BY LAUREN MAULDIN
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. For much of my equestrian career, I’ve been afraid of jumping. Afraid of the horse stopping. Afraid of missing my distance and crashing through an oxer. Afraid of big jumps. Afraid of solid jumps. Afraid of jumps with fill. You get the idea…
Right now, in a strange turn of events, I am not afraid. Nervous? Sometimes. Occasionally anxious? That’s my personal brand. But I’ve been thinking about fear a lot because I realize this is the first time in a while that it’s not consumed my brain in the saddle. I’m riding better and improving steadily. Turns out, it’s a lot easier to do this sport when you don’t think you’re going to die at any given moment.
So, where did the fear go? I know I’m not the only rider who suffers from fear of jumping or riding in general. It’s unfortunately common, especially amongst my adult amateur comrades. While I’m no trainer nor expert rider, I have done a lot of pondering about what changed the fear factor for me. If you find yourself dreading the jumps going up (and by up I mean like anything over a crossrail for some of us), consider asking yourself the following questions:
Are You Jumping a Fair Height for Your Horse?
As with anything in our sport, your horse’s welfare has to come first. After all, so many of the horses us adult amateurs love beyond reason are such good souls who will do anything we ask of them—sometimes to their detriment. Just because a horse can jump a certain height, doesn’t mean it always should. Jumping a single or a line of gymnastics ending at 3’6″ is not the same as jumping an entire course at 3’6″. Your horse needs the proper step, fitness, and athletic ability to jump the heights you’re asking.
While I’d love to be 100% accurate with my distance to every fence, I know that’s not a reasonable expectation to put on myself. This means that my horse needs to be athletic enough to jump long or deep when I inevitably mess up. Your trainer should be guiding you to a max division height that is fair to your horse. It’s my opinion, especially for us amateurs, that the height we’re shooting for should be easy for our horses. Cantering up to a single oxer is a lot more relaxing when you realize your horse is athletic (and fit!) enough to pop over without a dramatic effort.
Do You Need to Go Back to Basics?
It’s really easy to get caught up in the showing momentum when you have a lot of friends on the circuit or a barn full of riders who always seem to be progressing faster than you. Many years ago, I switched to jumpers for a spell and stepped up in height because it was the lowest jumper division offered at our show circuit. But just because it was the lowest, didn’t mean I was ready.
When we got to the show, the jumps looked far bigger than I expected them to. And sure enough, the mistakes that weren’t a huge deal in the smaller hunters I’d been doing previously became a much bigger problem when the jumps went up and combinations were added. Because I was nervous on top of everything else, I rode horribly, did my horse a disservice, and ended up in the dirt.
Doing things at home like cantering poles (so, so many poles), solidifying your flatwork, working over single jumps, and even practicing no-stirrups isn’t nearly as fun as courses and horse shows. But when you can squash the little errors—jumps or not—your muscle memory will kick in and set you up for success.
Do You Have the Right Horse?
This one is hard because sometimes the horse we have (and love) isn’t always the best one for us. Though the right horse will not totally eliminate a rider’s fear, it will help (alongside a good trainer) lessen those feelings over time. If, as the months move forward, you become more—not less—afraid of your horse/riding, it might be time to evaluate the relationship. I know there are several lovely, talented horses I’ve had in my career that were a horrible match for me. It didn’t mean they were bad horses, but our brains were wired differently and I could not find success with them in the long run. The right horse will inspire you to grow in confidence over time.
And even if your horse is perfect, we’ve all heard the “green and green make black and blue” comment. Sometimes even the most experienced amateurs benefit from handing the reins over to a professional when it comes to moving a young or green horse up the ranks. There’s not a set rule that works for everyone, but if you find the “firsts” keep you up at night with anxiety… it might be a great time to ask for help.
Is Your Trainer Supporting You?
Though you can’t expect your trainer to act as your personal psychologist, they should understand and be willing to work through your fear. For me, it is a red flag if a trainer dismisses my concerns with a comment like, “These jumps are tiny!” or “Oh, just don’t worry about it.” Believe me, if I could magically switch off the Be Anxious and Fearful switch in my brain I would have done it a loooooong time ago.
Working through fear can look so different from trainer to trainer. There is no magic formula for what will work for you, but what’s important is that you feel heard by your trainer. They recognize you want to get through this, and are willing to break down the source of your anxiety to fix the problem at the root.
Are You Working Hard Enough?
Working hard is a funny term when it comes to horses. For adult amateurs, working hard enough often means doing enough hours at our real-life jobs to pay for said horse. There’s nothing wrong with being a weekend warrior, and not being able to devote every spare hour to riding and training should never prohibit someone from jumping. But, going back to the horse’s welfare, we have to make sure we are pulling our end of the bargain when we start asking more of them.
In my opinion, the following is true at any height or ring, whether 2′ hunters or 1.20m jumpers, but certainly it becomes more and more important as the jumps go up. Your horse needs to be fit enough to briskly canter around and jump a few rounds without being physically wrecked. This means careful conditioning—not pulled from a field once a month to go to a horse show. And on the other hand, we as riders need to bit fit enough to hold our balance and support our horses properly through the course.
Do You Have Anxiety That Needs Professional Treatment?
The last of my questions to consider has nothing—and everything—to do with riding. Sometimes we can do everything perfectly at the barn and still feel afraid or anxious all the time. Even though I’ve personally asked myself each of the above questions, one of the greatest factors to quelling my fear was working with a licensed counselor and later a psychiatrist to address my generalized anxiety disorder.
Through seeking professional mental health support, I’ve (reluctantly) come to accept that my brain needs a little chemistry to balance itself out. The horse world in particular has a strength-first mentality where we all know we have to “get back on the horse” and tough out many situations. But getting support for your mental health, whether through therapy or medication or both, is not a sign of weakness. If you find yourself constantly fearful against your will, showing physical signs of anxiety, or unable to stop worrying about things at times (horse-related or not), it may be time to reach out to a licensed counselor for support.
I wish I could write a short, magical sentence that would end fears of jumping or riding for anyone reading this—that’s something I wanted myself for years. But the truth is that fear is far more complicated and nuanced than that. Ask these questions and have an honest conversation with yourself about why you’re afraid. You deserve to ride—and fly—without fear.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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