When you fall off the horse, you have to get back on.
This old saying has been around for years. But according to Evon Montgomery, an equine education specialist from Saxonburg, PA with 35 years of experience in the horse business, the advice is sound.
In a recent presentation, Confidence After a Fall, Montgomery emphasized the importance of conquering fear and returning to the saddle. “You have a horse because you want to enjoy it,” she said. However, a serious fall can shake your confidence and keep you from that enjoyment. Whether you are a new rider, an experienced rider who was recently injured from a fall, a returning rider who doesn’t find riding to be as easy as it once was or an apprehensive rider, the mind is an important part of riding.
Most accidents occur when getting on or getting off a horse. Since those parts of a ride are so repetitive, a rider needs to take extra care.
Before the ride, paying attention to the body language of the horse is of utmost importance. Numerous outside factors can affect an otherwise docile horse. Factors, such as a full moon and barometric change, can influence the horse’s attitude greatly. Also, a mare in season can provide a completely different experience.
The idea of “Cowboy up, kid” and get back on may sound simple, the truth is psychologically a rider may not be ready – especially when the rider is older and doesn’t “bounce so well.”
“You have to have a plan to get back in the saddle,” she said. “When you get back on, your horse feels like it grew a foot.”
When developing a strategic plan, Montgomery says to “imagine becoming a brave rider again.” You need to have a goal in mind every time you head to the barn. No matter what kind of riding you have in mind, a fall or fear of falling can get in the way of your success.
Do not set a time limit and do it your way. People and horses vary greatly due to personalities so plans should vary as well. A rider must go at his or her own pace to build up their confidence.
Mongomery suggests a four-step plan to gain confidence: Safety First, Unhooked, Adding Intensity and Freedom at Last.
Safety is of the utmost importance. Use a series of exercises to build confidence. Find a friend of a like mind to help with the plan. You need to be able to trust their horsemanship skill as well as their personal responsibility. Although family and friends may mean well, their suggestions may be intimidating so you need to stand your ground and do it your way.
Starting to ride with a lesson horse may be necessary to get over nervousness. Feeling like your horse has become untrustworthy can hamper your progress.
Start in a closed area, free of clutter and other people or animals. Do not use another horse and rider to lead you. Your chosen helper should lead you and the horse until you are “bored”. When a person is bored, they are confident. Keep the halter on. Slowly increase the distance between the horse and the “safety net”.
Montgomery refers to step two as Unhooked. When confidence has been achieved at step one, the horse and rider should try walking about the barn unhooked. Your “safety net” can become your cheerleader to encourage you at any point you are feeling stressed. Do this step until boredom is again reached.
The third step in the plan should be to add challenges. Set up obstacles and distractions such as bouncing balls, walking across a tarp or having someone ride a bike. Let the horse stop and look as long as they need. There should be no time limit. As the horse adjusts to each challenge, the rider should watch for changes in body language and adjust to them. Revert back to a previous step if necessary.
Adding a new horse and rider can add a new level of anxiety. Make sure the new addition does not bite or kick. Also, do not take any unnecessary risks such as riding on a windy day.
“Trust your gut,” said Montgomery. Don‘t go with a person who might not do the right thing.
Step four is Freedom at Last. Once you have overcome the psychological barriers preventing you from riding, you can once again enjoy the sport you once loved.
Take your time and have a plan and soon you’ll be back in the saddle again.