is real and the trust is there, the scary things do become less scary over time.

  8. timsalo

    I am working through riding and fear after a serious accident. I sing “you are my Sunshine” when anxiety comes up. Singing helps me breathe and that song is one I sang to my daughter when she was little so it makes me smile. I am going to print your words to help me through my healing. Thank you.

    1. Singing is good if it helps you, but pause between verses… it’s hard to listen when we’re “talking”. Good for you for working your way back. Thanks Timsalo.

      1. Lynell Abbott

        I would sing, too, to ward off my anxiety and help with breathing. My favorite song was “Mary had a Little Lamb.” I substituted the name “Dover” in place of “Mary.” Every time Dover heard his name, his ear would cock back in my direction. I figured I must be doing something right for that to happen!

  9. Sharon

    I love it! Yes, I remember our lessons, I remember these words… the great thing about all of it is…. IT WORKS! Still working on the running through the pasture part, but I can tell we all enjoy the process a LOT more :). Thank you Anna

  10. So beautifully and perfectly simple…yet, so very elusive that it’s difficult. I love this post Anna. Thank you so much for sharing these blessings that God bestowed within you. I couldn’t help but read through emotional tears. 🙂 Sweet, happy tears. *sigh* I’m gonna keep on trying because I love my horse. All the horses.

  11. When I have “common sense,” I go back to a place with my horse where I feel no “common sense,” and stay there until I feel comfortable taking a tiny step forward. Which is exactly what you said.

  12. Excellent article. People are often in such a hurry to “get” somewhere with their horse that they don’t take the time to build a relationship of trust first. My OTTB was returned by his first adopter because she got scared, then he decided there was something to be scared about and that anxiety spiraled up to the point where he was unrideable . . . which goes to my next point. People often choose horses that are temperamentally unsuited to them. A horse like my high-energy, just off the track TB wasn’t going to do well with someone who was afraid if he jigged. Heck, we spent the first half hour of every ride bouncing along like a pogo stick until he figured out it didn’t upset me. You can build a relationship but you can’t change basic temperament (just like people), so choose wisely.

  13. Bravo!! Such a great post… One of your commenters above (Erica) mentioned how we can feel judged by those around us. I find that to be such a big factor for many including myself. Thank you for the important reminders in this post. It is so easy for me to speed things up even though I am temperamentally comfortable with tiny snail steps.

  14. Galloping Grandma

    My fear, or common sense, is so affected by the other unkind well trained riders at our boarding stable. So perhaps my senses are in survival mode when I am brave enough to ride when these well trained riders are making their presence and knowledge known. How I wish they would just leave those of us who are challenged so by common sense find our way in peace. Or perhaps I need blinders. Any advice?

    1. Beware the gray mare, I say. (Truly, I have no idea why people feel so free about instructing methods of domination.) Someone needs blinders, all right. Thanks, Galloping.

      1. Galloping Grandma

        I have a feeling it is me who needs the blinders. I will try to be as brave as my gelding. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience in terms that are not so threatening.

  15. Karyn

    Thank you Anna…….your words bring into focus all my thoughts and to hear them from someone so wise is calming in itself. xx

  16. Sherry Walter

    It boggles the mind that the slow, relaxed approach would be seen as lunacy. Don’t most people see their horses as a pleasant hobby? Why would you rush through doing something you love? Better to savor every moment. I think the most important phrase in your post today is ‘pause and breathe’. Amazing how doing such a small thing can head off a clash.

  17. I am currently battling a hoof abscess, and old horse arthritic knee issue with my 21 yr old OTTB.
    Of course the hoof abscess is on the opposite leg than the bad knee. So picking up his bad hoof to pack it, vet wrap it, and then duct tape it. Hasn’t been easy on either of us. But I make sure that I have “time” when I get there. That way I don’t feel rushed. And he doesn’t “feel” my need to rush.
    Today, after sweating his knee. Soaking his hoof. And giving him a grooming and massage. I leaned against the wall of his stall and let out a long breath. He came over, leaving his food bucket. Put his head down. And while I rubbed his ears and straightened his forelock. He let out the biggest sigh. And visibly relaxed. I stood there for another 10 minutes. Just rubbing his head and talking to him.
    I know the trainers at the barn I board at think I am crazy. Keeping a 21 yr old, pasture sound only OTTB as a pet. But he and I have the best relationship. I have learned how to relax. How to listen. And he has learned to same. I hope I will be blessed a 4th time with another horse as great as my mares, and now my gelding have been. But I know that I will bring so much more to the relationship with my next horse, because of the time I have just spent listening, and learning.

    1. My Grandfather Horse was retired more years than he was rideable. I think I learned as much in those years as I did riding up the levels with him. It will never be time wasted. Thank you for the heartfelt comment and scratch your kind gentleman for me.

  18. Susie

    I was simply reading along, minding my own business when tears started to flow. Thank you for guiding me to the heart of the matter. I’m very much doing what you are describing since I can’t ride, but wasn’t quite aware of how I feel about all of it.
    It’s been over 4 months since our accident, and I’ll be having a plate put on this collarbone in ten days time, then there should be an end in sight. Healing. On all fronts.

  19. Jane Greenwood

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! From an almost 70 year old woman who has a horse that is “too much horse for you”. I have the space and resources to keep this magnificent creature and your words so assuage my feelings of guilt for keeping him and not selling him to someone who is a better rider than me. I raised him, owned his wonderful brother who was the perfect horse for me, and when he passed after a failed colic surgery, Jugueton become the next “perfect” horse. Too perfect if truth be told! But he loves me and I love him. He is a jealous horse and prefers I only ride him, but I hesitate. I have my solid, go anywhere mare and so he has not been ridden in over a year, but I’ve been yearning to get on him again. I do work with him on the ground; he comes when called, LOVES to perform his tricks (he smiles, gets on a pedestal and comes to the mounting block when I call “curb service” … did I mention I’m not only old but pretty short).
    This blog post has made my heart sore with happiness. I CAN go as far as I feel safe with him and it’s fine, it’s ALL good. It’s RELATIONSHIP that’s the key. Again, thank you for making such a difference.

  20. Michelle

    I loved this post! While my mare has never done anything to scare me, she certainly gave my daughter some wild rides that I watched with motherly fear! My fear came from a bad fall years ago. But last summer this mare was coming off a suspensory injury and my daughter wasn’t going to be around to do the “ride at a walk for 10 minutes” every day that week. Singing and doing yoga breathing, I did it. Every day. And then it was 15 minutes of walking every day the next week. And so on. Fast forward a year, and while I still have nervous setbacks, I’m cantering on this Arab/Percheron cross in the outdoor arena and taking her on trail rides with us in the lead!

    Slow and steady win the race every time.

  21. Lisa

    I have learned so much from following your blog. Just over 6 months ago I sat on my kind OTTB and sobbed because my common sense told me to only walk him. He took care of me yet I knew he needed more exercise. The railbirds had plenty of advice; sell him, he’s too much horse for you, he’s hot and spooky, (judgments). The basis of my common sense was bullying. For example, another boarder leaving her horse unattended in the arena while I rode or “accidentally” hitting my horse with her whip when she passed. No kidding. My stomach was in knots every time I arrived at the barn. My horse knew it. He hesitated to leave his stall. I groomed, hand-walked, and did ground work outdoors. Finally, I overcame my hesitation to advocate for both of us. The bully was given a choice to move to another stable on the farm or leave. Huge sigh of relief! Then I started working with a different trainer. She warmed up my gelding, who is an overachiever, and taught him to be relaxed and forward. I went back to baby steps. My confidence is back. My gelding is chill. We trot and canter around and his ears flop! And our best achievement? We hack around the farm property smiling and my common sense speaks to me in a quiet, reassuring tone. The calming signals were there for both of us all along.

  22. Deb Hetherington

    I remember riding my boy down our driveway. I was terrified, but forced myself to do it. We got to the gate and turned around to come back to the house. I realised I had to TRUST. He had never done anything to make me distrust him, so I forced myself to believe in him, until he gave me reason not to. As a part of the trust I deliberately relaxed my legs. It was an epiphany….id been gripping so tight it was a wonder he could breathe. This just reinforced to me what a patient, forgiving boy he is. It’s still a slow journey, but I’ve got plenty of time.

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