Do You Feel Nervous When You Ride?

Interesting how horses can look beautiful when they are on the edge of exploding. Granted, this is not the most flattering photo of me in the saddle, but it IS one of my favorite photos of my horse, Bear. The photo was taken in 2011 during a weekend of casual camping and participating in a timed obstacle-course competition. To say that Bear was pumped that day would be an understatement. I was worried about riding that much horse out into this big, open field of obstacles. The photo was taken as we rushed back to the finish line. It was like 95 degrees with 100% humidity. I was nervous, overheated, exhausted. It was all I could do to keep Bear together and not get completely out of control on our return run. The photo definitely captures a time when I felt nervous in the saddle. 🙂

I know I am not the only equestrian that struggles with their nerves while riding. As much as I absolutely love to ride, I still get nervous. I feel most alive, most electric, most vibrant when in the saddle. Yet I can get quite apprehensive at times too. Weird but true.

When we learn to ride, much of what we are taught focuses on the mechanics of riding. What we should do with our bodies. Less attention is often paid to the mental aspects of riding. What we should do with our thoughts, emotions and energy. It is often left to the rider to figure this out for themselves.

I know for me that when I start to feel nervous and then think about why I am nervous, that pattern takes me out of the present moment and out of my body. Thinking about those nerves takes my attention off my horse and what I need to be doing in that moment of my ride to help my horse.

It is really hard to stay with my horse when I am ruminating about my nerves and then jumping into the future imagining some disaster scenario. For me, the saddest part about rider nerves is when the horse gets blamed for spooky and anxious behavior that actually originates with that nervous rider.

Even if we are not a naturally relaxed and confident rider, we can still learn to channel our mind to refocus negative thoughts/emotions and increase positive ones.

One of my favorite techniques to help relax and refocus myself is to recognize when I am starting to feel nervous and then implement three proactive steps that bring me back into the present moment. Here’s an example. If I am riding and then I feel my stomach tighten, my heart rate rise or my body curl forward, I know that I am getting tense and need to implement my action steps.

My three proactive steps might change depending upon the horse I am riding or where I am riding (at home verses a show) but they often include

(1) Taking a deep breath where I breath into my belly ( and exhale too)
(2) Looking up and out between my horse’s ears
(3) Feeling the rhythm and hearing the sound of my horse’s hoofbeats.

Other ideas are to make sure I can see my horse’s inside eyelashes as we are going around the ring (aiming for correct bend in the arena). I might also check in with my body to address some of my less than helpful habits such as seeing if I need to bend my elbows, roll my shoulders back or point my toes forward. I might remind myself to smile.

I’ll go through this pattern every time my nerves come into my awareness, as often as I need to during my ride, until I forget about my nerves and refocus on what my horse and I are physically doing in the present moment.

If I can’t seem to refocus and the nerves stay, I take that as a sign that I need to slow down. Maybe change the activity. Maybe ask for some help. Remember, nerves CAN be useful in keeping us out of dangerous situations.

We riders have to regularly practice discernment in figuring out when we should proceed with an activity while simultaneously managing our nerves VERSES using our nerves as a sign that we need to stop and change course.

I know this can be tricky as all horse activities carry an element of danger just by the very size, strength and nature of the horse. It can be a journey to try to mitigate the dangers and yet also make peace with a certain amount of risk inherent with horses.

I try to do all this in a spirit of positivity. With a spirit of generosity towards myself. Some of us will never be the bold riders that we would otherwise like to be. We just aren’t’ wired that way. I know I am not. I feel sad about this, but I also don’t want to beat myself up about it.

Even with nerves, I still think we can be successful riders with the right type of the horse in a suitable discipline, surrounded by the right type of support. We can still enjoy the ride.

How about you? Do you struggle with nerves while riding? What are your favorite ways to cope?

10 thoughts on “Do You Feel Nervous When You Ride?

  1. I was never nervous on the horse I rode very summer. He was rock steady. I was nervous on my own horse; he had a reputation for being spooky, well earned, and I didn’t know enough to help him. However, funnily enough, he was more relaxed when I sang to him. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, yes! Singing! I have friends who have found success with relaxing themselves and their horses through singing. I sing off-key, but I did sometimes sing to Bear and found that he would lower his head and walk with less tension when I sung “row-row-row your boat.” Thank you for this reminder!

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  2. Oooof, this is timely! I’m more nervous/anxious these days, not so much out of a fear of loss of control or what could happen, Tarma has proven herself not spooky at all, but questioning myself and if I’m good enough for her. I sign, badly, to help relax, and I talk a lot. One trainer I see prefers silence mostly but talking and signing force me to breath and relax and stop overthinking things!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find sign language really interesting- how cool is that to be to incorporate it into your horsemanship! And that is a good point about different folks take on talking to horses. I have read some respected horse professionals recommend regularly chatting with your horse while others seem more like your one trainer and recommend almost total silence. I always find it fascinating when I read/hear two totally different recommendations on handling the same issue- so many different ways to slice the same apple, so to speak. Thanks so much for reading the post and adding your comments!

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  3. I think most people experience nerves in some way more often than you think. It can also come and go for various reasons. Having a pre ride checklist for me and my horse and focusing on breathing helps!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, Avery. Proper preparation is a great point! I like the pre-ride checklist idea. I know if I rush off to ride feeling all behind schedule and flustered that it doesn’t help in the nerves department. And if I am all rushed, I’m probably not breathing deeply either.

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  4. Great reassuring post, I so often feel silly or judged for being a nervous nelly. We are our own harshest critics. If my horse is a little wired before I get on I stand in front or beside place my hand on their face or shoulder close my eyes take a deep breathe & in quiet steady as I can, lol, firm tones talk to my horse & when I feel their face or body relax under my hand, I calmly carry on. I have had times where I have stopped the horse no matter where I am, (ignoring judging whispers from people around me, I make no apologize for doing what’s best for myself or my horse) I place my hand on the mane & take a deep breath relax through from my toes to my fingertips & then ask the horse to walk on. Sometimes it takes a while for the horse to catch on that your relaxed & that they can relax too when in saddle but it has worked every time for me, so far. lol. Have a fun relaxed weekend pony friend.

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    1. I think you bring up an excellent point! I know when I get nervous, I tend to speed up and get all “herky-jerky” with my movement and breathing. Sometimes taking a moment to pause, slow down and breath can do wonders to recalibrate myself to something more calm and centered. I like how you invite the horse to join you in that quiet moment. They are herd animals, after all, and certainly have that capacity to feed off others.
      That is tough at times, too, to deal with the judgement of fellow riders (or perceived judgement that we might sense from others even if they aren’t verbalizing). I could probably right a whole other post on that one. There is a lot of grist for the mill there. Thanks so much for taking your time to read and comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I know my horse, Biasini , very well now so I am not nervous. He is a horse with a spook and when I first got him he spooked quite a lot. But even then I felt he was taking me with him. He was not trying to dump me so he could flee from some danger. So even then I was not nervous. Your suggestions about what to do to help with nerves are good ones. I often sing out in the forest with Biasini and it always relaxes him. Your photo is lovely!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to give credit for the photo to the photographer (who wished to remain anonymous)! She has a definite knack for capturing horse movement and expression. I know what you mean about a horse “taking you with them” when they spook. Bear was quite spooky too, but he was a smooth spooker. No matter if he shot forward, spun around or lept sideways, I didn’t typically loose my seat or my stirrups. Biasini and you makes a lovely team, whether in the arena or out in the forest. You do look very calm and comfortable on him!

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