Working Through the Fear
I've been struggling with my nerves when riding.
I've always had a bit of a nervous feeling in my stomach ever since I started riding again. At first, I brushed it off because I thought it was just about getting back in the saddle again. Now that it's been more than a year since I've been riding consistently, I'm figuring out that maybe it's more than just butterflies. Maybe it's more of a fear that's hindering me from improving.
About two or three months ago, I decided that I've had enough and that I wanted to get to the source of this feeling. I could feel myself stiffening up as I rode for what felt like no reason. This would then in turn be transferred to the horse which would react accordingly. One horse would blot and the other would come to a dead stop. Two different reactions to the same aids I was giving them. I would curl up my legs to where both my heels and knees were clenched on the horse's side and my arms would grip a hold of the reins without any sort of release. A completely confusing set of signals to the horse.
What really bugged me was that I didn't recognize that I was doing it until it was too late. I also never knew what triggered it.
I decided to take a step back to figure out what could be the source of the problem. I came up with two answers. The first was that I realized that I'm not invincible. I not unbreakable and falling off can hurt. I think that when I was young, I felt like I could do anything. I didn't think about the consequences so I took more risks. Now that I'm older, I can see what might be the end result and that restricts me from fully committing to what I'm doing. The problem is that this hesitation might actually be the reason I get hurt in the end.
The second reason is that I'm afraid of failing. This is probably the biggest fear that's holding me back from progressing. The thing is, I really want to have a career with horses instead of having this just as a hobby. And since I hadn't been riding for a few years, I felt like I was falling behind. That means that I put extra pressure on myself to do things right and not make mistakes. So, when I do (naturally) make a mistake, I take it really hard. I get frustrated and dwell on it instead of letting it go and moving forward. This means I try harder not to make a mistake, I try to micromanage everything. Then it doesn't go to plan, I make a mistake again, I get frustrated and the cycle starts again. This is definitely not a productive mindset. And if I'm not careful, all this pressure to do something that I love perfectly will slowly start to take the fun out of riding.
So enough is enough and I'm going to start to make some changes. I'm working from the ground up slowly and working towards a more positive experience. Which will then lead to the progress with my riding skills naturally.
With the help of my coach, we've been working on different way to get over this block. Here are a few things that have been helping.
Do it because you want to not because you have to
This is probably the biggest breakthrough statement for me. Before, I used to force myself to get over a jump. I had to approach it at the right pace, I had to take off at the right spot and I had to have the best position over the fence. So when it wasn't perfect, I would get nervous and less confident the more I got closer to the fence. If it didn't work out right, I'd then get worked up about how the jump wasn't perfect. I had these high expectations for myself.
Now, I'm learning to change my thinking. As I'm approaching the fence, I remind myself that I'm jumping because I want to jump. No one is forcing me to jump. It's not like it's the only discipline that I could do. I am jumping because it's what I want to do. It's the discipline I want to ride in. That way of thinking has made the world of a difference. It means I approach the fence in a more positive manner.
Practice on your own
If you can, make arrangements with your barn to ride on your own. There's a different experience when riding without anyone watching you. There's less pressure to feel like you need to be perfect. There's no one to impress. This means that you're able to relax a little bit more and focus on what you want to focus on. So if you want to work on your position or keeping your rhythm the same or perfecting your approach to a pole as if it were a jump, you can. You're in control of what exercises you do.
You want to take advantage of this time to work on your weaknesses. Don't use this time as a "joy ride". You want to work to improve on the things you're struggling with.
What you'll find is that you become your own motivator. You don't have your coach there reminding you to keep your leg on at the base of the jump or telling you to sit up straight. You have to tell yourself these things. And if you make a mistake, you have to be the one to analyse what went wrong, how to fix it and motivate yourself to keep trying. So what if all you do is 20 metre circles until you finally learn not to motorcycle the turn? At least you've now developed the skills to not lean into a turn in the future. And when you do catch yourself making a mistake and correct it, it's the best feeling in the world. You're finally starting to break through your walls.
What's helped me with my nervousness with jumping is putting poles on the ground. It doesn't matter if they're single poles, a five stride line, trotting poles or a set of bounces at the canter. It's all about training my brain to go over something that's in my path all while keeping the proper pace and rhythm. If I can complete a course and keep my thoughts calm, that's a successful ride in my book. I try to focus on my position, pace, looking ahead and my breathing instead of focusing solely on the pole. This keeps my mind thinking instead of shutting down. It keeps my thoughts calm instead of panicking. I definitely notice the difference during my riding lesson the following day. Hopefully one day, going over poles and jumps won't be as big of a deal like it used to be, but until then I'll keep working on it.
When we train horses, we make sure to end on a good note. To end the ride in a positive and accomplishing manner. So why don't we do this for ourselves? If you're struggling with going over fences, start with a height that will challenge you a bit, but that will also set you up for success. Once you've gone over it once or twice successfully without tension, STOP. Don't try to go over it multiple times and set yourself up to make a mistake. The goal is to retrain your mind to think positive. Thinking forward. So stop at a point where you've done it well. That way, the next time you try the jump again, it won't be as big of a deal and you can work on conquering that fear a little bit at a time.
This is something that's really helped me. There's been multiple times where we've stopped the lesson early or ended with a flatting lesson instead of continuing to jump. I've noticed that I'm the type of rider that the first time I go over a jump, I do it well. That's because I don't know exactly what to expect and I have nothing to compare it to. It's the second and third times that the mistakes and tensions break out. So, I work on going over it until it's just as good as the first time, until I'm calm again, and then we stop. That's not to say that I wait until my lines are perfect and my pace is perfect and the take off is spot on for every jump. I just wait until my riding is proactive again. That way, I end my ride with a positive image that will give me more confidence for my next ride.
That was a much longer post than I expected. Hopefully I didn't lose you and that you've taken some helpful tips to try the next time you're in the saddle. I think it's important to remember that you're not alone. Many people have these setbacks. Having your fear is normal because riding isn't normal. It goes against your natural instincts. The challenge is teaching your brain that you're not controlled by that fear and that you'll work through it. Over time, that fearful voice in your head will become more and more quiet until it's gone.
Don't give up!
If you have any more tips that could help, leave them in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you!
Until next time, happy riding!