Conquering fear of horses and horse riding

Dangerous Sports

As with any dangerous sport, horse riding requires a sincere form of mutual respect and a sense of fear that will allow for self preservation. As a transformational life coach, as well as a horse rider, I have been asked once or twice to simply remove the fear which seemingly prevents this rider from achieving their goal.

There are two types of fear. Fear, or shall we call it awareness, allows a person to react instinctually to the horses’ actions. If one was to remove this awareness, a person would perhaps find themselves limited by their lack of ‘fear’ in a situation which would cause this person to remain directly in harms way or act in a dangerous manner.

Horses are prey animals, thus having a heightened awareness of potential dangers which may lurk in the corner of the arena, out in the veld, in the bushes or on the other side of the valley. Their fight or flight response is almost always flight, putting as much distance between themselves and the threat as possible as quickly as possible.

So in an instant a horse could rear, buck, spin or bolt and without the natural awareness or ‘fright reaction’ that an action like that should encourage, the handler or rider would be at a great disadvantage. As you can understand now, it would be completely unethical for any Life Coach to completely remove this instance of fear from a rider.

Then there is the crippling fear that results from a bad experience. Fear in horse riding can stem from many different aspects, perhaps an unfortunate fall or an unruly horse. These different aspects can cause different levels of fear ranging from a slight lack of confidence to anxiety and panic, which can completely stop a person from doing what they once loved.

Horse riding is meant to be enjoyable

Horse riding is meant to be enjoyable, a nice hack with friends, popping over a few little jumps or simply being in the presence of your horse, can be ruined by an incident or accident and it is useful to investigate this type of fear.

In the event of a fall creating a slight lack of confidence, I would recommend the rider takes the level down a notch or two to where he or she is more comfortable, not only in the saddle but also especially in the presence of the horse again.

In a riding school situation this is easier, returning to a slower paced, more sensible horse would work wonders. If the horse in question is owned by the now fearful rider, it will require work and determination.

I would recommend assessing the incident, the cause and the effect carefully and with the help of a qualified instructor understand what happened, what went wrong and what went right.

Working through the process under the eye of an understanding instructor will help give the rider the confidence to very quickly get back to the normal riding levels.

When ‘get back on’ isn’t the answer

Unfortunately in some rare cases ‘get back on’ isn’t going to be the answer. If the fear is creating a feeling of high alert in the rider, the horse will sense this stress and will believe there is a threat present, the horse will also enter a state of high alert. Neither horse nor rider will enjoy this ride!

Another potential cause of fear around a horse is when the rider is ‘out horsed’. In an industry where making money is a factor, dealers and instructors have been known to sell a horse which is out of the rider’s league.

For example a child or teen has been riding for a year and has started competing at novice levels. Parents wanting the best for their child may decide it is time for the child to get a horse of their very own. This is unfortunately common in the case where the parents are not horse people.

They have a budget and trust that a suitable horse will be found. A dealer may take advantage of such an opportunity and sell a horse that is just too much horse for the rider. Just to be clear, this kind of situation is not restricted to only children, but adults too.

I have a personal example: I bought a horse off the track and she was a nightmare! For the first week I had her at my yard, both my groom and I had shaky knees.

We spent time with her and worked her, trying to get her to calm down. She kept rearing over us and charging at us, in the stable or in the paddock, she was a real handful. The anxiety pushed me to a point where I sat in her paddock crying.

Fear + Anxiety = Anger?

Wondering what I was going to do, I have never been afraid of a horse to the degree I don’t want to go near it, yet there I was. Eventually though, my fear and anxiety turned to anger. I told myself over and over “I am not afraid, I am good at this, I will fix this.”

I was angry at myself for being a wimp! I was clearly ‘out horsed’ this time! I have backed and trained at very least 30 horses in my life, how could I possibly be afraid and not have a clue where to being with this horse. With no one to really help me, I hit the books. All the things I had learned and forgotten, and went back to basics.

I went to bring her in that afternoon for her lunch, as she charged I just stood there staring at her, she reared over me one final time and it was in this moment I realised she was bullying me because she new I was afraid, and normally I would leap out of her way.

This time I just stood there. As her front feet touched down, there was a moment where I could see she was confused, I raised my arms and yelled, “I am not scared of you!”

That was indeed the last time she threatened or bullied me, she never reared again either. I had worked myself through all the levels of fear from shaking knees, to crying, self doubt and finally saw through it.

I am by no means saying I shouldn’t have stepped back to keep out of harms way, but I am saying everything is able to be fixed. Dealing with highly spirited horses for the first time alone can be daunting, and mistakes made can cause fear of the horse, but there are ways to work through it.

Another example I have worked with was a young rider who was jumping up the grades. She had reached a plateau and her parents decided for her to achieve more they would have to buy her a better horse.

This young lady was just edging on 5ft1 and weighed probably less than 50kgs. Her new horse was a very handsome nine year old, TB warmblood cross reaching 17hh. He was well mannered and been trained very well.

However, the two hadn’t had much encouragement to start off with some groundwork, it was straight in the saddle over a course of jumps, lo and behold the breaking system failed. He got strong with her and this shook her confidence.

The instructor put the horse straight into an American Gag. This in theory would solve a problem, but does it? Without the Gag, she was scared of him. So no, it didn’t solve the problem.

The solution was in understanding the fear, why it was happening, from both sides hers and the horse’s, and working step by step retraining them both. She didn’t need to learn to ride all over again, but she did need to learn to ride him. The more confident she became the more his confidence in her grew.

Here are some useful tips which will assist you as a rider, feel more confident:


When done properly, visualising your ride can help you decrease your sense of nervousness, anxiety or fear, whether it be show nerves or something more sinister.

Before you get on take a moment to sit quietly and picture exactly what you would like to achieve with the horse that day, imagine the aids you give, the responses you receive from the horse and in turn the way your body responds to the horse.

Imagine the circles, the figures of eight, the serpentines or the striding before the jump. See it in your mind going exactly as you planned.

Self Talk

Self talk is that babbling that goes on inside your head, most people don’t realise how negative their self talk is really is, you may hear comments like “I’m not good enough.” “I am scared.” or “I’m going to fall.”

It is important to identify these thoughts and say, “STOP!” When a negative thought is identified, replace it with three positive thoughts. Repeat this every time you have a moment of negative self talk!

Risk Identification

There are good risks and bad risks. Good risks can decrease your level of fear and encourage you to move closer to your goal, while bad risks increase your level of fear and could cause serious injury.

As an example a new rider falls jumping a 1m course and now is scared to do it again. The mere thought of jumping a 1m course again is causing anxiety, it would be good to get the rider jumping again, over smaller jumps.

This will build the rider up again and when jumping 1m again it won’t seem like a big leap.


Deep, rhythmic breathing calms and centres you. It is very challenging to feel anxious without holding your breath or breathing with very shallow breaths.

Practice breathing using your diaphragm, you will know you are getting this right as your abdomen will expand and contract with your breath, not only your chest.

Not only is breathing good for your overall health, your horse can sense your breathing too, and this can encourage him to be more calm in response.

Riding Purposefully

Using bending and stretching exercises, circling and changes of direction can be very helpful in situations when your horse isn’t 100% focused and begins to behave in a way which makes you nervous or fearful.

Not only does it distract your horse from whatever he is distracted by, it will also help you to relax. This is even more beneficial when you are using the breathing exercise as described above too.

Ground Work

Ground work is a very important aspect of working with horses, right from the grooming to lunging and in hand work. This bonding time allows the horse and rider an opportunity to get real with one another, build up trust and really get to know one another.

Ground work is also beneficial for teaching and reaffirming commands and manners. Horses tend to look for a leader too, as a rider, it is your job to take the lead, for the rider’s safety and the safety of the horse.

Horses are strong animals with a mind of their own. For us to be in harmony, it is important that we can trust in and respect each other.

When fear creeps in remember that it is ok, it is natural. So too, is it controllable, following the right steps. Sometimes a person needs to go back to basics and build up again in order for the fear to dissipate, allowing the confidence to shine through.


Charmaine Swinburn

Charmaine Swinburn

Charmaine has been a horse junkie since she saw a horse for the first time as a 2 year old. Riding for pleasure and the love of it. She also has worked and ridden in the UK, where she learned a different perspective about this beautiful language and partnership; and was tasked with backing and training the young and new horses which came in.

She has learnt about the synergy between beast and human and strives to use her knowledge and experience of these, to better the interaction and relationship between the two. Charmaine is passionate about helping people to become the best they can be. She uses her skills as life coach to achieve this with great success. Not only does this skill benefit the humans in her life, but the horses she chooses to work with. She successfully use her Reiki skills to heal some of the more difficult subjects which come across her path.

Her sincere and honest approach regarding life and the interactions of humans is refreshing. Charmaine, being a single parent for 14 years, raising her son Liam, without much help from others, has proven herself as a well balanced individual with real life experience, which benefits everyone she comes in contact with.

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