Getting to the Other Side of the Equine Fear Factor

The story is a common one. If you have spent any time in the saddle it has probably happened to you or someone you know. You were on a horse and somehow, someway they knew that you were a little, maybe even a lot afraid to be on their back. Sensing this, at some point during the course of the ride your horse decided to do something about it.  Perhaps he spooked at something, drug you through some low hanging branches, decided to run back to the barn, or all of the above. Your horse’s attempt to dislodge you may or may not have been successful. Either way you’re even more afraid to ride and convinced that every horse you get on knows this about you. It’s true, they do so let’s take a minute to look at our equine angst and how we can go about getting to the other side of the equine fear factor.

The best thing about our horses can also be the worst. Horses mirror our emotions and as such make them the most amazing teachers. However as a mirror to our souls whatever baggage we saddle them with comes right back at us, the good, the bad and the ugly. In the process our horses tell us much about ourselves, some of which we may not want to know.  Perhaps we are afraid of trying, afraid of failing or falling, or just afraid. Recognizing that we are afraid is the first step to taking the steps necessary to get to the other side of our fear. When we lack confidence in ourselves and/or our riding skills our horses as both prey and herd animals will be hesitant to follow our lead. Instead of a rider, you become a passenger on a thousand pound prey animal with a strong flight instinct. This is never a good thing but there are definitely ways to work through this challenging challenge. 

My many decades of equine experience have taught me that the best place to improve one’s confidence on your horse is off your horse doing ground work. Learning how to control both the speed and direction of your horse’s feet from the ground accomplishes two goals.  The first is that you develop a relationship with your horse on the ground that is based on trust, respect, communication and team work. For the youth that participate in our program, The Pony Express Equine Assisted Skills for Youth, this step is their first step to becoming accomplished riders. Everything we do on the ground off of our horses is in preparation for our ride on our horses. In other words, our foundation for success in the saddle begins out of the saddle.

Successful ground work using a lunge line, a round pen or both is not difficult but will take practice and persistence. As my favorite equine expert, Buck Brannaman says, “the average person can be quite good at this as long as he/she has enough try in them.” So try it. Hopefully you have an area that you can work your horse that is all enclosed whether this is a round pen, or a riding arena. You can begin by using a (long) lead rope and eventually work toward getting the same results using a lunge line. I like to tack my horse up first, though bridles are optional. Getting your horse to move in a small circle where you have control over both the speed and direction of your horse’s feet using your verbal aides and body language is the goal. 

Start by moving your horse in a circle to the left around you. You have the lead rope/lunge line in your left hand and a lunge whip in your right hand. When moving your horse in a circle around you keep your left hand closed around your lead rope and your horse’s focus on you inside the circle, positioning your body in the center of the circle but slightly behind your horses shoulder. Using your voice and keeping your focus (eyes), on your horse’s engine so as to direct your energy to their energy source begin by sending your horse in a circle at the walk.  When making upward transitions, make sure that you up the energy in your voice as needed. For example trot needs to be TROT and canter needs to be CANTER. Remember to say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Ideally you want your horse to move off of your verbal aides and body language from the ground just as if you were asking your horse to move off of your seat and leg aides when on their back. When sending your horse in a circle at the desired gait using your verbal aides and body language be prepared to follow up with more energy from the lunge whip if/when necessary. When making downward transitions using your verbal aides, take the energy in your voice down as well as taking your body and moving from directing the hind end energy behind your horse’s shoulder to maintaining a position in the center of your circle that is slightly in front of the your horse’s shoulder.  

Everything you do in one direction make sure and repeat in the opposite direction. We want our horses to always seek the positive reinforcement so praise your horse often and as needed so they make the connection between the desired behavior and desired response. Whether on your horse’s back or off, you are a team and these exercises take team work. Look for a horse that is relaxed with a soft eye, soft mouth (no clenched jaws allowed), and a rhythmic gait. Finish what you start, always end on a positive note, and work towards getting a halt where your horse actually turns toward you (acceptance), almost as if he wants to be with you (and hopefully he does).

At the end of the day remember the goal is to develop a relationship with our equine partner based on trust, respect, communication and team work in addition to building confidence in your horsemanship skills.  So don’t let your horse’s emotions affect your emotions. Stay calm and focused and keep the learning experience positive for both of you. Only a relaxed horse (and rider) is in a mood to learn. Establishing this relationship off of your horse’s back will go a long ways to establishing a more confident and competent rider in you once on your horse’s back. Good ground skills can take you to the other side of the equine fear factor and provide you with the tools necessary to successfully factor the fear out of your equine experience.