Can Love Conquer Fear?

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Woman

You guys write letters and emails, and I get to read some of them. As a contributing editor at Horse Illustrated and one of the writers here on HorseChannel, I’m frequently assigned to answer questions about basic horsemanship. One of the most memorable emails came from a woman—I’ll call her Donna—who is struggling to overcome her fear of riding.

Donna described herself as a middle-aged woman who rode as a kid but whose career and family kept her away from horses for several decades. A few years ago she started taking lessons and credited a patient instructor with helping her re-discover her dream of riding. Though she now owns a couple of quiet, safe horses, and even boards several more on her property, her dream of being comfortable on the back of a horse eludes her. She’s fine when it comes to haltering, grooming and handling horses, and she finds serenity in mundane tasks like mucking stalls and cleaning tack. But merely contemplating saddling up and going for a ride overwhelms her with apprehension. She describes the anxiety as “paralyzing.”

Donna acknowledges that she’d gain more confidence if she rode more often. But a few sentences later she admits, “I keep finding excuses not to ride.”

The excuses she cites include commitments to her family and a small business she runs, as well as the daily chores around the stable. Yet many of us make incredible sacrifices to find time to ride. So let’s be honest. We all know what’s halting Donna in her tracks, somewhere between tack room and box stall. It’s fear.

Donna isn’t alone. I know plenty of adult women who have a deep, passionate love for horses but when it comes to swinging a leg over the back of one of them, they’re overcome with fear. In fact, when I worked as a riding instructor, about half of my clients were adult women who had been horse crazy girls and were coming back to riding after a long hiatus. Like Donna, they’d been fearless as kids, performing all sorts of hair-raising stunts on horseback. Yet their knees get wobbly and their face turns ashen when they pick up the reins and feel the tug of a 1,000-pound animal. Where’s the fun in that? Just like Donna, many of them end up asking, “Can you love horses and not ride?”

My answer is, “Certainly.”

I’m not sure I would have always answered that way. Riding—and pursuing the art of horsemanship—was such an obsession for so many years that I doubt I could’ve comprehended being a horsewoman without being an equestrian. Yet maybe my maturity (dare I say age?) has made me realize that I can also appreciate the beauty and presence of a horse when I’m on the ground, standing eye-to-eye.

As an analogy, I’ll share that I once dreamed of being a ballerina. Those of you who’ve seen me in action, trying to ambulate through the aisles of my local Target store, will find humor in that revelation. I’m a klutz without a drop of physical grace. Nonetheless, I wanted to dance. My mom enrolled me in ballet lessons. I got a leotard and started saving my pennies for toe shoes. I sat for hours, mesmerized, and studied the more advanced dancers in the classes ahead of me. But, bottom line, I sucked at ballet.

Yet that doesn’t prevent me from loving ballet and finding other ways to participate in it, like volunteering to promote community productions. You just won’t see me in a tutu again. Ever.

I guess what I’d like to offer to Donna, and others like her, is that my ballet experience has taught me that we can’t always live up to our dreams. That doesn’t mean we have to abandon them. We just have to reshape them. You can interact with horses in more ways than just riding. Find a mentor who will help you fine-tune your horse-handling skills. You might even discover a talent for showing horses in halter or showmanship classes. Or channel your love of horses into altruistic endeavors: Volunteer at a therapeutic riding school, become a foster “mom” for an unwanted horse, or lend a hand at a horse rescue operation. And, if you truly don’t want to sit on top of a horse, consider sitting behind one. Driving a horse (or pony) hitched to a cart is a blast, and worthy of any horse lover’s interest.

To be sure, there is something special, almost spiritual, about a connection to horses. But if your fear can’t be conquered by love, then find another way to express your devotion.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. thank you for writing this. I too use to ride more but having children has hieghtened my awareness of getting hurt while riding, so i constantly worried about what would happen if I got hurt out riding, thus the fear got worse. so after serious thought I re-formed my horse thought and purchased a cart broke miniature horse and have a blast while still having my horse and not have the fear and anxiety of owning large horses thanks again

  2. Thanks for writing this article. I can totally relate. That’s why I got into minis and they are a BLAST! I am now training two minis to drive.

  3. While I don’t have the fear and ride every chance I get, I can understand what these women are going through. It is a shame that they feel like they ” have” to ride if they want to be close to horses. I too am not the crazy daredevil I was in my youth. My horses have gone from 17 hands to 15.1. Not from fear, but just because they are easier to handle, get on, closer to the ground should I fall….

  4. Great story and one that I can also relate to. At 51, I have decided to get back in the saddle after being away for 30 years. But now I find I am much more intimidated than I would like. The fear of getting hurt is so much more present now. I don’t bounce the way I used to!! But I have every intentions of getting over this and have found a certain amount of comfort in my choice of saddle. I was introduced to an Australian Stock saddle by one of my trainers and it has become my security blanket sort of speak! I feel so much more secure and now I can relax and enjoy.

  5. At 11, I broke three ribs at a birthday party, when a horse shied, threw me and landed on me. A few trail rides later and I am 56. My husband gave me lessons for my birthday last July, and I was determined not to let fear stop me. It didn’t; in the intervening 45 years, I’ve managed to deal with major, chronic illnesses and some major bumps in the road. I’ll live if I fall. I ride a thoroughbred who is 16 h. After heel surgery I was back on him the day after my cast came off. Each Friday when I go to bed it is like Christmas Eve, because I know I get to ride. I hope Donna takes advantage of having horses she can ride any time.

  6. I can relate…
    Trust me, I have had my fair share of bad falls and horribly timed horse encounters, but I have always loved horses.
    Maybe it’s because I try to forget the things that happened, or maybe it’s because I feel like I have regained my confidence every time I put my feet in the stirrups and grab the reins.
    I have loved and been riding horses since I could walk and talk. I know I’m only 15, but I really can relate!
    XOXO for this article & to all horsepeople

  7. After breaking my ankle in various places last year after a bad fall over a jump, I couldn’t ride for around 10 weeks. It was agony sitting in a wheelchair watching my friends ride. But to not lose my confidence with horses, I did everything to stay on top of it. Polished my saddle, my boots etc. There are many more people out there like Donna and I hope this article helps them, too.

  8. THANKS FOR ALL THE THOUGHTFUL COMMENTS.
    JUST TO BE CLEAR, I THINK THAT IF SOMEONE–ADULT OR CHILD–WANTS TO OVERCOME THEIR FEAR, THEN THEY SHOULD BE SUPPORTED IN MAKING THAT ATTEMPT. I THINK IT TAKES THE HELP OF A SPECIAL KIND OF RIDING INSTRUCTOR, A WONDERFUL HORSE AND FAMILY/FRIENDS TO MAKE IT WORK.
    BUT THERE ARE SOME PEOPLE WHO SIMPLY CANNOT GET PAST BEING GENUINELY SCARED OF RIDING. THAT FEAR THEN AFFECTS THEIR ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE WITH THEIR HORSE, WHICH CAN THEN LEAD TO MORE ACCIDENTS AND BAD EXPERIENCES. IN THOSE INSTANCES, IT MAY BE BETTER TO FIND ANOTHER WAY TO CONNECT WITH HORSES RATHER THAN BEING ON THEIR BACK. THERE ARE ALL KINDS OF WAYS TO EXPRESS YOUR LOVE OF HORSES, THAT’S FOR SURE!

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