The Art of Riding Without Worrying
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
So it’s time to take it a little serious for a post, guys (well, about as serious as it gets for me). I felt the need to write about something that over the last few years I have really struggled with. It wasn’t until recently that I started working my way back into the bliss that is riding without worrying.
Now the onset of rider worry can come from multitudes of things, ranging from being unconfident to mental illness. And I must stress how there is no shame in either of these; every equestrian (and honestly every person) at some point will battle with one of these two things (or both, ‘cause human brains apparently don’t want to make the correct chemicals). Regardless of the reason, we all unfortunately go through periods of time where riding is difficult to fit into a day’s schedule. It feels s***ty too. You worry people at the barn will judge you for not seeing your horses everyday or sometimes even once a week, or that your horse won’t love you quite as much since you’re not spending as much time out there with them. The idea of having people stare at you and feel like you’re being judged for not being a die hard equestrian every d*** day. Thoughts pile up in your head and weight down your stomach as if you’ve swallowed gravel. It makes you not want to go to the barn. It makes seeing your horse stressful when you know that it should be rewarding.
Shhh, child. Don’t listen to your anxious thoughts. Your tough times and your struggles do not define you. Never let anyone (and I mean ANYONE) let you believe that you’re less of an equestrian because of X. Now, X could be the fact that you are unable to ride your horse every day or afford expensive tack or even own a horse in general. This sport is hard; just like college, it’s not weak (remember, Mordor not Dora the Explorer) and if the horses don’t beat you up, the people sure as h*** will.
Please know that this post is in no way an attempt to frighten you, in fact quite the opposite. I hope to connect with other struggling equestrians who have felt similar and offer them some advice to help remove yourself from this vicious mindset that poisons the one thing you love the most.
This will be your saving grace, trust me. Establishing a support system is one of the best ways to help you build confidence and help get you out of a riding funk. Now these people can be your friends, your family, someone from the barn; it just has to be someone you trust who can help build you up when you feel like crumbling. If possible, bring a person from your support system with you to the barn. Feeling that you owe it to that person, you’re more likely to get up and get out of the house. Motivation to get my a** to the barn to even see my horse had become a chore. As of recently, my mother has been my barn buddy. She goes out with me, talks to me while I get ready, and takes videos while I ride so I can see what she’s seeing. I have also had barn friends do similar things in the past. Especially in a situation where you’re feeling judged or uncomfortable around the other people, a barn buddy will keep your attention away from others and on more important things, like having fun with your horse. There is nothing wrong about taking solace in the fact that there really is safety in numbers. Start small and surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed and everyone else’s opinion is horse s***.
Take some time out of the saddle and just focus on the bond between you and your horse. Now of course this feat is a bit easier for those who have their own horse, but don’t fret. Talk to the barn owner or manager about volunteering your time at the barn just loving on a specific horse. Or even ask to incorporate in non-riding learning opportunities into your lessons, such as braiding, wrapping legs, or lunging. Feeling more self-assured on the ground can translate into greater confidence while mounted. Activities out of the saddle are often undervalued, when in fact it’s some of the most worthwhile time you can spend with a horse. In college, I had a ground training class, and it was by far one of my favorites. At the beginning, we were all assigned a single horse to work with for the entire semester. We spent time observing their behavior in the stall, out in the field with friends, and while working in hand in the indoor arena. Remember the Red Dragon I mentioned in the last post? She was my assigned horse and despite the tantrums she would sometimes throw while in heat, I fell in love with her (chestnut mare + hormones… weee!). We did everything; general desensitizing, working both inside and outside the arena, trail obstacles, and even teaching the horse how to ground tie. It was a time where, no matter your experience level, you could spend time simply focused on the horse and what it was trying to tell you through body language. There’s a certain tranquility tied to building trust with a horse that’s unlike any other, so when you feel like you’ve gotten too wrapped up in the stresses of riding, dial it back down for a day and concentrate on the awe-inspiring animal before you.
This can be a tough one, but just like horses, sometimes you need to focus on doing the things that you love. Has working in the arena got you and your horse bored to tears? Sweeto burrito, go for a hack or a trail ride. The thought of riding got you so anxious you can’t even manage a trip to the barn? No need for worry, lovely, you don’t have to ride if you don’t want to; instead go groom your favorite kiddo, give them a snack, and let them go back to being a horse. One of the most valuable things I learned in college was the phrase, “Always set a horse up for success.” This roughly translates into knowing the horse’s boundaries and only asking for activities that are within their individual realm of possibility. You wouldn’t ask an unstarted three-year-old to compete at preliminary level, so if you’re struggling, it’s okay to expect a little less from yourself until you’re back on your feet. Growing is a part of life and you must accommodate for both the ups and the downs. Never forget that when everything seems like too much, doing one small thing is more than enough.
While it seems so simple, this was by far the most difficult part for me while I was in a riding funk. Sometimes the brick wall blocking you from doing the things you love is as simple as, “I just don’t want to go to the barn today” or “I’ll go out and see them next week.” Excuses grow into this messy heap of tangled words and crappy feelings, until they are literally blocking you from leaving your house. And once it starts, it feels like a grueling task to reverse the damage already done. Fear not, dear equestrian! Complex problems do not always require complex solutions. Just go ride. Do it. You. (No, not you) You! Put your a** in the saddle. Even if you just sit there or walk around the ring once, I promise that it will make you feel a million times better if you just go ride. After the first little taste, you’ll begin stoking the embers of your horsey passion once again. It may take time and you may not necessarily feel ready, but eventually you just have to look at your horse and say, “I’m going to ride today and I’m going to have fun, d***it.”
Never Lose Hope
Now of course I decide to get sappy on you for this last point, but it matters. Don’t give up; don’t lose faith; don’t let the flame die; hang in there, motivational kitty on a poster; whatever phrase strikes your fancy and puts some enthusiasm in your step, repeat it to yourself. Write the mantra everywhere; a note in your helmet bag or in your groom box, h*** write it on the back of your ear bonnet! It’s times like these when your down in the dumps that your equine dreams will slip away from you. Keep the good times close to your heart and remember that life, while it isn’t always fair, has a way of working itself out no matter the mess you find yourself facing. Give everything a chance to unravel in its own time; trust in your horse and the way being an equestrian makes you feel and never lose sight of what makes you happy.
Dust off those breeches, my strong, independent equestrian (yeah, I’m still talking to you there in the back)! Remember that if riding becomes more of a hassle than an escape, slow it down and make being around horses fun again. No matter the reason, no matter your situation, your thoughts and emotions are valid, and you have every right to feel them. Feel them, understand them, and then let them go so you can get back to the important parts of life, like whiskery horse kisses and the sound of nickers during feeding time.
When you start feeling stressed, inhale, exhale, and whisper to yourself in the dorkiest possible voice…
Then laugh, smile, and have an amazingly simple, yet satisfying ride.