Your hands are clammy, you choke up on your reins. You know it won’t really help, but it’s your go-to response because maybe you’ll be able to slow the horse down if they spook. Your legs are a little tight, hoping if you “close your doors and windows” you’ll be able to prevent whatever nervous response your horse might have.
On the other hand, you’re sitting on top of a ball of electric energy. You can feel the extra bounce in his step, you can hear his nervous breathing. You spiral together, wandering down a rabbit hole you two will get lost in; a rabbit hole of stress, anxiety, and nervous energy.
Does that ring a bell? It’s like you took a passenger along for your trail ride, for your hack, or for whatever endeavor you’re along with your horse. It’s not a welcome passenger, either – for you or your horse.
Spooky horses remind me of my own anxiety. If I’m near a trigger, my anxiety will surface. Rear it’s ugly head, if you will. I worry about the anxiety attacks, much like a horse worries about the things that make them spook. What we don’t learn about spooky horses and our own anxiety is that they’re conquerable in similar ways.
I’ve been taught grounding exercises to calm my racing thoughts. I’ve learned to meditate, and I’ve learned what things empower me to handle myself. How to ask for what I need, how to confront and conquer difficult situations. We need to empower our horses in the same way, to give them tools to handle the situations we encounter.
Picture this: we’re on a trail ride one afternoon through a local country club adjacent to our barn. My trainer sat atop her regal chestnut gelding Donner Geist, and I my lovely little Morgan, Token. The country club had many paths throughout the town that would lead to their golf course, and subsequently their tennis courts, and over a bridge that led you into a cross country field. Wonderful area, right? Except, this trail ride was always loaded with obstacles.
I, the worrier that I am, felt a creeping suspicion that Token might not want to cross the bridge before heading to the cross country fields. I choked up on the reins, felt my legs get a little tighter, and I began picturing the array of scenarios that could happen.
“Rebecca,” my trainer began, looking over at me. I wondered how she did that, especially as Donner Geist was already bouncing step-by-step, his ears pricked forward and locked on the bridge ahead. Said bridge was covered by a flock of inconsiderate geese, and clearly our steeds weren’t amused. As if we were about to enter a boss-battle in a video game, we approached the bridge on two worried horses. “Rebecca, you are making him worried because you’re worrying. You’re allowing him to fear this bridge, and the geese,” she said, nonchalantly tapping Donner Geist with her long dressage whip. “Empower him. Close your legs, loosen your reins, and teach him that he is powerful, capable, and the geese on the bridge aren’t something to worry about. Empower him to see that they are no threat.”
“Encourage him to be on the bit. Distract him, focus him, and provide him coping mechanisms,” She said. I closed my legs, loosened my reins, and harnessed Token’s energy. We passed the bridge without a spook, and the sigh of relief Token passed afterwards helped me see I’d empowered him.
Let’s empower our horses to confront what worries us and spooks them, because much like overcoming a panic attack, they’ll come to learn that they’re capable, and they’ll feel bravery to try again.