On Riding Through Anxiety

Photo © Heather N. Photography


On a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in the fall, I set out for a trail ride that will take me the farthest off-property that I have ever been. We cross the street and ride into the woods behind our neighbor’s house. My trusty, 18-year-old OTTB takes rhythmic steps as we wind through the trees. Though the path is nearly invisible to me, Sham knows the way. He carefully steps over every log and weaves between fallen branches as if he had done it a hundred times. Heather, my friend and trainer who is along for the ride, confirms that Sham has indeed been there, done that. She used to ride him back in these parts before she leased him to me. He could probably carry me home with his eyes closed.

We reach the end of the line. We could turn around and go home, or we could cross the street into the regional park and add another couple more miles. I feel relaxed and confident, so I press on. Down the street we go, with horseshoes clicking on the concrete, until we find the opening to the next trail. We move through the woods until we arrive at a wide, open meadow. There are people walking along the perimeter, some with dogs, some in groups. Sham’s ears perk up. He sees something that I don’t see. Llama-mode, engage!

A more experienced rider wouldn’t bat an eye. Horses are allowed to look at things as long as they keep going, right? But for me, a baby rider with a trailer full of insecurities, this is where the trouble begins. Sham starts to jig. I remember Heather told me she used to gallop the boys back here when she was training them for eventing. 

What if Sham thinks we are going to gallop? I can’t gallop. I can’t even canter without peeing my pants or falling off. 

I tentatively squeeze the reins, giving what I think is a half-halt. I try to force my weight back into my seat bones but instead, I brace against the stirrups. The jigging intensifies.

Now he DEFINITELY thinks we are going to gallop. 

I’m going fetal. It’s my knee-jerk reaction when I feel like I am losing control. Heather tells me to sit back. I try to listen to her but my body screams that I am in danger. Sham is confused. Now he is jigging sideways and shaking his head.

Oops, I forgot to release my half-halt. 

I loosen the reins and he lurches forward. My knees clamp down and my hands choke up. 

No, that’s not right either. What do I do? 

I try desperately to do the only two things I can think of at the moment—squeezing the reins and putting my weight in my seat bones. However, it comes out as more mouth-pulling and stirrup-bracing. Poor Sham is understandably very annoyed and confused at this point. There are people walking towards us on the path and I feel like I have zero control of the situation.

What if we run them over? What if he takes off and I fall off? 

Heather coaches me but I can’t hear anything she is saying. My chest closes up. My muscles turn to stone. I desperately want to get off, but feel like I would be letting myself down if I gave up now.

I would be teaching bad habits to my horse if I don’t correct this. I would be embarrassing myself in front of my trainer if I don’t pull through. I have to keep trying. 

I start riding in circles to try and get my wits about me. One, two, three, four circles. It feels like an eternity has passed so I peel out of the circle and back onto the path. Nothing has changed. My horse is not calm. I am not calm. The voices in my head scream abandon ship. My body is on fire. 

So what do I do?

Photo © Heather N. Photography

I abandon ship. With tears in my eyes, I dismount and walk it out. The leaves crunch below me as we silently tread back home. Back through the meadow. Back across the street. Back over the logs and fallen branches. Back to the trail behind the neighbor’s house. We are quite a ways from home and my new Blundstones carve blisters into my Achilles tendon. I feel humiliated. 

When I finally get things together, I decide to finish the ride in the saddle. Before I climb back on, Sham puts his head in my hands as if to say, “That was hard. I’m sorry. Everything is okay.” He never meant to scare me. He carries me the rest of the way home, the same sweet boy that I started with. It is clear that any issues I was having are a product of my brain chemistry, my past trauma, and my inexperience as a rider. These are my knots to untie—not his.

I spent days after this event reflecting on how a beautiful ride could turn so quickly into a stressful and anxiety-inducing event. In retrospect, I can see every mistake I made. It was the perfect storm of conditions, and though I was not able to prepare for them at the time, I sure as hell was going to learn from them. 

I went back to work, walking and trotting without stirrups to get my seat connected and to learn how to adjust my horse without bracing. I started the Dressage Rider Training fitness program to improve my stability. I took lessons with Heather. I started stretching before my rides to release the hip tension that causes me to pinch with my knees. And probably the most important, I forgave myself for getting off. Yes, I was still beating myself up about that. But I realized that when I am in a true panic state—like I was on that day—rational thinking is not an option. The minute I lost control, it was no longer safe to be in the saddle. 

Conventional horse wisdom says to muscle through, to be disciplined, to never let the horse get away with behavior you don’t want. There is no room for fear. Sometimes you just have to do the damn thing. 

I don’t disagree. But I have also learned that I don’t have to be the ideal horsewoman at all times. This is my journey and mine alone. Only I can say where my limits are. Only I can say what I can and cannot handle. I am allowed to get off, collect myself, and then get back on. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. 

I’d like to say that I went back out and rode in the meadow again, cool and confident like nothing happened. I’m not quite there yet, but that’s the goal! My point in sharing this story is to illustrate the complexity of the equestrian journey. It isn’t just about learning technical skills. It’s about getting experience and working through obstacles as they arise. It’s about building a relationship with your horse and learning to speak their language. And for many, it’s about taking a good, hard look in the mirror and learning to work with yourself, as you are, and not as you wish yourself to be. 

You can’t be at war with yourself. It’s a state of mental tension that horses will sense and respond to, no matter how hard you try to stuff it down. The farther I go in my horsemanship, the more I am able to accept myself as the hot-mess-express that I am. I still can’t say that I love the anxious, unstable part of my brain, but I am definitely proud of how far I have come. 

Anna Pollitt is an amateur rider from Baltimore, MD. She is currently learning dressage foundations and enjoying long hacks with her 18-year-old OTTB, Shamrock Trick. Outside of the horse world, Anna is also a full-time nanny and pop music blogger.