Overcoming Fear

By Kimberly Poppiti

If you are like the majority of riders, there is going to come a time in your career (probably many times) when you will feel fearful (anywhere from anxious to terrified) about riding or working with a particular horse, entering into a certain situation, facing a particular task, or even about riding in general. Nearly everyone who rides horses for any length of time or with any degree of seriousness has felt afraid up there at some point. But fear not… fear does have its purpose, and fear is a normal part of the learning process - and fear can be used to our advantage, if we acknowledge it and deal with it appropriately.

What is fear?

Fear is a natural and instinctive reaction that serves to protect us from danger. When a perceived threat or danger is recognized, then fear results.

The Buddhist philosophy recognizes two main types of fear: healthy and unhealthy. By understanding the difference, we can deal with each accordingly. We can learn to control fear by responding appropriately to it.

Healthy fear and unhealthy fear

Healthy fear is the fear of something that is actually dangerous and which poses a threat to our safety. This is the kind of fear that, when heeded, protects us from harm. In fact, fear of "common" riding activities can be quite healthy, due to the nature of riding. Bear in mind that what causes one person to feel fearful may not bother someone else. This is natural and rational, and results from the differences in individual skills, personality, confidence, and preferences. Fear is a personal issue. Just because someone else does something doesn't mean you should.

Unhealthy fear is fear of something that either poses no actual threat or that is felt in reaction to something that is simply out of our control. You can determine if your fear is unhealthy - not through comparison to others' fears, but by self-investigation.

While healthy fear can protect us from disaster, unhealthy fear can spoil our general enjoyment of a potentially wonderful ride (or riding career).

What should be done about fear?

When a rider feels fear, the first necessary step is assessment. Evaluate the situation that is causing you fear in order to determine the cause of your fear and the nature of your fear.

Remember, fear is there to protect you from harm, so don't ignore it. The most "normal" cause of fear is simply that you are being asked to do something you are not capable of doing safely.

Assessing fear

When you feel fear about your riding, ask yourself the following questions:

- Am I prepared (mentally and physically) for this activity?

- Is my horse similarly prepared for this activity?

- Do I want to do this kind of riding?

If you answer "no" to any of these fundamental questions, you have identified the root of your riding fear. You have identified it even if you are actually wrong in your perception of the situation. This is because fear, whether real or imagined, is a signal that you are not ready to either continue at your present level or progress to the next. Therefore, if you are feeling as if you "cannot" or "should not" do something, then you should not. This does not mean that you can never move on to the next step, just that you are not ready to do so now. What you need to do at this point is to take the appropriate action to resolve your fear.


1) You may want to consider the obvious: you are just not "ready" to take this next (fear inducing) step. Consider moving back to basics until you build up your skills and your confidence level. Why? Because you're riding a real flesh and blood horse, not a rocking horse. Real horses are independent-minded and powerful creatures with strong feelings (developed over eons of struggling to survive) about what they do and do not want to do. Most of the "scary" things horses do, including spooking, rearing, spinning, bucking and bolting, are natural equine reactions that are triggered by the horse's highly developed self-preservation mechanism. These actions are also potentially dangerous to people. Therefore, if you want to ride safely and confidently, you'll need to learn how to work with the horse, not against him. Learning and understanding why your horse does what he does - on the ground, under saddle, or anywhere - and what to do (or not do) about it is one half of the equation for riding safely and for successfully conquering fear. Having a clear understanding of your horse, and allowing a two-way communication system with him, will enable you to develop a cooperative and mutually trusting relationship, which will go a long way towards eliminating horse-related fear (yours and his) and will further your mutual advancement.

2) If this does not banish your fear, try a new approach. Consider whether or not your current trainer is pushing you beyond your limitations. Ask yourself why s/he seems to think you are ready for this step, but you do not. Do you trust their judgment? If not, maybe you need to find an instructor you do trust. You need to evaluate your horse in a similar fashion. Perhaps if you can ride a horse that is more capable, then you will feel safer. If the horse is more experienced, then s/he can often help you take a step forward and build up your own confidence. If none of these are the solutions to your problem, maybe you need to take a break to reassess your riding or perhaps you would enjoy a less challenging and/or risky style of riding (at least for now).

Keep in mind throughout your evaluation that fear is a normal part of the learning process. Any challenge can involve facing and overcoming fear to some extent. Challenging yourself is a necessary part of riding and the advancement of your level of riding skill. If you never came up against that difficult jump, horse, or situation that raised your heart rate and caused you to sweat a bit, either you wouldn't be normal or you wouldn't be advancing. This is where unhealthy fear comes in. A normal feeling of nervousness accompanies trying something new and challenging. When we allow this feeling to overwhelm us and keep us from progressing, then we have succumbed to unhealthy fear.

If you are truly skilled enough to advance, with a horse that can do the job, and a supportive trainer who has prepared you both for this test, and still you feel incapacitating fear that prevents you from enjoying the challenge, you have unhealthy fear. Whether you fear something specific or have generalized fear, anxiety or worry without a basis in actual danger, your fear is unhealthy and needs to be addressed as such.

3) Remember, no one "has" to ride. It may be, especially if you suffer from an ongoing, generalized fear of riding, that it simply is not the sport for you. You may be a person who enjoys being around horses, but not riding. In this case, your unhealthy fear is really just letting you know that riding is too risky for you and so, technically, we can consider it healthy. The fear of bodily harm is a healthy fear.

But what about the fear of embarrassment? This is nearly as commonplace, and as destructive, as the fear of actual physical injury. The fear of public humiliation, and similar fears like that of personal failure, are caused by a discrepancy between what a rider thinks s/he "should" be doing or is expected to do, and what s/he is actually comfortable and/or capable of doing. Because this fear is not based in any kind of any actual danger, and because it is so limiting, it is considered unhealthy.

Address this type of fear first by assessing your reasons for riding. Ask yourself a very simple question: "Why am I riding?' Learning the answer to this question will enable you to determine exactly what is it that you (not your trainer, not your friends, not your parents - but you) want to accomplish with your riding.

4) Assess your goals. Do you want to have fun? Get some exercise? Conquer your fear of horses? Become a competent pleasure, trail, or competitive rider? Become a world-class equestrian? To answer these, you need to have a clear idea of your current (short term) riding goals at all times, and you should also actively and regularly assess these goals and your progress toward achieving them. With respect to your long term riding goals, you should decide where you eventually want to go with your riding and how you plan to get there (as best you can at the present time). Fear (both healthy and unhealthy) is more likely to arise when people deviate from what they actually want to do, or have no conscious idea of what they actually want from riding. Understanding and actively working toward your goals can go a long way toward resolving healthy fear and eliminating unhealthy fear.


In summary, and in simplest terms: As you evaluate your riding and your fear, bear in mind that all riders feel fear sometimes, and to some degree. You are not unusual, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you can be thankful for your healthy fears because they shield you from harm. Unhealthy fears may seem less helpful and, in fact, are less directly so, but even they can serve to alert you to a problem with your riding if you listen to them. The key to overcoming any fear is to identify the root cause of it and address it appropriately.

Make the necessary changes to remedy the potentially dangerous situations and make them safe. If you suffer from unhealthy fear, you need to acknowledge it, redefine your riding goals and/or practice, then proceed accordingly toward eliminating your fear. In either case, as soon as you take the necessary steps to gain control of or eliminate your fear, you will be able to get back to enjoying your riding! It can take some time, but if you really love riding, it's worth the effort. You can do it!

About the author:

Kimberly Poppiti has been riding, enjoying, and studying horses for over thirty years. In the 1980's, she competed in the Medal, Maclay and USET regionals and finals; now she rides mainly for fun and also enjoys studying the various connections between horses and people. She has a PhD from New York University and teaches at Dowling College where she is Chair of the Drama and Dance Departments.