I have a confession to make: I’ve been riding scared. It’s not the nerves you feel when the wind is blowing and the day is cold and your horse is a little too fixated on the dry leaves blowing about in the far end of the ring. No, this is a paralyzing fear. This is a, what-if-I-fall-and-no-one-finds-me-and-I-die fear.

And I’m tired of it.

It started when my truck was hit head-on by a hydroplaning car on the highway nearly a decade ago. I was left with a traumatic brain injury and a slew of other issues. It was my first serious injury, and it gave me a glimpse into the world of brain injuries. I know I never want to return to that world.

I did okay for a while, but that experience paired with aging allowed fear to root itself deep inside. And I couldn’t shake it.

Three years ago, my mare, Whisper, who had never before or since tried to throw me, turned into a bucking bronco during a ride and I shattered my wrist. Her response, I’d later learn, was justified, as she had a pinched nerve that the girth aggravated. But at the time, all I knew was that my horse had thrown me, I was alone, I had no cell reception, and I had to crawl across the ring screaming for help from neighbors. None came, though thankfully the owner of the barn happened to be home. Had the incident happened five minutes later, no one would have been home.

I worked my way back from that incident, but Whisper had to be retired a year later, and now I find myself riding Lyric, a green ex-racehorse. And my fear? It’s stronger than ever.

Or, at least, it was. Riding Lyric has pushed me out of my comfort zone, but I’m also learning to trust her – and horses – again. I’ll never be the super-confident rider that I wish I was, but I have found some things that have helped.

A Good Horse

Lyric may be young and green, but she has an excellent brain, and that has made all the difference. She’s not hugely reactive and isn’t easily offended, and that’s exactly what I need in a horse right now. She does spook, but it’s minor and smooth. Honestly, riding out these little spooks is reminding me that I can ride, and I can ride out bad behavior.

Winning The Mental Mind Game

My biggest challenge is my own mind. It’s so easy for me to envision Lyric spooking, bolting, and dumping me, and I can do this every second of every ride. I’m literally setting myself (and my horse) up to fail.

So, I’ve taken to visualizing us in a more positive light. I picture us winning an equitation class or a pleasure class. I envision Lyric powering around a busy show ring and not blinking an eye at anything, and me riding her with skill. The bad “what ifs” still sneak in, but I’m getting better at replacing them with better visions.

Doing Things On My Terms

Lyric and Whisper live in my backyard, and though I’ve been working to get a trailer purchased and road-ready so that I can haul out to lessons, it hasn’t happened this year. In a way, that’s been a blessing in disguise. Sure, it doesn’t sound at all ideal to be training a young horse alone in your backyard (have I mentioned I don’t even have a riding ring?), but I think it’s actually helped.

Each day, I can do whatever I want with Lyric. If I don’t feel like trotting, we don’t trot. If I don’t feel like riding, we don’t ride. If the wind is whipping through the trees and Lyric’s attention is elsewhere while I’m tacking up, I stop and we do groundwork. There’s no pressure to be ready for a lesson, or to practice what a trainer has been working on. I’m not being pushed past my comfort zone – instead, I’m the one doing the pushing. And if I feel overwhelmed and can’t breathe, I can step back without having to explain myself or worry that I’m not meeting someone’s expectations.

I fully intend to take lessons next year, and am looking forward to it at this point. But the pressure-free time with Lyric has helped me to enjoy riding again.

Riding Proud

I’ve tried all sorts of position and tack changes in attempt to instill the confidence that I’ve been lacking. I’ve tried grab straps and riding with my legs a bit more forward. I’ve started wearing an eventing vest during each ride, and have started wearing full seat breeches for the extra stick. But the solution I’ve found doesn’t require any special tack or modifications.

Each ride, I remind myself to ride proud. I bring my shoulders back, drop weight into my heels, sit up straight, and pretend that I’m in an equitation class. It’s my equestrian version of a power pose, and when I want to curl up into the fetal position on my horse, reminding myself to ride proud can overtake that fear while also instilling my confidence to Lyric.

Time

Sometimes no matter what you do, time is the only thing that can complete the process. I’ve been dealing with my fear of falling for about a decade, and after a year of working with Lyric, I’m starting to truly enjoy being in the saddle.

When I first started riding Lyric, the first 15 minutes of each ride were torture for me. I was tense, waiting for her to spook or just decide to throw me off. Now, I’m able to relax almost instantly.

It was sunny and warm today, and as I rode, I remembered how carefree and happy I used to feel on a pony as a kid. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer. I’m fighting my fear, and I’m winning.

Written by HJU Blogging Contesnt entrant Paige Cerulli