If you ride horses the chances are you’ve experienced a bolt out of the blue.
Or put another way, your horse sees or hears something that scares him, his flight trigger kicks in and he’s off running as fast as he can.
If you’re lucky (or have a butt made of velcro) you’ll stay in the saddle and ride it out. If you’re unlucky you’ll dismount in an undignified manner and hope that nobody saw you. If you’re really unlucky you’ll break a bone, get a concussion or worse and wonder why you ever wanted to ride horses at all.
Now, while most non-horse people would quit and say never again, you’re a horse addict and like any addict you need your fix. So, once you’ve physically recovered off you go to get back in the saddle.
But, something strange happens when you prepare to ride.
Paralyzing fear and anxiety rears its ugly head, your freeze or flight mode kicks in, your heart races, your palms sweat, your mouth is dry and you know, in that moment, you are too scared to get back on your horse.
Well, You Are Not Alone!
All horse riders experience fear and anxiety and if they say they don’t they are not telling the truth. Fear and anxiety are both a natural responses. But they are not the same. According to N.A.M.I fear is triggered by our five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. And anxiety is an emotional reaction to that fear.
So here are five ways to help you rein in your fear and anxiety to your advantage?
Meditation: Yes, I realize meditation may seem a bit daunting for some of you but studies show that guided meditation and mindfulness can help you embrace fear and anxiety, understand its power, both good and bad, and learn how to harness it to your advantage. Programs like The InnaPeace Program for Anxiety, can really help using using a technique known as Brainwave Guidance™ .
Knowledge: As the saying goes, knowledge is power and with power comes understanding. Learn how horses think. Get into their minds because the more you understand them, the more you’ll know. And the more you know the less anxious you will be.
Ask for Help: There is no shame in asking for help but make sure you choose the right help. Many “horse people/trainers” adhere to a philosophy of, ‘Oh you’ll be fine, ‘ or ‘it’s all in your head’ or worse ‘just get on and stop whining”. Now this may work for some but a more encouraging approach with no verbal coercion will help so much more. After all, overcoming fear takes time and you may need to just hang out with your horse for a few months instead of riding to regain trust and ultimately confidence.
Be comfortable in your own Ability: We all have a tendency to compare ourselves to others. “I’ll never ride as well as them” or on the other side of the coin, I’m a much better rider than them. Be comfortable where you are in your journey and never think you are either worse or better than someone else. You’re not. Look back at how much you have progressed. Be happy with where you are on your horse journey, learn slowly and when or if that bolt/spook happens again you will be able to feel it coming and prevent it before it happens.
Develop a Mantra. Mantra’s can be particularly helpful as they can shift your mindset from negative to positive which in turn can help reduce your fear and anxiety. For example, instead of saying,“I can’t handle this” change it to “how can I handle this?” Or “I’m not good enough at riding” to “my experience will make me a better rider.”
Of course, these suggestions won’t work for everyone but give at least one of them a try. Because if you learn to manage your own fear and anxiety, your horse will too.
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They arrived one afternoon crammed together in a battered horse trailer with numbered tags hanging loosely around their necks. We knew they were coming — after all we’d paid a whopping $25 each for them. We knew they were older mares, we knew they were pregnant, and we knew they were as wild as, well, a wild horse. We also knew they’d be scared but the intense fear in their wide open eyes, and their trembling bodies still took us by surprise.
Captured by the U.S. Forest Service, these two scraggly and rather plump mares arrived creating a commotion like we’d never seen before. The clattering of hooves, the scramble to exit the trailer, the pushing and shoving. The fear emulating from them was palpable, but we comforted ourselves knowing they were safe from the helicopters, and the people who rounded them up, the people who forced them to leave their families and the only life they had ever known.
We named them Cleo and Ruby and we knew they would never see the forests they called home again. But we patted ourselves on the back and believed we’d done a good thing. And maybe we did. If we hadn’t taken them in they would likely have spent the rest of their days in a holding corral crammed with other horses, their babies lives at risk. Or they could have been bought along with up to 25 others (yes, that was the number of horses we were allowed to take) and transported to slaughter in Mexico or Canada.
Note: We don’t slaughter horses in the U.S. we let other countries do that nasty job for us!
Each year thousands of wild horses are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. (https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/media/upcoming-wild-horse-roundups-what-you-need-know)
Why? Some say they are over populated. Others put the blame squarely on the shoulders of big ranchers who pay big money to politicians and political parties to use the land they graze on to provide grazing for cattle. Laura Leigh, a lifelong wild horse advocate places the blame on the ranchers.
In an article in the Daily Beast she says, “The first thing to understand about the situation is the extent of the capture of the BLM by the livestock industry.
There’s no doubt there’s some political shenanigans going on with regard to the round up of our nation’s wild horses. Both Cleo and Ruby, who are both doing well in their new surroundings, are victims of a system that just doesn’t work. With a new administration we can only hope that will change and horses like Cleo and Ruby will be safe to roam freely as they were intended to do.
If you’d like to virtually adopt either Cleo or Ruby please visit our Virtual Horse Adoption Page
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There’s been a lot of discussion about “connecting with your horse” just lately. Even the well-known horse trainers have put out videos and information regarding the topic. So I thought I’d get in on the act and, based on my experience with wild horses, put my two cents worth in. It can only be two cents because I can’t afford anymore!
One Cent – Check-in at the Stable Door
Before you attempt to approach a wild or un-handled horse “check in” with yourself and make sure you are calm and centered. Any anxiety on your part will alert the horse to danger. In fact, a study undertaken by Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD., found that when you as a human come into contact with a horse the horse picks up on your state of mind, and will regulate their heart beats to synchronize with yours.
As I’m sure you know, anxiety and fear causes our heart rates to rise, so if your heart rate rises then the horses heart rate will rise too. Given that horses are prey animals and rely on their herds to alert them to a threat, it stands to reason that if you are scared or fearful, the horse will be too.
Horse people sometimes talk of a horse being “honest”. What they mean is that an “honest” horse is a horse that will let you know if they are feeling anxious by using their body language to tell you they may flee, buck, spook etc. Watch their body language and be honest with yours too. Don’t fake it. The horse will know and all you’ll do is add to their perception of threat and increase their anxiety.
Two Cents – Don’t be the Hare. Be the Tortoise
As humans we tend to be a tad impatient. We want things quickly. We want them now. Horses don’t think like we do. They live their lives second by second, minute by minute. Try to rush them and you are doomed to fail.
Horses, especially wild and un-handled ones, need time to trust. This can take months, even years to achieve. If you want to truly connect with a horse, you must take it slowly and at a pace the horse is comfortable with. This is not the time for training, round penning, this is about connecting with them in a way they understand. Be the tortoise not the hare.
The tortoise continued to plod on, albeit, it ever so slowly. He never stopped, but took one good step after another.
Julia Hyde lives in Scotts Valley, California with her husband, Brian, Dog, Missy, Horses, Shilo, Sera and Jericho.
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I’m Julia Hyde and I feel rather fortunate.
You see I’m lucky enough to be the founder of Canham Farm Horse Rescue and Rehab. This means I get to spend every day in the company of one of the most beautiful, therapeutic animals to grace the earth.
Of course, I’m talking about horses.
It took me many years to find the meaning of my life, and it didn’t involve my former careers as a nurse, reporter and mother, although I believe they have both helped me in my quest to understand how horses think, feel and live.
For me, horses are my life. They are my children. They are part of my family. They are 1000 pound four-legged, hay-eating, unpredictable, expensive, time-consuming children.
My husband doesn’t get it. My obsession with horses is a complete mystery to him. “Why do you need so many horses”, he asks. (I have three of my own — Sera, Shiloh and Jericho, plus nine at the rescue). I have no answer except “I just do”.
Taking care of horses is not for the faint of heart. There is no lie-in on a Sunday morning. There is no going out for the day (what about the horses’ lunches?) But I don’t mind. Not one bit.
I love the sunrise, the first sip of coffee in the quiet of my kitchen when everyone else is asleep. I love the nicker of the horses as I feed them their morning hay. I love the sound they make when they eat. I love the way they smell. And I love scooping their poop – a clean stall or paddock is incredibly satisfying. It gives me time to think about the rest of my day, or just be in the moment.
We have nine cameras at our house. That’s normal right? Most of them are aimed at the horses so I can see what they are up to when I’m not home. I need the cameras because one of them might colic*. Or cast themselves in the paddock fencing. What if? what if? The “What ifs” don’t bear thinking about.
I spend most days at the rescue and, due to my paranoia, take Sera, Shiloh and Jericho with me in my trailer. Sometimes we ride. Sometimes we don’t. But at least I know they’re safe.
There’s a myriad of tasks to do at the rescue and I couldn’t do any of it without the volunteers who dedicate themselves to the neglected, abused or abandoned horses in my care. Sometimes we laugh, (horses are incredibly funny) sometimes we cry and we all benefit from the escapades of these wonderful animals. But, those stories will have to wait until next time.
*The term “colic” refers to abdominal pain rather than a specific disorder. Conditions that commonly cause colic include gas, impaction, grain overload, sand ingestion, and parasite infection.
Julia lives in Scotts Valley, California with her husband, Brian, dog, Missy, Horses, Shilo, Sera and Jericho.