Fear Management with Julie Goodnight

Julie Goodnight
Be patient with yourself–you will ride with confidence again! Follow Julie’s plan to fight fear and get back in the saddle.

What do you do if you have ridden successfully in the past but a scary incident or injury replaced fun with fear? I hear from many riders who were once confident but after an accident or a life change suddenly have a new sense of fear around horses.

In moderation, fear can help keep you safe and know your limits. But if fear is keeping you from doing what you like to do, it’s time to make a mental shift and return to riding with goals that allow for small but meaningful changes.

It’s easy to feel a sense of loss when an activity that you once loved is suddenly a burden to even think about. It’s a grieving process. Grief leads to guilt that you should be doing something more—riding more, visiting the barn more.

Grieving the Fun

If this sounds like you, you haven’t permanently lost your ability to enjoy horses. Your sense of grief may be unfounded because you still have the ability and knowledge you once had (of course, once healing and doctors’ orders are obeyed if you had an accident). You haven’t lost the skill, you’ve just temporarily misplaced it because the fear is overwhelming.

Psychologists often say that fear plus grief equals debilitation. It’s too much to handle the emotions of both fear and grief. Remind yourself of what you have done in the past and what you are capable of doing. Read some books about riding or watch videos; say to yourself, “I can do that!”

The Plan Against Fear

Fear can be overwhelming and can make you feel like you’ve lost skills. However, I know hundreds of riders who have worked on their fear and conquered it. To be successful, you have to have a plan, think ahead and work slowly and meticulously on your plan.

How do you put a fear-conquering plan into action? First, control your thoughts. There’s a mind-body-spirit connection; one part affects all the others. Once the emotion of fear takes over, there are physical effects in your body and your mind devolves into negative thoughts.

If you allow yourself to think, “what if my horse falls,” or “he’s going to spook,” you’re focusing on the negative. That’s allowing fear to take over. Instead of letting your mind become polluted, sing a song, or visualize what you want your ride to be like. If you have video of yourself riding in the past, watch that. Or watch your favorite riders and notice how confidently they sit the canter. Get those wonderful images in your mind to replace the negative.

Once your mind is in check, you’ll have more access to consciously direct your body. If your body is stuck in fear, you may subconsciously ride in a forward, hunched and gripping position. Once you can calm your thoughts, you can choose to take a breath and control your posture. If the fear can’t control your mind or your body, it can’t affect your whole life.

Comfort Zone

When you visit the barn, target the exact moment you become fearful. Start to notice your body’s reactions to even the idea of riding. Once you recognize the point that triggers your fear, you’ll also identify your comfort zone. You may feel peaceful when you catch your horse, but when you saddle him, that’s the moment fear enters. Stay in the comfort zone as long as you need—for days, weeks or months. Repeatedly walk out to catch your horse, groom him and let him go.

Soon you’ll be ready to do a little more—maybe saddle up and walk. Do a little more when you feel like it and celebrate your successes. Small ventures outside your comfort zone will help you move on. Don’t push it; you should always feel OK about staying within your comfort zone to build confidence.

If you have a setback, return to a known comfort zone and start creeping ahead again. Soon, you’ll find that you want to do more as long as you build up to it in small increments. At some point, you’ll feel your old comfort level and your old confidence come back and your desire to ride will return.

Don’t let anyone else pressure you to do more than you want, or push yourself because of peer pressure.

Healthy Habits

When you do reach a new level, share with friends and take a moment to praise yourself. Also, eat right and get in better shape—it will really help! What you do to make yourself healthier, build strength and improve balance will help your confidence in general.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling emotionally before you approach your horse. If your day is already going downhill, don’t push yourself on your fear-mastering plan. On those days, take your horse on a walk or do some groundwork. If you’re feeling good and the weather is great, those are the days to push yourself a little more and consider stepping out of your comfort zone and toward your long-term goal of enjoying your horse once more.

More from Julie Goodnight:
Become Your Horse’s Herd Leader through Groundwork
Form a Bond with Your Horse

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


  1. I just got over FEAR…its been 5 years of riding with fear and now able to enjoy it again. My fear was watching my husband get hurt very badly twice and I think age complicated it also. Well I got a trainer and she rode my horse that was a bit frisky (I could ride him if not so scared) in FT training I took lessons for 4 months and I now can ride alone with no fear just fun and I love it. Take your time and it may take sometime till you find your comfort area but try not to give up! Great article!

  2. Interesting! I hope that everyone’s weekend was both great and safe, plus I also hope that they they had a happy Columbus Day! That goes for last year and all the other years that I’ve missed.

  3. I like the article. I have a hard time to ride again I was put on a horse that I was told was safe and she rared up and I was tossed on to the road and died I have broken ribs on the right side broken collar bone on the right side and had bad head trauma. I am around horses all day but still have the feelings it will happen again it has been a year and still have a had time to get on and enjoy the beauty of the horse. I don’t know what to do and how to change this so I may enjoy what I love the most which is horses and riding.


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