How to get over horse riding nerves

How To Get Over Horse Riding Nerves

As horse riders, our confidence often hangs by a thread, one fall or bad experience can lead to years of doubt and the feeling of having faith in something totally evaporates. We understand that horse riding confidence is volatile, we’ve been there, got the t-shirt and continue to go there from time to time! So just how can you get over horse riding nerves? We speak to real riders to find out how they deal with horse riding nerves as well as look at tried and tested methods to keep you smiling in the saddle.

6-minute read

When the horse riding nerves take hold

“I don’t remember the precise trigger, but I was going through a rough patch, my confidence was in pieces and it started to show in my riding. Having owned my horse since he was two, I had broken him and been the only one to ride him for five years, we had a strong bond and I trusted him fully. I would hack him out on busy roads, go cross country, compete in Elementary level dressage and wouldn’t bat an eyelid at saying yes to pleasure rides or trips to the beach. But something started to happen, I would be out riding, a car would drive past, and I’d suddenly panic at the thought of being involved in an accident, or I’d ride past a brick wall and worry about being thrown off onto it. Riding in a body protector and out with friends helped a bit but it got to the point where I didn’t dare canter him in a field or go over a trotting pole. I needed to regain control. My confidence was spiralling, fast. I knew I needed to do something to get it back and banish the horse riding nerves."

How Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can help horse riding nerves

"A friend mentioned Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and wanting to improve my situation, I decided to go for it. The idea behind CBT is that it can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave by talking through a variety of situations that trigger anxiety. I quickly realised that I had assumed a negative state of mind and my thinking needed to shift if I was to regain control of my confidence in and out of the saddle. I was dwelling on minute details and letting them consume my mind. The CBT practitioner soon focused on a saying that would go on to help me massively and to this day I say it whenever I feel the smallest bit of anxiety creep in “what’s the worst that can happen?”. Once you ask yourself this question in scary situations, you realise that the “worst” really isn’t that bad. If you follow it up with “what’s the best thing that could happen” your thinking turns from negative to positive and by envisaging the best-case scenario, you’ll probably find yourself smiling and feeling empowered ready to face the task that lies ahead.”

Practice visualisation

Practice, visualise and have a positive mindset. This is a really simple way of dealing with nerves and one we use frequently to help overcome the dreaded horse riding nerves. For example, if you have an upcoming competition, practice the dressage test, visualise yourself in the arena and believe nothing bad will happen. Then once you're at the competition, try to make the conditions as similar as you can to when you are at home, this will keep you and your horse at ease, as you'll know whatever the day throws at you, you'll be able to deal with it.

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Accepting you’re a nervous horse rider

It might seem odd for us to advise accepting and acknowledging your nerves but they can actually help you! We can all get nervous for a multitude of reasons but often trying to hide them can make them worse. Sometimes admitting to yourself and those around you that you’re nervous is okay. Some nerves are good to help you perform well, but too many can hinder your performance. If you have regular lessons, let your trainer know how you feel and they can tailor the lesson to suit you and together you can work on feeling more confident.

Wearing a body protector could help your horse riding nerves. Having that added level of protection (quite literally) will help make you feel safer in the saddle.

You're not alone, even the world's best riders get nervous, as British Event Rider Gemma Tattersall told us:

"Nerves are a massive part of being a competitor and I do get very nervous. Before I went cross country at Bicton 5* I was physically sick, I felt so terrible and wondered why I was doing it. But then you go round, have the most amazing round and it’s all worth it. I’ve become quite good at changing my nerves to work for me and they now help me ride positively. They turn into focus, determination and getting the job done. It’s something I’ve worked hard at, it’s definitely a mind over matter thing."

How you can make your nerves work for you:

Being confident in yourself and your ability will influence your horse. For example, if you approach a scary filler with the confidence that you can go over it, your horse will feel more assured jumping it and less likely to refuse it. Even if you’re not confident pretend you are. Chanel the nerves into positive vibes and make them work in your favour.

How Liberty Horse Trainer Ben Atkinson deals with nerves:

It might surprise you to hear that Liberty Horse trainer and Social Media star Ben Atkinson gets nervous before his live performance at some of the biggest equestrian shows in the UK. So how does Ben deal with his nerves?

Before arena demos or big film moments, Ben gets nervous. But instead of letting the nerves cripple him, Ben's found a way to use them to make his performances better. “The day I stop being nervous is the day I stop doing what I do. Pressure is a privilege, and it helps me, and my horses perform. I worry about all sorts of things happening when we’re in the ring, but I know I’ve prepared as well as I can. Preparation is key. If I feel underprepared, I won’t perform.” At home, Ben trains a level above what he does in a demo: “in truth, my demos are only 80% of what my horses can do. I never want to put pressure on them in the big rings and I need to know they’re fully capable of everything I’m asking for.” Ben relates this to showjumping: “you wouldn’t jump a maximum of 80cm at home then enter a 1m class at a competition. You want to be jumping 1m at home and entering 80cm classes at competitions.” And if things do go wrong? “I laugh. You have to with horses as so much can go wrong and does go wrong!”.

The psychology of horse riding

Even superstars like Beyoncé assume an alter ego when they perform. Sasha Fierce is how Beyonce refers to herself when she goes on stage to perform. Although you are not likely to be singing to large crowds while riding at home or at a riding competition, why not create your own show persona, to bring confidence when you compete and to take you out of your nervous mindset. Giving your alter ego a funny name will help you smile when the nerves really kick in too, as will relating your alter ego to a memory that instantly makes you feel happy. So next time you get in the saddle, assume your alter ego, sing your heart out and let the confidence flow.


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Surround yourself with positive people

Having someone you trust on the sidelines while you ride can be assuring. Whether they’re horsey or non-horsey, having someone on the ground for moral support, tack alterations and taking photos and videos can be just what you need to take some of the pressure off as Rachel knows all too well:

"Working, commuting, riding and general life meant I was rushing around all the time and neglecting, or pushing aside, feelings that were starting to become more common. These feelings were negatively themed and started to affect my riding – not ideal when I was trying to train a fizzy eight-year-old dressage horse. A few years ago, after I’d had undergone three operations, I wasn’t feeling good about myself and my confidence in riding sharp dressage horses was wavering. “What if I fall off”, “oh no he’s going to spook”, this negative way of thinking and the negative voice in my head really started to take hold. Then, one morning I remembered a brilliant exercise from some Neuro-Linguistic Programming Therapy (NLP) training I had done a few years ago.

NLP is a set of language- and sensory-based interventions and behaviour-modification techniques designed to help improve self-awareness, confidence, communication skills, and social actions.

It all sounds quite deep and complicated – but it’s not. I was lucky enough to go on a week-long course and one of the techniques we were taught has stayed with me for life. I’ve used it for work when I’ve had to do huge pitch presentations to give me a boost of confidence. I also use it a lot when riding these days. My husband now knows the right things to say to me when the nerves kick in and he's been a fantastic support in helping me regain control."

How does NLP work?

"Find a quiet room, with nobody else around and no distractions. Close your eyes and go through the following:

Remember a time you had the most amazing ride on your horse

Now picture this time in either a still or a video

Now make this picture even bigger – make the sounds louder – make the smells stronger – but make the picture bigger and brighter – how do you feel?

Take this big, bright picture and make it even bigger again and even brighter again – how do you feel?

It takes about ten minutes, but I promise you – you will be feeling so motivated to get on and ride, even in the pouring rain in winter, when it’s blowing a gale when it’s cold or the days you just can’t be bothered. Remind yourself of a time when you had just the best ride on your horse and times it by ten to make it even bigger and brighter.

Every time I do this exercise I find myself grinning from ear to ear."

And there we have it! Our top tips on how to help you get over horse riding nerves. Remember to give yourself plenty of time to work on your confidence, surround yourself with positive people and try visualisation exercises before you get on board. And finally, you're not alone, even the world's best riders and performers get nervous - after all, we're all human! Keep smiling, Harry Hall xx