I don’t know this for a fact, but my hunch is that there isn’t a single equestrian who hasn’t, at some point, experienced the limiting effects of fear. Fear plays an important role, evolutionarily speaking, in keeping us alive. Fear itself is an emotional experience which triggers biological responses; for many species, it triggers increased heart rate, respiration and muscle tension, and a heightened state of alertness. Horses as a prey species are well known for their genetically driven “fight or flight” response to unfamiliar stimuli, and it is only through careful and systematic desensitization and conditioned response training that we humans can work to overcome some of these natural reactions. But as much as the human species has tried to separate itself from other animals, the truth is that many decisions in our lives are still driven by fear, manifested by our own fight or flight response to situations which we think might cause us harm.
A few weekends ago, the UNH Equestrian Team attended a sports psychology seminar with Alannah DiBona of Windhorse Counseling. DiBona reminded all present that fear is a normal response to a situation which our brains think could cause us physical or emotional harm. DiBona defined fear as “false evidence appearing real”, and told the riders that it is necessary to examine one’s fear in order to truly address it.
“Is the fear serving you in any way, or is it preventing you from doing something you want to do?” DiBona asked the audience.
Fear is a funny thing, because very often it is the things which we want the most which can simultaneously scare us—this is true not just when it comes to riding and our equestrian goals, but to all aspects of our life, whether we are starting a new job, buying a house or falling in love. And fear can really limit us. There are plenty of tips and strategies as to how equestrians should address fear in their riding. But I guess it always comes down to that essential question: are you feeling fear because of the actual task or expectation in what you are doing, and its accompanied level of risk, or do you feel fear because in your heart of hearts, you don’t want to do what you think you want to do at all?
For the riders I work with, jumping in particular seems to trigger a large number of fear responses. All riders (and horses) have a limit in terms of what they will be comfortable jumping in terms of height, technicality or speed. But I feel like I work with a lot of riders who are on the line of needing to decide whether their fear is serving them or not. In their mind, they think they want to jump, but when faced with an actual jumping exercise, the fight or flight mechanism kicks in and renders their aids ineffective.
People ride for a lot of different reasons. But for most people, at least one of those reasons is to have fun. We enjoy being with horses, and we value establishing a relationship and communicating with an animal of a wholly different life mindset (prey vs. predator). There is no written rule that overcoming fear should be a part of your daily riding ritual, and having to do so doesn’t make you tougher; it just makes you suffer. I think when a rider is starting to have recurrent physical and/or emotional manifestations of fear, it is time to consider why they are riding and what they hope to get out of it. There are tons of ways to enjoy being around horses, and if what you are currently doing isn’t allowing you to do that, it is time to make a change.
This whole thought process is a corollary for me right now in another aspect of my life. Thinking back to my earlier blog post about “living a sustainable life”, I think it is critical to analyze what you are doing when you feel like your wheels are spinning and you aren’t getting anywhere. Fear can cause us to keep repeating the same familiar patterns over and over, even though we know that they aren’t working for us or are keeping us from doing something which is much more supportive of our core values. There is a post circulating on Facebook which says something along the lines of, “instead of thinking of it as not having time to do something, think of it as “it’s not a priority””.
Try it and see how it feels. “I don’t have time to ride today” vs. “It isn’t a priority to ride today”. I think that is a pretty powerful way of looking at things.
Right now, fear is currently preventing me from acting on something which has caused me a great deal of anxiety, frustration and anger. I know that responding to this action against me is a priority, but the question becomes whether my fear of the possible consequences of that response is enough to still hold me back.
When it comes to fear, it might not be any easier for my students to jump an oxer than for me to deal with my personal situation. Such is the nature of fear.