I think that anyone who has been riding for a while would most likely be lying if they said that they've never been scared on a horse.
If you are a riding instructor—and especially if you are one that teaches beginners—learning how to help a fearful student is a must-have skill. It takes time and patience. I'm sharing some thoughts on what has helped me with it over the years in hopes that it might help others.
When you are dealing with a thousand-pound animal with its own brain, it doesn't matter how well you think you know them. Sometimes, they just react instinctively despite all their training, which is a hard thing for new riders to understand.
The Brave and the Not so Brave—We All Have Our Moments!
Now, some riders are naturally more fearful than others. I have taught some kids that are raring to go and would probably try jumping at the first lesson if I would let them. On the flip side, I have taught kids that took a very long time to get comfortable on a horse.
Take me for example. I was not naturally confident with horses. As a little girl, I wanted to ride so badly and always looked forward to my lessons, but when it came time to go, I was terrified. I had no reason to be, I rode decent lesson horses and had appropriate beginner instructors, but I was very fearful.
I can remember my Gramm asking my mom why she made me go to the lessons each week if I didn't want to. The reason was my mom saw how much I wanted to do it. All week long between lessons, I talked about the horses and the riding non-stop.
On the day of though, it was a different story. One of my riding friends and I actually hid in my closet one time because we were so afraid to go! Looking back on it now, it was totally ridiculous. We had never even had anything bad happen to us in our lessons.
At the time though, the thought that we might have to trot or do some other terrifying new thing at our lesson was enough to have us shaking in our boots and hiding in the closet at lesson time. To us, it was scary. As instructors, we have to be considerate of the fact that even if we don't see what the big deal is, it is our job to help our students overcome it.
At that point in my lesson career, I never had an instructor ask me why I was afraid. I'm sure though that at the time I would not have had an answer. I wanted to know about horses and be around horses and I loved it. I should say I loved everything about the thought of it. In real life though, they were big and sometimes stubborn and as a little kid, it is hard to keep your scared inner voice from talking over your instructor when things start to get a little tough.
One of the very first lesson ponies I rode, Frostline, would always take me out of the ring if the gate was open. She was predictable about it and even did it slowly. Doesn't sound that scary right? Wrong! It was like every time I got to that dreaded corner by the gate, all of a sudden, it was like I was hearing my instructors voice from miles away like she was at the end of a tunnel or something. Her voice saying inside rein, outside leg, push her forward, use your whip . . . they were faint compared to the scared voice in my head.
One day I finally did get Frostline past the gate, and after that lesson, she was my favorite for a long time. I even leased her and did my first shows on her.
Instead of Fear Have a Healthy Respect
Slowly, with time, and progressing on the right horses with the right teachers, I became confident (to the point of doing dumb things and riding any horse no matter what). I have had some wild rides and have broken a lot of bones. Then it's like it all comes full circle when you advance in your horsemanship. It's like you are self-confident in your abilities, without lacking common sense.
That is where we want our riders to be—confident but still aware of the fact that we are dealing with big animals who instinctively don't think the same way we do. Teaching your students about the nature of the horse and explaining how it's a prey animal and how its herd mentality makes it react differently than we would to something is a big help. It is only common sense that the more we know about the thousand pound beast we are swinging our leg over the better we will feel about things.
If you are a naturally brave and confident rider, who doesn't have a loud, scary "what if" voice in your head, you are very lucky. It takes perseverance to overcome. It most definitely can be done though. I'm proof of it! Put Yourself in Their Boots I think sometimes as instructors and confident riders we forget what it is like to not know what to expect or to just be apprehensive. After watching all the students ride that I have watched over the last 19 years and seeing them overcome their fears has helped me to understand better how to help someone get through them.
Get to Know Them and Build a Relationship
This part is important! Just because it doesn't seem like a scary thing to you doesn't mean that your rider doesn't have the right to be scared. As instructors, we have to remember what it's like to not know what to do with our bodies to make our horses listen. Or to have no clue how a horse might react to something.
You also need to make sure you take the time to form a rapport with your student. Try and get them talking to you. About anything, their family, school, pets, whatever they will talk about. You need to get them comfortable and talking to you easily. That way when things get hard or they start to get nervous they won't be afraid to talk to you and tell you what is going on.
I know, it probably sounds weird that I'm telling you that you should chat up the kids you are teaching but that is how they learn to trust you. It also helps them to relax. If I have a first-time student that I can tell is terrified, I have been known to teach them most of their first lesson just sitting still on the horse explaining the proper position and then leading them around the ring or walking right next to them. I will ask them about themselves, and try to get to know them. This helps them to relax and forget about their fears. The more their mind settles the more their muscles will relax and that is when they can begin to really listen to your instruction and form the muscle memory necessary to have a balanced seat in the saddle.
Learn About Your Student by Being Observant
I believe that you can improve a lot as a riding instructor if you pay more attention to your student's body language—not just when they ride but on the ground. You can tell a lot by how a child is in their first meeting with you. If they are shy, looking down, and hanging back, they probably have a shy and fearful personality. Which is just going to be exaggerated by them being in an unfamiliar place and trying something new. Do whatever you have to do to get them to relax and feel comfortable. Taking the time to do this will make all the difference in them being able to follow your instructions even when they are nervous.
The kids that come running in and are over-enthusiastically confident will show that as well. Addressing that is just as important as boosting the shy nervous child's confidence. The excited brave ones need to learn how their energy affects the horses' energy and how they need to be calm and slow with the horses, even if they are excited.
Small Steps Are Always Best so Break It Down
I know how frustrating it can be to watch a student struggle and feel like you are telling them exactly what to do and they aren't listening. Remember how loud that voice can get in your head when you think things are going wrong. Once your student's inner voice is louder than your voice instructing them, it's not going to work. You need to figure out what skill they are lacking that is making it so that they aren't able to accomplish what they need to ride effectively.
For example, if their pony is constantly yanking them forward and eating grass and they just lay there on their neck and can't get their head back up, you have to not just tell them what to do to get the ponies head up . . . you need to teach them why to do it and how. The why and how are just as important as the actual steps themselves.
You'd correct their lower leg position to give them a better base of support. You would have them lift their hands and that would help keep their shoulders back, which would, in turn, help keep the pony from getting its head down. You would remind them to keep pushing the pony forward, making it work (it should be working hard enough and be attentive enough to the rider that it doesn't think about wanting to stop for a snack).
You have to make sure they have all the tools and understand what to do and how to do it. I would have them practice their improved position and pushing for a more forward tempo. We would do it in the middle of the arena in between some cones for a bit until their position was solid and they were more confident. Then slowly add back to the factor of the grass, after they have honed in on what they can do to focus on preventing the problem.
That way they will be more confident and the voice in their head will be your voice reinforcing those instructions, not the scary voice saying you better hold on to this pony's neck so you don't end up in the grass while he enjoys a mid-lesson snack.
Your fearful and nervous students will come around faster if you try your very hardest to break down the skills you are teaching them so they understand why they need to do something and what that is going to do to help them control the horse.
If your nerves are getting to you and someone is just repeating an instruction that you don't understand, it doesn't matter how many times they say it . . . the voice in your head is going to be louder than the instructors. It will sound like you are hearing your instructors voice faintly like it is at the end of a tunnel and you are out there in the arena all alone.
On the other hand, if you have taught that student the skills they need, you taught them not just what to do, but how to do it and why it works, I have found they will be more successful. Put simply, it will help if they know why we want them to do something.
When and How to Push
Sometimes, much to our student's dismay, the only way they can overcome their fear is to be pushed. That being said, you do not want to push your rider until you can see clearly that they have the ability to do what you are asking them to do.
Pushing a scared rider when they aren't ready isn't going to force them into figuring it out. It is going to scare them more, and the worst part of all, they will lose their trust in you. We never want our students not to trust us, we need to have taught them progressively. Building on one skill and then the next so when they get scared and you feel it is time to give a little push they will trust that you believe in them and wouldn't ask them to do something they weren't capable of.
I have seen over the years that fear goes hand and hand with frustration. Obviously, we can't promise that our students will never get frustrated, but we can avoid it by making sure they are overly confident with one skill before moving on to the next. That way we are hoping that we are setting them up to be ready, which should make things a lot less scary.
In my experience, if you have your students on the right horse for their skill level, and they are working on something and they get scared, it is best to work through it for a few lessons on that same horse. Even though the student may be reluctant, we don't want to let them give up. Sometimes, that means we might have to go back a couple steps and gain their confidence again with skills that you mastered a few lessons back. In the process you can discuss how perfecting these skills relates to the issue they have been having.
Then, once you have a lightbulb moment lesson or two where they see they are able to do that easier step more instinctively, ask them how they feel about it. Ask if they know how this relates to the scary thing. I bet if you take your time and refresh on previous steps and then have them explain to you why it works, that they will be more than ready to tackle that next scarier step again and then they will succeed with it.
To Switch Horses or Not to Switch Horses?
We want them to see they can succeed on that horse they were having trouble on. Nothing will give them more of a confidence boost than that. Obviously, this rule does not apply if whatever is scaring them is actually putting them in danger, in which case, they should not be on that horse. If you know your horses and know your students this should never be an issue.
I'm talking in terms of getting over a general fear of not knowing what to do when you are a new rider experiencing what all beginners experience on lesson horses. Obviously, no beginner or fearful rider should be using a horse with dangerous habits. Horses like that don't belong in a lesson program.
The more students you teach and the more horses you teach them on, the better you will get at helping all your students achieve their goals, whether they be super confident or super nervous.
A Quick Summary!
So to sum it all up . . . try and remember these pointers and I think you will be surprised at how easily you are able to help your students get over their fears. Get to know your students, talk to them, get them comfortable enough with you that they can tell you when they are nervous. Take your time! Let's be honest, if your primary job like mine is teaching beginner lessons then there is no rush to get ready for the Olympic trials!
Slow and steady is always better. If there was a golden rule of riding instruction I would say that it is easier to take your time and build confidence then to get it back once it is lost. Help them to understand why you are asking them to do certain things. We all feel better and less anxious about things when we know more about them, right? Riding is no different. Tell them the why's as well as the how's. Make sure your students know that it is okay to be fearful.
I tell my students all the time about certain stories of me getting really scared and how I was able to get over my fear. Our students look up to us, they think we are the best and don't want to disappoint us by being afraid. We need to be relatable. Telling your students stories of your personal experiences and struggles will make them feel better when they realize overcoming fears is all just a part of learning overall good horsemanship skills.
Ask them what you could do to make them feel more comfortable. You may be surprised at the simple answers that you might get. If it is a child that is particularly nervous you could ask their parents what they think you can do. They might tell their parents something that they aren't quite brave enough to tell you yet.
It's Our Job to Set Them Up for Success
In closing, it is our responsibility as instructors to make sure we are setting our students up for success. It is not going to look the same for every rider. You have to teach everyone a little differently, and that is okay. I'm not saying that you are changing your program or changing your system, you just change how you relay it depending on their personality and confidence level.