This one goes out to the people who want to ride horses but still have that niggling nervous feeling even while they are enjoying the incredible "sport" that is horse riding.
I mean, we wouldn't be human if we didn't get nervous - it happens all the time in all avenues of life. Sit on a 1000-pound animal about five feet off the ground and commit your entire being to that animal's four legs - and then try to get it to DO things - well, yeah, one can see how a somewhat precarious situation might arise!
So what can you really do to help with the nerves while riding? Here are some ideas that might be useful for you. Of course, many reference getting help from a riding instructor, because there really is no other way. Even if you've been riding all your life!
1. Control The Environment
One of the most obvious ways to set yourself up for success is to ride where you and your horse feel most at ease. If you can feel confident in the environment, then you will have a much better chance of finding release through your joints and maintaining a calm, relaxed feel toward your horse.
If your horse enjoys riding in an outdoor ring, go there. If your horse is less distracted in a quiet, contained indoor arena, then that might be your best choice. If you feel that your horse gets nervous on the trails alone, and you are alone, ride closer to the barn. You get the idea.
The opposite would be to force yourself through a ride when you know the horse is going to be tight and tense and unresponsive. Or let's say the weather is so bad that you are sure that your horse is going to go through 20 minutes of being over-reactive before he settles down. Rather than trying to overcome your anxiety about having to deal with such a situation, don't ride that day and wait for better conditions when you KNOW you and your horse will be calm, cool and collected.
Work up to the more difficult environments little by little, building on success rather than fighting through failure.
2. Ride The "Right" Horse
I feel I need to put this in because it can be truly helpful to find a horse that helps you build your confidence. Some horses are just calmer than others, less inclined to spook, or generally dependable and even-tempered. There is also such a thing as being "over-horsed," or riding a horse that doesn't have either the temperament or education that would suit your needs.
This is when riding schools are distinctly advantageous because they will have several horses for you to choose from. They can likely find a horse that matches your needs and helps you while you still need some support. Once you've overcome your obstacles, or developed the skill necessary to have more confidence, you can move on to a less educated or more sensitive horse.
3. Ride Exclusively In Lessons
Confidence comes with skill building. There really is no other way. There is no short cut to learning - you must lesson and you must practice!
Many people ride only in lessons with an instructor for years until they feel they have the skill necessary to ride on their own. There is something to be said for having a consistent "eye on the ground" even if you already have strong riding technique. If you want to improve as quickly as possible, this is the way to go.
4. Demo Rides
Many of us are visual learners, and watching others ride might make a huge difference for your learning process. Whether you can watch your instructor, or other riders at a higher level than you, you will surely have a lot to gain by having techniques or strategies modeled for you.
Best yet would be to have your instructor get on your horse and show you how she rides your horse to eliminate spooks, how to use your aids effectively, or what to do when something specific happens.
5. Get Lunged
Well, this is the icing on the cake when you can find it.
There is no better feeling than knowing that your instructor on the ground has your horse under control so that you can explore your seat, legs, coordination and balance. Every minute spent on being lunged will pay back in dividends for years to come. You can fast track your seat development with lunge lessons. Better seat will allow your body to "take over" when necessary and will reduce tension all around.
6. Tone Down The Ride
Keep this tip in mind if your horse tends to go too fast or run off with you. If your horse tends to be over-energetic, ride him "under power." You can slow down that trot tempo until the horse is almost walking. Or you can do the downward transition from canter to trot and half-halt to not allow the horse to break into a fast aid-ignoring trot down the rail.
If you have the ability to control the tempo of the gaits, you will be far more able to let go and enjoy your ride.
Cooling it down takes a fair amount of ability and patience, but it can be learned and it can be done!
7. Ride Specific Patterns
This idea is great to get you and your horse paying attention to something other than the distractions. Know where you are going and take your horse through a predetermined pattern that will make him (and you!) balance, bend and think. Be picky - if you choose to do a 20-meter circle, then make it 20 meters, no matter what your horse does to fall in or out. Use your aids and take your horse places!
Give your horse some "pop quizzes" to practice your aids and his responsiveness.
You might be amazed at how much singing can change your demeanor. Not only will it help you keep time with your horse's strides, it will help you in every way possible including your rhythm, your energy level (reduced if necessary), your attitude and even your tension.
If you can't sing, then talk a rhyme out in rhythm with your horse. It will serve the same purpose.
9. Focus On The Current "Thing"
If you pay close attention to your own riding or even to others as they progress, you might notice that we all have "THE THING" that we are working on at any given time.
This skill is the one that most obviously needs work. It is what is preventing you from having that smooth, calm ride. For example, it could be that your horse doesn't go when you apply the leg aids. It might be that you have difficulty using the half-halt to balance.
If you can focus on the current "thing" that is loudest, you might be able to make headway into the root of what causes nervousness.
10. Get A Ground Person
I have asked people to be my ground person many, many times when I felt less than confident about what I was going to do. I had my friends help me when I backed young horses for the first few rides. No experience necessary!
If your ground person is willing to stand in the arena, or in the middle of a circle you are riding, just his presence might encourage both you and your horse to relax. The ground person can keep your mind off your tension.
Well, I hope some of this can help you if you find yourself becoming nervous in the saddle. If you have any other tips to add, please share them in the comments below.
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