By Jennifer Klitzke
I believe that riding fear is very common, and if you struggle with it, I certainly relate with you.
After a few scary falls in my early twenties, I became gripped with uncontrollable and paralyzing riding fear to the point of hyperventilation. The fear controlled me because I felt out of control whenever my horse did something that MIGHT result in me falling off and getting hurt again. I only felt safe riding in an indoor arena with no distractions on a calm day riding to the left at a walk.
I faced a cross roads: give up riding horses, my passion, or meet this fear head on. Thankfully the latter won out!
During the course of the last 26 years, I have developed a theory about spooky horses and nervous riders which is based upon my plight with riding fear, coupled with the people (and my faith) who have made a difference in helping me manage it. Most helpful to me are a blend of teachings from these great mentors: Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer who have taught me how to become a trusted leader, Jennie Jackson who has taught me gaited dressage and riding confidence, and Mary Wanless who has taught me a secure riding position.
My theory begins with this: I don’t believe that there are bomb-proof horses. I think some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider will heighten a horse’s reactivity. I’ve seen it dozens of times when an owner turns over a spooky horse to a clinician and the horse relaxes as soon as the clinician takes over.
My husband proves it to me each time I lose my focus and struggle with my naturally gaited Walking horse when she spooks at a swaying bush on a windy day. My darling husband hops on and in a matter of minutes he’s riding by the disco bush without a care. I’ve had hundreds of dressage lessons over the last 27 years and he’s had a handful. So how does he do it?
For starters I believe that God brought horses into my life to mirror my soul and help me get in touch with what’s really going on. I used to run to horses as an escape from a rough day only to have had the worst ride of my life. Over the years God has used horses to teach me about myself and lean on Him as my Source of Life. From time to time I lose sight of this and horses continue to humble me and keep my priorities in order. My faith has given me life purpose, meaning, identity, and the courage to persevere and not give up.
Secondly is the leadership I convey to my horse which I have learned from Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer. My Walking horse mare tends to be reactive to noise and sudden movement. How I react to her makes all the difference. When I maintain myself as a trusted leader by calmly bringing her back to balance and relaxation and redirecting her attention through transitions every few steps (walk, halt, rein back, walk, shoulder in, etc.), that’s when we are successful. BUT when I react to what she MIGHT do, irrational fear springs up in me, I tense up, make a high pitch scream, and pull on the reins (something like the top photo), and it only exacerbates the nervousness in my horse.
Most recently God has aligned my path with gaited dressage master Jennie Jackson. She is the only person in history who has trained and shown a Tennessee walking horse to the highest levels of dressage with her naturally gaited stallion Champaign Watchout. I am honored to have brought her to my state for two years in a row for intensive lessons which have catapulted me and my naturally gaited mare into a fearlessly forward moving flatwalk in connection. Jennie has challenged me to confidently ride through the storms, not react to them, and train myself to replace a high-pitched scream for a low growl. These tips have increased my riding confidence and have reduced my mare’s spookiness.
Finally, developing a secure and balanced riding position builds rider confidence like none other. Right after facing my cross roads in 1988, I began studying riding bio-mechanics from Mary Wanless when she published her first book, The Natural Rider. This book addresses riding fear in a way that makes sense to me.
Since then I have purchased Mary’s Ride With Your Mind DVD series, several of her other books, and have audited her clinics whenever she comes to my region. I was fortunate enough to have ridden at one of her clinics three years ago. Mary brought the book and DVD learning to real-time application. She taught me the importance of aligning my external anatomy, breathing deep into my stomach, and the isokinetic effort of bearing down my internal anatomy and sealing my seat and thighs alongside the saddle for a more secure position while distributing my body weight more comfortably along the horse’s back. Instead of fixing the horse, she challenged me to become aware of my riding position to fix myself which naturally restores my horse’s way of going.
Mary’s riding bio-mechanics have taught me a more secure and balanced riding position. Because of this I am better able to confidently ride through spooks. As a result, there is less fear in me and I produce less reactive fear in my horse. This translates into less overall spooks and a more harmonious riding relationship with my horse.
So what is my darling husband’s secret to calmly riding my mare by the disco bush? I think he is deeply grounded in his priorities, he presents trusted leadership with the horse, and a naturally balanced riding position. If the horse were to spook, he wouldn’t get rattled by all that the horse MIGHT do. (In fact, his mind doesn’t even go there.) His secure position would keep him in the saddle, he would bring the horse back to balance and relaxation, and the horse would look to him as the trusted leader.
The example between my husband and I riding the same horse within minutes of each other with the same conditions and completely different outcomes reinforces my theory: Some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider heightens a horse’s reactivity.
If you struggle with riding fear, hang in there and persevere. I’m sure glad that I did. My struggle with debilitating fear didn’t disappear overnight. But today I enjoy showing my naturally gaited Walking horse at open schooling dressage shows, trail riding, team penning, sorting cows, endurance races, jumping courses, cross country, and trail obstacles.
Fear no longer controls my life—thank God—I am FREE!
For more about riding bio-mechanics, visit mary-wanless.com.
For more about gaited dressage, visit Jennie Jackson at, www.facebook.com/groups/JennieJacksonDressageEnGaite/