Overcoming fear after a riding accident

Coping with and moving past your fear after a riding accident isn’t easy. Get back on the horse by taking these important steps and safety precautions.

As equestrians, we’re guaranteed to experience some overwhelming fear-filled moments.  We’re also likely to get hurt – in one way or another – over the course of our riding careers.  Horse experts are just as prone to injuries and setbacks as intermediate and beginner riders. No amount of training or desensitizing can fully control a horse or rider’s reactions. In some cases, a fall (or near fall) from a bolt, spook, buck, or rear, or an injury during groundwork from behaviors like kicking or biting, can be enough to deter a rider from getting back on the horse. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to overcome that fear!

Focus on safety

The rewards of caring for and riding horses usually outweigh the inevitable risks. But it’s still important not to overlook precautionary measures that help prevent injuries and accidents. Whether you’ve been in a riding accident in the past or not, taking the following steps will provide you with peace of mind, and make your ride much less fear-filled.

Before the ride:

  • Learn the ways your horse communicates to you when she’s nervous, unhappy, or in pain. Her body language will tell you everything you need to know.
  • Pay attention to subtle cues when grooming – a horse with discomfort in her neck, back, or hips, for instance, won’t be able to manage a rider without problems.
  • Check your tack. If any leather or material is cracked or weak – replace it. Make sure pads, saddles, cinches/girths, and bits have the proper fit – a horse with a tight bit or a poor-fitting saddle may put up a fight if it means ending her discomfort.
  • Inspect your arena surroundings for possible dangers, from noise to unsafe terrain and footing.
  • Walk with your horse around the area you’ll be riding in so she can get a good look around. Lunge a fresh energetic horse before mounting up.
  • Invest in an equestrian torso-protecting safety vest that protects your neck, shoulders, ribcage, and back from impact.
  • Make sure your helmet is fitted correctly and has passed inspections from SEI and ASTM.
  • Wear comfortable boots to avoid being stepped on, with a ½” to 1” heel to prevent your foot from slipping through stirrups.

During the ride:

  • Avoid riding alone, even if you have a cell phone.
  • Ride a horse that’s suitable for your skill level. A green horse with a green rider is asking for trouble.
  • This seems like a no brainer, but try to stay on your horse! Most injuries happen when a rider falls off, so hang on as best you can if your horse spooks or bolts. Just in case, learn the emergency dismount and the one-rein stop – bringing your horse’s nose to your knee while keeping yourself balanced in the saddle.

Consult with a sports psychologist

When fear takes the reins and keeps you out of the saddle, a sport psychologist may be just what the doctor ordered.  Christina Wessel, M.S., CMPC, a sports psychology consult at Champion’s Advantage, LLC, in McKinney, Texas, points out that sports psychology is very individualized. “We all have different strengths and weaknesses, as well as differing reactions to situations,” she says. “Some riders are naturally more resilient, while others need to be taught resiliency.”

Reframe your thoughts

Wessel explains that everything starts with a thought. “Learning to replace any negative or harmful thoughts with positive and helpful thoughts is called reframing,” says Wessel. “If you keep feeding the fear or replaying the fall in your mind, you won’t be able to move forward.” As humans, we tend to magnify the one thing that went wrong and forget about everything we did right or to the best of our ability. Wessel adds that an easy way to start reframing is to keep a list of three good things that you and your horse did after every ride. “Over time, you’ll see that picking out the good in each performance becomes easier and easier.”

Fake it till you make it

The saying “fake it till you make it” is a very real and scientifically proven strategy. “Your posture and facial expressions are not just a reflection of how you feel but can actually change the way you feel,” says Wessel.  “If you present yourself with a great big smile and sit/walk/ stand/ride in a confident posture, your emotions will begin to match.”

Create an action plan

After a fall or scare, setting weekly goals and having an action plan are always a must in order to take steps in the right direction – and any step in the right direction is a victory and should be celebrated.  Whether you are in recovering from an injury or from a scare, without these goals, you’ll find excuses to stay out of the saddle and maybe even out of the barn completely.

Understand and accept your fear

Dr. Janet Edgette is an equestrian sport psychologist and child and adolescent psychologist practicing in Philadelphia. She was a successful competitor as a Junior in the Equitation, Jr. Hunter and Jr. Jumper divisions, and again as an adult, training with George Morris, in the Amateur Owner Jumper division.  Dr. Edgette shares that as far as she’s concerned a rider’s fear is real – it’s not a debatable issue. “What it feels like to her or him is what it is,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether the trainer, barn buddy, college professor, mother, or grandpa thinks it’s overreacting, overprotective, or overindulgent.”

Riders shouldn’t get into a screaming match with their riding fear, or ignore its presence either, Dr. Edgette says. “Instead, treat the fear as a clue that something in your riding is amiss. You can also help yourself with your fear by doing things that make you feel more secure in the saddle. Riders do not get over their anxiety by riding while anxious; it only makes it worse. Be upfront about how you feel, because trying to convince yourself you’re not anxious is like trying to give yourself a surprise party. When recovering from a fall, the key is in accepting your anxiety and discomfort as part of the price to be paid in the riding business.”

Dr. Edgette asks riders to take some time to consider what part of the incident was the most anxiety-provoking. “Was it the loss of control, fear of injury, feeling of embarrassment, worry for your horse? If you can isolate the worst aspect, then the problem won’t diffuse into a general avoidance of all things to do with riding. Understand that you don’t have to like how you’re feeling in order to ride. Instead of trying to make the anxiety disappear – focus on making it manageable and tolerable.”

Lean on others after your riding accident

Talking with someone who can relate, having supervision when riding, and seeking professional help will give you the accountability to face any fear you experience after a riding accident. Starting over is sometimes the safest way to regain lost confidence. Go back to ground work and reestablish a trusting bond with your horse, then have a friend walk your horse while you ride. It may seem like a pathetic attempt to get back in the saddle, but it’s effective and these tiny positive steps will build a stronger foundation. Eventually, you’ll feel comfortable enough to loosen the reins, and slowly work into the place you were at before the scare.

Growing as riders means overcoming the fear we feel after a riding accident. By taking it slow, prioritizing safety, and seeking help when needed, we can prove that what doesn’t kill us and our horses only makes us stronger.