Women, Horses and Fear


Horses and Fear.

We all want to be Cowgirl and Cowboy tough! Attend any rodeo or horse competition of any kind and it’s obvious, there is no room for fear here! Watching fellow cowgirls in the barn, no one seems afraid of their spirited horse–or anyone else’s! No wonder we don’t want to talk about it, or confide in our friends that we might be too afraid to lope our horse, too afraid to get back in the saddle after a bad fall, or too afraid to do whatever it is we aspire to do with our horses. It is very perplexing; we seem to live in a world that is driven by bad news and the propagation of fear (if you doubt this, just turn on the nightly news), yet if we are afraid of something there must be something wrong with us–hey, why aren’t you Cowgirl tough!?

I’d like you to delve into this four-letter word with me (there will be no swearing!) and we’ll discover that fear is a natural mechanism that we are born with to keep us alive. We’ll also explore and understand how and why fear can go “bad,” and, most importantly, what one can do about it. It is possible to retrain our brains and release a habit of fearful responses. To prove it, I’ll share some inspirational, firsthand stories of horsewomen who overcame their fears–and their personal advice to you about doing the same.

There are two types of fear. The first fear is the type that helps us. One can feel this type of fear and act rationally, like not touching a red-hot burner on the cooktop because we know it can really hurt us. We won’t touch the stove because we are ultimately afraid of the damaging result to our fingers! Or, if your horse does something to you that is clearly unusual or out of your league– like suddenly charging you in the round pen – you (hopefully) act rationally, run out of the round pen and call your trainer.

Now granted, this may have scared you pretty bad, but you used your fear reaction and the adrenaline it created to protect yourself (by running), and then educated yourself on how to deal with the problem by calling someone who can teach you how to handle the situation safely. It’s not all that different from a mother teaching a child to avoid hot burners. The second type of fear is the one we need to focus on. This is the kind of fear that can be debilitating. This species of fear can cause overwhelming anxiety and stop you from doing things you would like to do with your horse.

Linda Chrisman, MA philosophy/religion, Oakland, CA, is a Somatic Experiencing Therapist. Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a technique for helping people who have high levels of fear or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Linda explains that fear is a completely natural response and that our brains are wired for danger. Until there is evidence that there is no danger present (we reason this out with our pre-frontal cortex by always scanning, observing and checking out our environment), we are ready for protective action. If we do detect danger, humans naturally go into either a run/ fight, or a freeze (immobility) response.

Chrisman goes on to say that the freeze response is the earliest form of the danger response, it conserves oxygen, and most predators stimulated by movement are more likely to leave their prey if it stops moving. However, people who experience the freeze response rather than running or fighting, are more likely to develop PTSD. Interestingly, wild animals that exhibit the freeze response do not develop PTSD. When a wild animal comes out of the freeze response there is a period of time that the animal experiences a deep biological response that involves what we might describe as “shakiness,” and a feeling of being extremely out of control. The wild animal successfully processes this phase, and moves on. 

“Horses are large animals capable of inflicting significant harm, either on purpose or more often inadvertently as a result of their own fear.”

This is not usually the case with humans. We tend to override the deeper biological response. We don’t want to–or even know how to–give this phase the time it needs to pass out of our bodies. Linda explains that people who don’t feel safe after a traumatic event, or experience high levels of anxiety with no cited “event,” cannot just “push” through it, snap out of it or “pull themselves up by the boot straps.” The fear has literally become something physical. It is below our cognitive control, and the nervous system gets locked into responding as if the danger is still present.

This sounds terribly overwhelming, but let me repeat a previous statement that fear persists “until there is evidence that there is no danger present we are ready for protective action.” So, if we scan, observe and check our environment, and see that there really is no danger, we can begin to move past the fear. Linda takes her clients through small incremental steps, starting where the client can “anchor” in a feeling of comfort and safety. Linda then builds upon this, step by step, until the client can comfortably “anchor” in something that was previously too frightening. She stresses how important it is to go at the client’s pace and that the client must feel that they are in control of each step.

Being a horse trainer and riding instructor, I’ve dealt with some very frightened students. Horses are large animals capable of inflicting significant harm, either on purpose or more often inadvertently as a result of their own fear. When I spoke with Raye Lochert (Santa Rosa, CA, Raye Lochert Horsemanship), and Skip Bertuzzi (Nevada City, CA, Heart Centered Horsemanship) and it was clear that we are all dealing with this challenge successfully by using techniques similar to Linda Chrisman’s.

The most important points that Raye, Skip and I concur on are when helping a cowgirl overcome fear are:

1. You must trust your “teacher” and believe they have your safety and best interest in mind.

2. Fearful cowgirls must work with well trained, gentle horses that they can also develop trust in.

3. The “teacher” starts with the most basic fear the client has (for example, if the person is too afraid to ride the horse, they might start on the ground, where they do feel comfortable and safe).

4. Small steps must be taken.

5. Women should never be forced to do something they are uncomfortable with; they must feel in control of each step they are taking.

6. Allow as much time, or as many sessions needed for each step.

7. Fear will dissipate as you feel comfortable and safe with each step, replacing bad feelings or memories with good ones.

About 6 years ago, I got a call from a 59-year-old gal who was inquiring about riding lessons on her horse. She explained that this was the first horse she had owned. He was a 7-year-old mustang that she had adopted when he was six months old. Nancy assured me “Sparky” was well trained, but she needed some help with her riding skills and described herself as: “Scared to death, insecure and very fearful that I am going to get hurt.” When Nancy arrived at my barn with her horse, I was very happy to see that “Sparky” was indeed a well trained horse, very well matched to his rider.

As I observed Nancy riding, she very closely fit the description she had given me over the phone; she clung to the reins and the horn of her saddle as if they were a life preserver and she was caught in a deadly ocean rip tide. I asked her what she was afraid of and she stated that she was afraid he would go too fast and she would lose control. So, we began by working where she felt safe, at the walk, and we practiced one rein stops over and over and over until, as Nancy said, they began to feel like second nature. She felt more in control, because she was able to stop her horse any time she wanted.

When Nancy was ready, we tried a trot. I had Nancy trot for just a few steps, and then stop him. This way she felt like she was in control and again, could stop her horse whenever she wanted. Gradually, we would extend the distance she allowed Sparky to trot. If he ever picked up speed, I asked Nancy if she was comfortable, and if she said no, I directed her to “shut him down” with a one rein stop. Practicing this repeatedly, Nancy was soon comfortable trotting Sparky around the arena. She was still not ready to lope, but she would ask me to ride and lope him around, because she believed he wanted to, and it reassured her to see someone else successfully doing what she wanted to do on him. When she was finally ready to try, we took the same steps, lope just a few strides, then one rein stop. With lots of repetition, Nancy was able to overcome her fear of riding her horse, and it always brings a smile to my face when I see Nancy down at our local horseman’s arena, loping around on Sparky like it is nobody’s business!

Now, in Nancy’s case, she had high levels of fear that kept her from enjoying riding her horse, even though she never had a bad accident or incident. The next story does involve a serious accident, illustrating how a very accomplished horsewoman was able to overcome the fear it caused her.

“If you try to get rid of fear and anger without knowing their meaning, they will grow stronger and return.” – Deepak Chopra 

On March 9, 2012, Margo Hoagland, USDF Gold, Silver and Bronze Medalist and USEF Dressage Judge was at home, riding her 21-year-old Grand Prix dressage horse alone in her outdoor arena. “Lemon”, she told me “is the perfect steady campaigner. He has been shown everywhere, and when out on trails he will go down, over and through anything without problems. He is just a totally good guy!” Margo and Lemon were just walking along, and Margo remembers hearing a motorcycle pass on the road in front of their property. “It wasn’t just the motorcycle, something else, and I’m not even sure what it was, really frightened him, and he bolted.” She remembers staying on and trying to stop him, making it about half way down the arena, and then she had no recollection of what happened.

When she regained consciousness, she was lying in the sand in the end of the arena farthest from the road, and closest to the barn. The first thing she did was to look up and see where her horse was. She saw him standing in the arena with one of the reins around his leg, but other than that, her horse was fine, Margo, however, was not. The next thing she tried to do was stand up, but she immediately passed out again. When she regained consciousness the second time, she was able to crawl from the arena to the barn, where there was a telephone, and dial 911. Margo had broken her neck.

Miraculously, Margo’s injury was a non-displaced vertebral fracture, so there was no damage to her spinal cord. Margo had been riding for 59 years, and was not ready to throw in the towel. Besides the physical injury, she was suffering from symptoms of PTSD. She started therapy with a professional as soon as possible after the accident. It took her six months to heal and be ready to get on a horse again. Just as Linda Chrisman suggests, Margo took very small steps! With a competent friend with her, the first “horse” she got on was one of her very small ponies that was very slow and kept her very close to the ground. She also had complete faith in him. She rode that pony until she established a feeling of safety, and then moved on to riding a very quiet quarter horse mare in her indoor arena (again, always with another person present).

She recalls an incident while riding this mare, when she heard a motorcycle pass by out on the road (a motorcycle passed by when the original incident happened). She went into a complete panic attack and had to have her friend come and stand with her in order to feel safe. She said it was very interesting, her head was telling her “You are fine!” but her body went into a total panic reaction and it was not something she could control (remember Linda Chrisman’s comment on how the fear gets lodged in the body, beyond our cognitive control). Margo continued to take only the steps she could handle, and gradually was able to ride in her outdoor arena where the original accident happened.

Four months after she started with the pony, she was able to ride Lemon again. She continues to judge and is currently showing; in fact, the first dressage show she entered was on the one year anniversary of the accident, which, she said, she planned intentionally.

Margo Hoagland back in the saddled with Lemon.

Fear is truly not the terrible word that we think it is; it is simply a part of being human. If more women experiencing fear with their horses came out from behind the stall door and talked about it, we would realize what good company we are in! Remember, fear is embedded in our systems in order to keep us safe. Driving a car can kill us, yet we drive. Our innate fear has us take precautions; we make sure our vehicle is in good working order, and we learn the skills necessary to drive safely before embarking out on the road.

A good friend once told me that a horse is like the ocean; beautiful, but has the power to be deadly. So again, we take precautions and make good choices by riding horses that are suited to our individual level of expertise and keep our horse handling skills sharp. If you do happen to have a fall, or find yourself afraid of something that you would like to do with your horse, you are not alone. There are ways to get help, overcome your anxiety and get back in the saddle.

Margo’s advice to anyone recovering from a bad accident with their horse:

1. Get professional help if you need it.
2. Start very slowly on a horse or pony that you are comfortable with.
3. Get yourself anything you need to feel extra safe (Margo now wears an “exploding” safety vest)
4. Only take the next step if you are really ready for it.

Midori Morgan is a professional writer, horse trainer and riding instructor. An equestrian since age 9, she has studied with top experts in the industry. Along with her intuitive connection to horses, she is accomplished at helping students overcome their fears, and achieve their horsemanship goals. midori@wildhorsemanship.com.

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