In order to focus on personal goals in my riding and training a few big shifts have been made. It’s exciting and also scary. There are different kinds of fear in our sport and it’s a topic that’s really short on exploration. Being afraid can seem like a small annoyance that might be brushed off.. But unless we acknowledge and move through fear with awareness and support, we can’t get closer to our goals.
The most obvious fear is physical. Getting hurt in our sport is real and probably inevitable to a degree. Most of us know that riding is one of the most dangerous of all sports: concussions, broken bones and worse. As a professional having come up in the era of Courtney King Dye, I experienced the collective shock in our community when she got hurt. She was the epitome of top riding, our own Charlotte before there was a Charlotte. It seemed like she would continue on and lead the way in U.S. dressage for many more years. It was tough on our riding community; not only were we shocked and sad, but we could also see that it could happen to anyone.
When we can’t find a logical reason for why bad things happen, it can just feel wrong. However, a positive cultural change came from this which includes the #EveryHorseEveryRide movement. There is now much more thought and knowledge around traumatic head injuries, helmet awareness and protocols. I’m grateful not only for the contributions of Courtney as a top rider but for all she continues to give to our industry, sharing her knowledge as a professional and in living an inspiring life.
Today, it’s still hard for riders, both professional and amateurs, to talk about the inevitable accidents. There’s a noticeable discomfort when someone does get hurt, especially seriously. Sometimes we ignore it and brush it off. We have a strong and connected community, we help each other without hesitation, but we still don’t want to talk about fear.
Fear is a common area to address. I’ve had many students who owned or were sold the wrong horse. Or maybe they didn’t have the foundation as a rider to work with the horse they had. Many had a bad experience. Riders do get hurt and accidents happen to everyone.
A common scenario I’ve come across are students who have been afraid to canter. Whether because of an unsuitable horse or not having a coach who could guide them safely and successfully to that goal, something like this can become “a thing”; something to avoid, or to develop justifications for not doing or maybe just settling for what it is. Once something is “a thing” it’s doubly hard to overcome.
Part of what makes our sport so challenging is that our partners are large, powerful, reactive creatures who often act on instinct. We love them as individuals but also have goals with them as riders. This area is where it can get tricky. Most owners absolutely love their horses and they take care of their every need, embrace their endearing personalities, and appreciate their beauty. But there can sometimes be a disparity between the love of the animal and the owner’s goals as a rider. The two must be compatible. I knew an owner who loved the prestige of having a beautiful, athletic horse. She wanted to work with and handle him but was frightened to walk the horse from the barn to the arena. She would not have admitted this. When a horse is not right for the rider, everyone loses. This discrepancy can be very painful for riders and owners, it may mean selling or giving the horse to a better matched rider. However, without an honest assessment and willingness to see, no one gains.
I’ve also had many students who just needed guidance to gain confidence, to develop their seat and riding skills, to break down each step at a time as we work towards their goals. In a positive partnership, a good and honest coach can help a student make progress, and create what I call a “Tool Bag” to help in their progression. The student must have the willingness and bravery to address the work to be done.
A student’s Tool Bag includes:
knowing the horse and his tendencies
attaining the specific skills to successfully handle a given situation.
An example situation might be: a horse suddenly looks out to a wooded area beyond the arena, and the rider is triggered to expect a bad or scary scenario to come. If the rider can apply the right skills to address the issue, and not freeze up, the outcome can be successful. With good support and the willingness to dig deep in order to get to the other side, both horse and rider can move forward. As these positive steps are taken, a rider can successfully address challenging moments one at a time and confidence will build.
We need to be able to ask for help and feel supported.
I read an article and interview with a top Grand Prix trainer who is enjoying consistent successes in competition with several horses. In the article, he wrote about how he had gotten bucked off one of the horses, getting hurt with fractured bones. It was the kind of accident that can happen to anyone, including a top rider. He wrote that when he returned to riding, he found that he had some fear. This resulted in riding without his usual confidence and he knew the horse would sense this as well. I thought how brave he was to talk about that fear especially as a well-known professional. I was impressed with his honesty and also that he went about addressing it. He got help by obtaining excellent coaching support, addressed the mental side of his riding, and took care to regain his physical fitness. I have great admiration for that trainer for publicly speaking about his experience.
In another scenario, a rider or trainer may hesitate to ask for help. Perhaps it is ego, fear of judgement, or that the trainer or horse owner may not understand the importance of outside help. I strongly believe that we can’t move forward without honesty and a community of support.
We move past any stigmas around fear by speaking openly about it. I believe every rider has experienced it at one time or another. We all know that there are going to be some pretty gritty moments even though dressage is about working in harmony. Riders can move through those moments with grace and success if they build their Tool Bag which includes open dialogue and support.
Fear can also show up as aggression. This would be the rider (or handler) who punishes rather than corrects his or her horse. It can be the rider who lunges the horse to exhaustion or engages in dramatic riding. These people may be expressing the most fearful mindset of “I’ll get you before you get me.” The saying is true that good riders control their emotions, they do not act with negative emotions - anger and aggression have no place on the horse. Good riding includes control and preparation, in our bodies and minds. But fear leaks out in strange ways, especially when trying to hide from it.. Riding should never look violent. With the best training programs, there is a well thought out method with clear and consistent expectations. There are tough days for sure, but it never results in violent riding.
To clarify, there’s a difference between being assertive versus aggressive. There are going to be times when where your horse has a tight back and may benefit from a forward gallop around the arena. Or she may want to stay back at the barn with her friends. A horse needs a kind yet clear leader, like a good parent who has set fair, understandable and consistent boundaries. Assertiveness comes with the plan. But aggression and anger can make a horse lose trust in his rider. Trust is not an easy thing to earn back. A horse can even be dangerous if he has become traumatized, even if from an incident years earlier.
A different place that fear can show up is off the horse, in the client/trainer/owner equation. This is a tough business to make a living. Trainers may say what they think they need to say in order to keep a client and hang on to a horse. Others are on the hustle to get new clients and horses whether they are the right match or not. It’s a financial reality that clients pay the bills unless a trainer has independent means. I believe professionals can only get from survival to success when they let go of their fear, ask for and get support. The support might be obtaining veterinary maintenance for the horse or changing to a more qualified farrier. It might be having another rider bring along a youngster or getting coaching support to get through a certain period in the horses’ training. Top riders get great coaching on a regular basis. Not every trainer or rider is good at every part of training. We all have unique strengths and ought to honor them.
Europe is known for its solid, successful and proven pipeline; from breeders to young horse starters and trainers, to next level riders, and on to National and Olympic level riders. There has to be more respect, understanding and support for each of these components here in the U.S. Ideally, there would be more connection and communication here between all of those pieces. More education is needed. In the meantime, I believe it’s in our horses’ best interest for clients, owners and trainers to have open, mutually supportive conversations.
Years ago, I was on a buying trip in Europe with my then trainer to look at young horses for clients. I was her assistant trainer, so I had the privilege of riding the youngsters, many under saddle for a few weeks or less. Our arrival coincided with an especially freezing, under 20 degree January. When it came to one horse, the seller said in a casual aside, as I was putting my foot in the stirrup, “This one might buck a little”. Off I went. The horse felt great, trotting and cantering around the arena. His back was supple, no tightness there! A great feeling. In two strides the youngster suddenly sucked back and before I could assess, it felt like I was launched to the rafters and back down. I was okay but so embarrassed. I soon found out that most riders there, even the barn’s unstick-able top riders had gotten launched from that cheeky baby… and I didn’t feel so bad. The barn had a tradition that whoever got bucked off, had to buy a pie for everyone. I did. It tasted delicious and we all had a great time enjoying it.
It’s a good memory for me because I loved the positive culture there which recognized that things do just happen. There was no shame. There was community support, fun and fellowship among riders. For me, this meant everyone acknowledged that mishaps are a part of this sport. No one glossed over them, but neither did they obsess or ignore them. Whatever fears you come across, find the best support team you can, make what changes you need. And don’t forget the apple pie from time to time.
Wishing you great rides and goals,