Facing My Dark Horse

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.” Ambrose Redmoon

Four years ago, I was bucked off one of my horses. This wasn’t the first time I had been bucked off. Anyone who has been riding for any length of time -especially those of us who ride young horses and retrain “problem” horses – has had this experience. You dust yourself off and get back on …or you don’t. As a professional horseperson, this particular experience put me at a cross roads. My confidence was shaken. I hadn’t seen it coming and when it came, it was explosive. This particular horse had an ongoing physical issue that we thought (until that moment) we had under control. There was no option to get back in the saddle on him at that time. The result for me was serious. I became nervous about getting on any horse – especially horses that I did not know. As a horse trainer & riding coach, this was a real threat to my livelihood. I either had to work through my fear or give up what I love and find another way to make a living. The choice was easy. The journey was not.

For a long while, I had to coach myself through getting on every horse. I would do some ground work first so that I had a good read on how the horse was feeling that day. I would take my time getting into the saddle, making sure I was breathing deeply to release the adrenalin that was flowing freely through me and releasing tension I was holding in my body. A tense body cannot feel the horse nor can it send clear messages to the horse. After a while (not a short while), the fear of getting on all horses diminished and eventually went away. All that remained was the fear of getting on horses with a history of bucking and putting the first ride on horses. What continued to feed my fear was not only the memory of my own last experience of being bucked off, but the experiences of other people I knew. I added their experiences and injuries to my own fear.

What caused this fear to take such a hold on me? I no longer trusted MYSELF. I no longer trusted my ability to read the horse, pro-actively prevent the behaviour or ride through the bucking. I could have just walked away and not dealt with the fear. Why did I make myself work through it? My desire to keep riding, training and teaching was stronger than the fear.

Last week-end, while assisting Chris Irwin at a clinic, I was presented with the opportunity to face my ‘demon’ in a public environment, but with my coach there to help me through it. I had to trust in my own ability to read and ride this horse without triggering his “button” while keeping my own issues in check. I also had to trust my coach to guide me through it. He had to know when to push and when to back off; when I needed him to “hold my hand” and when he had to let me go it alone.

This 4 year old gelding was also full of fear. He had been through several bad training experiences in his short career and had a great mistrust of trainers and new people. He now bucked off any trainer who tried to ride him. I accepted this opportunity to help both myself and this horse. As I worked with Sparky in his stall and through the ground work exercises, I realized how his fear mirrored my own. He was braced, tense and expecting the worst to happen. After 2 plus hours of work from the ground, we both relaxed and developed a mutual trust and respect for each other. As I prepared to mount him, he stood calmly, relaxed, bending around my leg and keeping his head low. This was a far cry from his reaction the day before when I first sat on him. He had been good in the ground work (with another trainer), but became tense and braced as soon as he realized I was getting ready to get on and ride. With my coach heading him, I initially lay across his back several times before throwing a leg over to sit in the saddle. After a minute of just following his bend while my coach led him from the ground, he relaxed enough for us to go on our own. We walked for several minutes and then finished the ride with some good walk/halt/walk transitions.

This second ride was going much better as he listened beautifully to my leg and maintained a soft, supple body for most of the ride. Both of us exhaled and relaxed. That is, until 3 more horses came into the arena and his attention was gone. I started to lose it mentally. Now, I was really pushing my “edge” of fear. If my coach hadn’t been there, I would have gotten off. The horse was simply interested in the other horses and wanted to go check them out. He started pushing through my aids. I stopped thinking and my body became very tense. I fell totally into the clutches of my fear. So much so that I couldn’t feel the horse properly and I knew that through my tension I might trigger him to buck.

My coach reassured me that the horse was not stressed; only distracted. Chris talked me through getting his attention back to me. Something I would have been able to do on my own had I not submitted to my fear. Within a couple of minutes, the horse was again listening, cooperative and soft. I was riding again. Then we faced a bigger test. One of the horses – a big, grey gelding – spooked and ran from one end of the arena to the other going right past Sparky & me! I didn’t panic – although I had to ask someone afterwards to please pick my heart up out of the dirt and give it back to me! In that moment, I remembered what to do and did it. The little gelding stayed calm, level and didn’t so much as flick an ear at the commotion. I had truly ridden through my fear.

The purpose of normal (healthy) fear is to keep us safe. This “friendly” fear is a warning mechanism. My fear had gone beyond this purpose and had become a debilitating, unhealthy fear. After working with Sparky, I knew that I must change the relationship I had developed with fear. This fear was not my friend. My fear was actually harming me by shutting down my brain and body. It was taking away something I loved and enjoyed doing. I made the choice to work through my fear – to face my demon. The little dark horse’s fear mirrored mine. By helping him work through his fear, he helped me work through my own. I have taken a great step forward. I still have some work to do to ensure that I keep my fear in check and do not allow it to debilitate me again. Fear should be my friend not my controller. My journey continues.

If you are facing fear either in riding or another area of your life, here are some questions and ideas to help you work through it … if that is what you choose to do.

1) What is the real cause of the fear? … The real cause of my fear was not being bucked off. The true root was NOT TRUSTING MYSELF; not trusting my ability to read the situation, prevent the situation or ride through the situation.

2) Why work through the fear? … My desire to keep riding, training and teaching

3) How do I get through the fear?

i) recognize when fear is taking hold then acknowledge it & feel it

ii) decide that I want to work through it

iii) develop relaxation techniques that work for me – breathing, stretching, positive self-talk

iv) replace negative self-talk & thoughts with positive ones – do not let your thoughts spiral out of control

v) evaluate my ability to deal with the situation – do I need new skills? What are they & where can I get them?

vi) work with a person/coach and a horse I trust & respect

vii) go back to basics

viii) be patient with myself

Anne Gage
Helping horses & humans be better … together.


4 thoughts on “Facing My Dark Horse

  1. Thank you for your honest and insightful article. I am going through fear issues right now, after a bad spill in 2007. I am trying to “move closer and stay longer”, but am always in “retreat” mode. Your article is inspirational and very well written.

    In appreciation,

    Heather Baskey
    Rockwood, ON

  2. Great post, glad I came upon it. I needed to hear those words. I recently had a horse spook (no warning, just a huge bolt right out and in a tight circle) and then he tripped and bucked and sent me into the arena wall. It’s taken a long while to get my confidence back…that it won’t happen every time…and that I made my problem worse just by always thinking about it. For me, I have realized that I’m always waiting for that quiet moment to turn into turbulance lol…and I need to just b r e a t h e.


  3. Oh my goodness fantastic words of wisdom. I am struggling
    with trust in my horse as well. I haven’t been working
    him regularly and now I have made it a big deal. Why don’t I
    I trust me to do the right thing by him. He trusts me in
    the paddock and handling him. I will re-read this everytime
    I want to ride. To keep me from setting myself and him
    up for failure. Thanks Anne

  4. Thank you so much for this article. Im 42 years old and
    learning to ride. My husband and daughter have been riding
    and showing horses for many many years, I decided this year
    to join them after losing my job of 15 years, it was a big
    challenge for me, as Im always in the flight or fight mode.
    I wish so bad I could grip this and conquer this fear, when Im
    Im riding Its like a everything else is not important, Im
    so focused on learning and staying safe, that everything
    becomes secondary. I have struggled with PTSD since the
    Gulf War, so believe it or not riding helps me with my
    anxiety, I just fear that something will go wrong and I will
    l become injured, that times it over shawdows the pleasure
    and enjoyment riding brings me. Thank you so much for your
    article I have saved it to my favorites, and I will read it
    over and over again. Fondly. Rachel NewJersey

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