*Note: Safety first! Always use any of these suggestions at your discretion. Always check to see if your horse is reacting to some discomfort or misunderstanding, especially if the behavior is unusual. There is no one-way-cures-all method to riding. Feel free to change anything to meet the needs of you and your horse.

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Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

When you start to ride horses, there comes a time when you must face your own mortality.

Because riding horses isn't just about feel-goods and swoon-moments and lovey-dovey pet him behind the ears satisfactions (although those surely are wonderful occasions).

Invariably, one day, your horse looks you in the eye (or not) and says, "No!"

Or maybe it's more like he sees/hears/feels some great horse-eating monster-thing and suddenly, his flight or fight response kicks in and sure enough, he FLIES! Good luck to you, wingless human, who wishes to share in his space and time continuum! 🙂



After one or two (or more) parting of ways, you will surely begin to dread, or at the very least, physically tense, in anticipation of the next event. You might find yourself nervously looking around for the next monster. Occasionally, you might become reactive or even apprehensive and then you become part of the problem.

However, in possibly all horse disciplines, you are taught to never show your fear to the horse. If you do, the horse will pick up on your emotions and respond in kind. There is some truth to that. Horses are mirrors of us and often read our body language much earlier than we intend. So your tension can breed his tension and then you both end up spiraling into something that becomes much worse than it could have been.

Why Fear is Good

Never apologize for your fear. In horseback riding, think of fear as a good thing. It is what protects both you and your horse from danger and keeps you safe.

Fear can help you draw the line that guides you into making life-saving decisions. Instead of fighting it out with a 1000-pound animal, maybe it's ok for you to get off his back and call it a day.

Instead of pushing the situation to a level that makes you deal with something you cannot or should not or do not want to have to go through, you can tone down the exercise, going back to an emotional level that your horse can tolerate or that you can comfortably ride.

But sometimes, you don't get a choice in the matter. What to do then?

How to Ride Through It

1. Focus on Your Seat

Easier said than done, right?

There is one key method to staying on when the horse throws you a spin, buck or lurch.

Loosen through your seat.

Take every bit of energy and strength you have, and through the up/down/sideways/lurch moment, let loose. Rather than tightening your lower back, make it move with the horse. Find that saddle and let your seat velcro in and go in whichever way it has to. The rest of your body will follow (trust me on that!).

Put all your attention into (not tensing but) releasing.

Stay open in your body. Avoid hunching over into a "fetal position." 

Think, "Velcro seat!!"

Ride through it.

Keep your cool.

Stay consistent.

Don't get mad/even/offended or feel resentment.

Then, as soon as you have a semblance of balance and you feel confident enough to start talking (physically) with your horse again, go right back to what you were doing before the excitement began. Do Step #2.

2. Stay on topic

Your job, other than staying on, is to be an active rider by continuing to give The. Same. Message.

Just like that. Calm, cool, and thinking... "We were having a nice conversation before you interrupted!"

Go right back to getting that inside bend. Restore your balance by reestablishing the horse's balance, rhythm, straightness, stride length - anything and everything that will help him go back to his calm outline and way of going.

Then be ready for the next time.

Of course you're going to look for the next spooky corner. Or listen for the next sound.

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It's perfectly fine and even useful for you to be aware of your surroundings. You SHOULD know what causes your horse's behavior and be able to predict what's coming next. Just don't let your horse do the looking.

Make sure that your body "stays on topic." You might not be able to stop the next spook from coming, but if you were planning on going with a nice bend through that corner, you aids should clearly keep telling the horse to bend. Sticking to the program helps the horse know that you are predictable and consistent.

Prove Your Leadership

The horse is almost always relieved to find that you are willing to be the leader in your horse/human herd. He will often relax and become more confident when he knows that despite the monsters that are lurking in every corner, he can boldly go forward and strong because you will guide his way. You will tell him what to do. You will keep him safe, not (only) because you love him and have the best at heart for him.

But because you can physically stay with him, and then correct or help him in his time of need.

Over time, you will realize that your actions will help your horse in his reactions. Your emotions will be more easily controlled and your confidence will allow you to stay purposeful, rational and active during the unplanned moments of your ride. Although there is always the potential for the unexpected, you can take steps to minimize the risks.

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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also enjoy:

Rarely Considered, Often Neglected: Lunging to Develop the Riding Seat: If you can free up your hands and legs from creating and maintaining movement, you’ll uncover a source of freedom and harmony difficult to describe in words.

Three Ways to Use Your Seat in Horseback Riding: The seat is the prime factor in our ability to stay on the horse during the “bobbles” that invariably happen from time to time.

Muscle Memory Matters in Horse Riding:  Why regular practice is essential in developing effective riding skills.

A Question of Imbalance: Can You Tell? Before we can problem-solve and correct, we need to know that the horse did, in fact, lose balance in the first place.

31 Comments

  1. Excellent article. I also tell my students to think of staying in the middle and keeping a leg on each side of the horse. Sounds elementary but seems to help to have it right there in your mind.

  2. Recently, I’ve been talking to myself about this very issue, and wishing for the days when I not only didn’t worry if a horse bolted, bucked or otherwise acted up, I found it fun. If I weren’t concerned that my now 50 year old bones are surely much more brittle than my younger bones were, I probably wouldn’t worry so much. But I do, and it takes away from my enjoyment. I’ve been working on refocusing myself. I don’t want to be worried while riding, at least not unnecessarily so. Thanks for the timely article and great tips.

    1. I learned to predict my horse’s little freak outs and in the ring they were sometimes fun, but out on the trail it was so scary.

  3. Excellent post and great advice. … One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with fear in the saddle is to begin the dialogue with my horse while on the ground. What kind of mood is he in today? Does he need some time on the lunge line, or to be free lunged, to work out his angst on his own first? If I learn to pay attention to his cues before setting foot in stirrup the likelihood of having to manage a spooky moment in the saddle, and thus the fear it produces, is greatly reduced. 😉 … Thanks again for a great post.

    1. Same here!! I could always tell when my leased boy needed some freak-out free lunge time to get his energy out before I got on.

    2. I do the same Dorothy. I work with my boy first on the ground in the arena, and then we still do a short pre-ride check in in the saddle too, before we head out on the trail or in the field. If I’m not feeling completely comfortable then we stick to the arena that day 🙂

  4. Good advice – not easy to follow if, like me, you had 4 emergency room visits in a 2 year period. I went from being calm and confident to timid and tense. I’ll never be what I was, but I love a quiet ride on a gentle and quiet steed. And let me add, a riding helmet saved my life. Thanks for a great blog.

    1. The previous comments are amazing. I am also an older rider and find the scary situations add up. I ended up back on the lunge line with my coach. I am overcoming my fears quickly and staying relaxed and improving my communication skills with my horse. I had to change my thoughts to stay in the moment as well. I find this helps me to stop anticipate trouble.

      1. Hello Deirdre, there is one golden rule I learned about 40 years ago. If you feel apprehension, do not, repeat do not get up on a horse. Deal with the problem on the ground. This was told to me by a professional steeplechase jockey. He said, and I quote, “if you are afraid and you get on a horse, you will get hurt”. It’s true, unfortunately. Fear and horses do not make good bed mates.

        That being said, nothing is stopping you from playing with your horse(s) on the ground. Most people would say, in fact, that it’s more fun. Fun for you and fun for the horse.

        Cheers
        Judy

  5. 2 years ago I started anew with a young spaniard after many years easy going riding with my previous horse. My spaniard has got a turbo gear especially when spooking. At first I didn’t know anything else to do then just sitting it out, which I managed (I do have a velcro seat). But this didn’t feel like enough management to me, the one thing I forgot to do was riding (due to fear), while he was acting out during his spooking (0 to 100miles and back to 0 in 0.5 sec.). I spent 1 year riding him calmly (no longer active) around the arena. After a couple of great lessons, in which we were told a.o.t. to ride more active (more forward), I use the momentum when he spooks: yes, go ahead my brave spaniard you go spook, but let me do the steering/managing > i.o.w. I am glad when he spooks, because I can use it to our advantage to make hime more active. He already knows now, if he spooks, we will turn it up a notch, so for him the joy of spooking is becoming less. I am 50 years old with r.arthritis in a lot of joints, which caused me being fearful, in the beginning, but now I am very glad my wonderful horse has been teaching me to face my fear and cross some borders, and start to really ride.

  6. What a great and well timed article. I am going through a massive test of confidence with my horse, I have only had him 12 months and gravity has beat me 4 times now & I am feeling like a bad rider for not staying on and handling it better. This article is really helpful as has given me some ideas how to deal with the bad moments and also that these things happen to other people too, so not feeling so inadequate – thank you!

  7. I definitely have my fair share of fears in the saddle. During a jumping lesson last July, the horse (a young headstrong mare) refused the jump and shot left. I fell, landing on my bent knee, rupturing my PCL. I’ve been through physical therapy and keep riding but I’m going to need surgery. I miss jumping so so much but reading this post, I realized that it’s not just my knee keeping me from jumping, I’m also a bit scared to try again. I also had a huge battle with overcoming fears after taking a nasty fall off the 5yr old gelding I used to lease. I was riding with friends on our way to an arena to practice and he took off for his old field. I panicked and stayed on longer than I should have and he ended up heading down a hill on a road at a canter and would not stop for anything. I ended up in front of his right shoulder and saw sparks flying from his shoes. I hit the ground and got some nasty road rash on my shoulder, back, and butt, and he stepped on my thigh. This was in October and I still have scars from it. Once he was found and brought back to the ring, I got back on for a few minutes but couldn’t stay on long. The next lesson I had, when my instructor asked us to canter, I froze up and started crying. It took over a month for me to be able to canter again without anxiety. I still have some issues when I’m on a horse I don’t know well. I use way too much rein and always have them too tight and tense. But it’s something we’re working on every single lesson.

  8. Good info but not easy to follow. In my youth I would ride anything you handed me. But in my 50′s it ain’t gonna happen. My 14 yr old gelding is the exact type of horse you describe in your article. He is sure every rock, bush and tree just appeared that day, not 8 yrs ago when he first arrived here. I just can’t stand the tension anymore. Solved the problem by just riding my daughter’s tried and true, steadfast, loving 15 yr old gelding. And am looking forward to a great trail riding season. I still ride my gelding but in our arena.

    1. Sometimes it’s just safer to find a horse that suits us better. There are a lot of us in a similar situation as you are. My article is more for handling the “occasional” spook…

  9. Any negative emotion on the part of horse or rider signals that a change in something is necessary. Your suggestions are excellent as long as the cause of the horse’s reaction is external and not rider caused. If it is, going back to doing exactly what you were doing when the horse ‘expressed himself’ proves Einstein’s definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing but expecting a different result.”
    Horses and humans respond to fear but it is the human’s responsibility to diagnose and defuse the situation. Perhaps the rider isn’t skilled enough to ask the horse for a perfect bend to the left or the horse doesn’t have enough foundation. I’ve been a trainer for more than 25 years and I am riding one horse that would react VERY negatively if I insisted he perform a completely correct left frame around a corner. He doesn’t have the vocabulary yet to understand cues to feet, barrel, shoulder, neck, hips, and head. If he gets in a bind in one area that presents a learning opportunity. If he gets in a bind in two areas or is frightened by outside stimuli while thinking about the bind of inside leg pressure he could get overwhelmed and reactive.
    Some horses need to stop when they get overwhelmed. Others need to be ridden through the event. It all depends on the cause of the excessive emotion and the rider’s skill in managing it.
    Thanks for another good message.

  10. Great points! It can be hard to remember to relax in these situations, but that’s usually exactly what is needed. For me, I usually hear my trainer’s voice in my head, shouting “Sit up! Sit up!” Keeping my shoulders back (i.e. not hunching into that fetal position, like you said) has helped me a ton, because it helps my position stay balanced and correct…and keeps my butt in the saddle!

  11. I was lucky enough to start riding with a great instructor who said ALWAYS lunge before you get on. I also attended a riding clinic where the horse (under an expert rider) decided to throw a temper tantrum when he was pushed a bit, and saw how the rider stuck threw it & made him gallop around (since that’s what the horse initially tried to do) even when the horse decided he wanted to stop; the rider’s attitude was “you picked the game; now you stop when I say so!” It worked, and I got the chance to try it myself when the opportunity arose on my own (new) horse; I couldn’t believe it worked for me, too! And when I put the horse back to the stall, we had ended on a good note with me in control (which I’m sure saved some future arguments). Amazing what talented people can train you to do in an emergency.

  12. I’m fortunate; I’ve only actually lost my seat once and it was due to a poorly executed emergency dismount. I’m not a seasoned rider – most of my riding has been with my now 32 year old quarter-x who has always “taken care of me.” He gave me my confidence and in so many ways, taught me the ropes. My mustang was an avoider so his actions were more about non-action than over reaction. He announced his intentions and so I had plenty of time to feel my way through the occasional rearing and side stepping. My newest companion, an 11 year old Icelandic cross, is a whole different ride! As I look back at the things he has done that have frightened me, your post makes sense. Because we are still so new to each other (I’ve not had him a year), we are still feeling each other out in many ways. He has pony attitude and can sometimes decide “no” is the answer. I have, on more than one occasion, dismounted and walked him through the experience or moved his feet from the ground to regain our rank and file. On two of those occasions (there have been several!), I actually simply called it a day. Before this post, I thought of those moments as a failure. I see them a little differently now, thank you. He and I continue in our relationship and your posts are always such a help in that progress. Thanks!

  13. Thanks! The timing is pretty good for this article to be shared. I recently (back the second week of January) had a really bad fall. Scared me SO bad. I know it was my fault but at the same time the horse kinda took off with me and refused to listen to my signals to go from a canter back into a trot. The biggest mistake (at least I think of it as a mistake, my coach and Dad think otherwise) was not getting back on and at least making him trot again. Ever since I have been battling the fear of cantering. It kind of resolved itself a few weeks ago when my coach told me that until I canter again, she was not going to let me jump. Very next lesson I agreed to do it and was fine. (even had some fun doing it!) Now though when I canter my shoulders completely tense up. Is there anything I could do to stop this from happening.

    1. The fastest way to release tension in your body is to breathe. Sounds simple – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s human nature to either hold our breath or take shallow breaths when we’re feeling nervous or stressed. It’s a normal and unconsciuos response. So, practice breathing from your diaphragm and taking slow, deep breaths. On each exhale, imagination the tension leaving your body with that breath.

      1. This is one of the best pieces of advice I got a while back! Taking deep “belly breaths” when you feel the fear makes a huge difference.

  14. I’m dealing with this fear right now….my friend is putting me on the lunge line to feel what my body is doing and feel a sense of control over it. i’ve been told I have an excellent seat, but I don’t have the confidence that i do. I also am 61 and have a mentally ill daughter (13) at home so I am sure the sense of responsibility weighs in also. I really can’t afford to break anything at this point.

    1. Sounds like you’re going about it the right way though Mary! Getting a friend’s support and doing it safely. I think for a lot of us as we get older the fear of falling becomes greater because we know how much it hurts, and feel those responsibilities. The passion for riding is still there though, so we persevere. Hang in there!

  15. A point of order – re 1) “Stay On”. I say absolutely NOT. If your horse explodes** and loses all communication with you – bail. Bail if your horse gets caught in quicksand, bail if your rein(s) break and your horse is bolting. This has saved my life (literally and not figuratively) at least three times. You may lose your horse, but that’s trivial compared to losing your life.

    If your horse is just acting out, hang on. I have stopped the old bucks simply by pulling the horse’s head around to my stirrup and holding it until he/she stops acting out, in fact, stops moving altogether.

    But in the event of a real wreck – don’t even think, just bail. A broken shoulder can be mended. Most professionals (jockeys, cowboys, eventers) would agree with me.

    I’m almost 75 and still ride most days.

    ** usually this happens outside, due to external conditions

    1. thank you Judy to remind something fundamental especially because lots of new riders bank valuable inputs from Horse Listening.

    2. I agree with Judy – in the case of an impending disaster, and assuming you can launch yourself off a moving horse from about 5 feet off the ground. Keep in mind that you might not end up with a broken shoulder, but something like a broken back, neck, or similar.

      I once heard of a situation where an exercise rider was riding an ON-the-track Thoroughbred, heading back to the barn. For whatever reason (maybe a spook), the horse broke into a dead run. As he was running faster and faster, and seeming to head straight to the barn, she bailed and ended up with broken bones. The horse, on the other hand, ran full speed straight at the barn wall. Broke his neck and died. In her opinion, he had “checked out” and was running blindly. Yes, she was right to bail.

      In this article, I’m not talking about a full-on dangerous situation. I’m thinking more of a buck, a deek sideways, or a simple (not full-on) romp. I’m thinking of an average situation with an average horse, in a fairly safe environment.

      Always weigh the risks and take the least risky option. Use common sense!

      1. Exactly. Common sense should prevail. My mare spooked recently at….a stone (granted, a big stone) on the trail. Serious spook, just sat it out. Waited until the snorts subsided, called her a silly goose and we got on with it. However, when you have a bolting horse and/or broken material (girth, reins, or both) or have a horse that is going to crash in the next few seconds, I definitely say..bail. A broken arm or shoulder is nothing. Dead is something.

  16. I quit reading after the first “tip”. Imagine ANYTHING BAD is about to happen to you, or IS happening to you that was not expected. What is the first thing that your body does? Tighten your lower back and abs. If you could “simply” relax your seat (aka “lower back”), you would likely come through it relatively unscathed.

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