Thursday, April 2, 2015

Guest Post: Adult Beginners & Rider Fear

Today's blog post is written by guest Sanguinaria Gray! I like her writing style, and what's even better, she wants to talk about adult beginner riders and rider fear. That's brave.

Us horse people aren't usually known for being exactly, uh, touchy-feely. We can be catty and cliquish, and we tend to have strong opinions. It's scary as hell for new people to join the horse world. I never have, and never will, criticize anyone's riding, chosen discipline, or lack of knowledge (as long as those aren't outright abusive). But neither have I been very supportive of newcomers. It's time to fix that.

From now on, every Friday on my blog and Facebook page will be Freetalk Fridays. You can email me, message me, or comment with any question. Anything. No matter how dumb you think it is. I (and hopefully all of you reading this pretty please!) will try to answer it without even a soupcon of a smidgen of judgement or assumption. NOTE: That's really important guys-- I really want lots of people to get in on this and help answer questions, but on Freetalk Fridays there is no judgement. We can return to being snarky later. I have a few really dumb questions of my own that I'm hoping you all can help with! Got a question? You can email me anonymously, comment here below anonymously, or post your question on the North Horse facebook page, whatever you're comfortable with.

Now, without further ado, I am very glad to present S.G.'s guest post!

Adult Beginners & Rider Fear

I walked into the barn, and came face to face with the horse they put the beginners on. She's a 16 hand draft, but she's steady and broad and she knows her job. My ever-patient instructor explained grooming basics, then showed me how to put on the saddle. Did you know dressage saddles look really tiny on big horses? How am I ever going to stay on this thing? I wondered. Bridle goes on, and I'm handed a lead rope and pointed in the direction of the arena. Whatever have I gotten myself into?

This sounds like a similar experience to a lot of people learning to ride. But the difference between me and a lot of other new riding students is that I was 31 at the time. Adult beginners have a set of
challenges that younger riders may never have to overcome.

Challenge 1: We are not as flexible.
Unless you do yoga every day, chances are you've got a lot of stretching to do. It takes time, and sometimes, it hurts. Ankles, knees, groin...all those areas need to learn to stretch in new directions if you ever want to ride in proper position. This brings us to...

Challenge 2: Our muscles are not used to this. 
Even if we do other physical activity regularly, I can't think of another exercise that works our abs, back, arms, and legs like riding. Anyone who says "but you just sit there, how can it be hard?!?" has probably never ridden for more than a half hour, and then was probably not much more than a passenger. Even now, a year and a half in, I'm still sore the day after a lesson. On the other hand, keep up with riding and you will have a SPECTACULAR backside. Muscle tone, here we come.

Challenge 3: Pride. We're adults. Most of us are not used to being in the position of student.
My instructor is amazing, patient but firm, answers questions as they come, and never ever talks down to you, no matter what your age. But it's still very easy to fall into the trap of holding yourself to too high a standard. Down that path lies only frustration and disappointment. Similar to this is the trap of comparing yourself to other riders, especially younger ones. But the truth is, we all learn differently. We all progress differently. As long as you're willing to work hard and learn, it doesn't matter what calibre rider you are...but that's easier said than done. The best way to avoid this is probably to find a low-drama stable with a judgment-free atmosphere. That makes it far, far easier to leave your pride at the door.

But more than all these things, the hardest, biggest challenge is...

Challenge 4: FEAR!!
Unlike kids...adults know they are not invincible. We know bones break, concussions are possible, and that there's even a chance we could die. If we have families and kids, these consequences loom large. It's easy to say "I can't." It's harder to say "I have to try." It's even harder to make yourself try until you get it right or stop being terrified of it. This is what I have the most trouble with. It’s really easy to come up with excuses why you can't do it this time, why you'll wait ‘til next time...but then next time never comes. I, myself, am terrified of canter. It's big, it's fast, and yeah, I came off once. I got back on, though- my instructor made me, just as soon as I was sure I wasn't injured (readers, before you say it- if I had insisted that I was in no shape to get on, she'd have believed me). I am so, so glad she did. First- what I did wrong was right there, at the front of my brain. You better believe I made DAMN sure not to repeat that. Second, if you don't face the fear, you will internalize it.

And, here's the thing, guys- facing your fear makes you a better rider. You can't advance if you won't challenge yourself.

So. What can we do about these things, especially about fear? I don't have all the answers, but here are the things that come to mind:

TRUST your instructor.
Assuming you have a good one (if you don't, find one! If you don't have one at all, consider taking a lesson or two), they aren't going to make you do anything they know is going to end badly. They'll push you out of your comfort zone though. Then they'll bring you back into comfort. Then push it a little more outside, until gradually, that thing that used to scare you is just a normal part of riding.

PUSH YOURSELF. You are capable of more than you think. On the way home from the lesson containing "the incident", I started thinking, I don't want to do this anymore. Then...I realized that was dumb. I want to ride badly enough to start at my age, I can't let one incident prevent me from doing something I've always wanted to do. Yeah, your body will ache. Keep doing it- your muscles will get stronger. Do you have your own horse and you're feeling confident in your skills on your own? See if you can ride a school horse for one lesson. I can almost guarantee you that the nuances of this new horse will challenge you again. Even if all you do is the basics- you will learn SO much just by changing it up a little.

CELEBRATE your victories, no matter how small. Were you able to keep your horse in a trot for one whole lap in the arena for the first time ever? That's a big deal, acknowledge it! Who gives a crap if the 12-year-old next to you who's been riding since she was six can do some fancy-schmancy dressage moves on the expensive warmblood she has- YOU just had a breakthrough, and YOU are what matters. You're there for yourself. Because this is what you love, this is what you want to be doing.

I'm not perfect. I'm not even a great rider, though I like to think I'm slightly better than mediocre. I still struggle with fear almost every lesson- but I'm not paralyzed by it. Most of the time the fear is of the oh-god-it's-time-to-trot-again-holy-shit-her-trot-is-fast variety...but most of the time by the time I can get that thought out of the way, I'm settling into the rhythm and it's not quite so scary anymore. I hear, all the time, that I look terrified while I'm riding. What I want to tell people is "shut up that's my concentrating face". But they have a point- smile sometimes. Your whole body relaxes when you do.

Anyway- if you've reached this point, congratulations. Something tells me we might be in the same
boat.  Have you battled with fear? How did you overcome it? What do you need help with? I bet if we stick together, we just might figure this out.


  1. Good article. Why is it that horse people are so horrible to beginners? I bought 3 Arabians when I was 33 years old and knew nothing... If it had not been for one of the sellers and my own determination, horse ownership would have ended quickly. No, I did not take riding lessons. I learned how to saddle and got on the horses and rode them.. all over the fields into the park and where ever I could. Not knowing anything was a good thing as I had no reason to be fearful and did a lot I would never do today!
    Giving lessons to children and adults for the past 10 years has taught me a lot about fear. With kids, what works is trail riding or speed shows. Get out of the arena and just ride without thinking.. Some kids that won't even trot in the arena will be trotting and chatting with me on the trail for hours.. . Games on horses are another way to get over fear. Any number of fearful kids will fly around the arena trying to win that game.
    I think the emphasis of doing everything "correct and perfect" takes the fun out of horse lessons, especially for adults who are trying to learn hands, feet, balance and everything at one time. Learn the basics, get your balance (ride bareback!!) then get out of the arena and enjoy horses too.. remember WHY you have horses. If it's not FUN for you, then quit.
    Now 30 years later I am also dealing with my own fear, so I will follow my own advice and trail ride alone to talk to my horse (or sing which works well when you are nervous) and just have fun. Some times we just think too much.

  2. Sanguinaria GrayApril 3, 2015 at 4:46 PM

    I talk to my horse a lot because it keeps us both calm. We're both anxious types who want to do things right- and having that dialogue and telling him he's doing well helps us both relax. Riding lessons on my own horse are a whole different ballgame- we're learning together! When I ride alone, sometimes I sing- it's distracting so I'm feeling more than thinking, and it puts a nice rhythm deep down inside.

    1. I'm pretty sure my singing scares all living creatures, but I definitely talk to my horse constantly!

  3. I started my riding lessons at the age of 48. I'm now 62 and still get pointers from my trainer. My horse and I have a great relationship. I'm more stubborn than he is. Yes, I have had injuries from riding, but that's part of learning. We love jumping and do 3' oxers with joy. Don't let age slow you down. If you want to learn bad enough, get out there and do it! Find the right horse and or trainer for you and get started. Don't ever look back with regret and ask yourself why you didn't try.