Monday, May. 20, 2024

Expert Tips For Overcoming Riding-Related Anxiety



In the first part of this series, I discussed how anxiety can take away much of the joy we experience with our horses. We looked specifically at how anxiety develops and how we keep it going. Now let’s look at how you can conquer anxiety with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

The process of CBT for anxiety problems involves changing exaggerated, fear-based beliefs by adjusting specific behaviors—most notably, the avoidance and safety behaviors in which you engage. Basically, you change your thinking by changing your behaviors.  

Here’s how it works. First, you identify the specific situations that trigger these thoughts, and the avoidance and safety behaviors you rely on. Then you practice being in each situation that triggers anxiety, while at the same time not engaging in the behaviors you do to keep yourself safe. This is called exposure therapy

Through repetition, exposures allow the brain to rewire. In technical terms, exposures are an intervention to extinguish the fear response that an anxious person has unwittingly fed and maintained by habitually engaging in avoidance and safety behaviors. Many studies have proven that exposures are the single most effective element in conquering anxiety problems.

Even many trigger situations that seem specific to shows can be recreated and worked through at home. Author Bridget Flynn Walker, PhD., helped counsel one young client who faced anxiety around pony model classes to overcome that anxiety in part with the help of model classes staged at home. Mollie Bailey Photo

For example, imagine a hunter/jumper rider who is extremely concerned about riding in front of people who haven’t seen her ride before. The following are some of the situations she has identified as triggering her anxiety:

  • Seeing that a top rider is in her class
  • Warming up at a competition
  • Entering the show ring
  • Making a small mistake during her round

In response, she engages in avoidance and safety behaviors such as:

  1. Not looking at list of fellow riders in her class 
  2. Telling her coach she’s not feeling confident today 
  3. Doing breathing exercises to calm down 
  4. Scanning competitors as she enters the ring to see who is watching her 
  5. Riding in an overly cautious manner

The goal of doing exposures is to put yourself in a trigger situation while refraining from doing avoidance and safety behaviors. Usually this is done gradually, by starting with the situation that creates the least anxiety. With repeated exposures, being in that situation becomes comfortable. Then you move on to the next situation.

In our example, the rider might start with the least-fearful situation of warming up for her class. Her exposures would involve being in that trigger situation while refraining from her safety behaviors, like telling her coach she isn’t feeling confident or doing breathing exercises to calm down. After she is able to be in a warm-up ring without engaging in those behaviors, she will move on to the next situation. 

Trying to do exposures for all your trigger situations and refraining from all your behaviors at once is probably too challenging. I recommend doing a single exposure as many times as it takes to feel more comfortable in the situation. The more exposures in a row you do, the easier each subsequent one will be. If your particular trigger situation occurs infrequently (only at horse shows, for example) then either go to more horse shows or find situations that can be repeated more easily but trigger the same worries.


Anxiety After An Accident

Anxiety about getting hurt in a riding mishap often springs up after a rider has had an accident. This is similar to what happens in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): You keep reliving the trauma in your mind, fearing it will happen again, and start to avoid situations that remind you of it. In fact, the U.S. Army uses exposure therapy for active-duty soldiers as well as veterans so they can overcome combat-related PTSD. In the case of a riding accident, you won’t be able to cope with the risks of riding until you are able to ride again without using safety behaviors. 

Let’s face it, we’ve all come off our horse for myriad reasons. Personally, I’ve been injured in several riding accidents, and after each one, I had to regain my confidence. I did that by managing my thinking and doing exposures. The adage “Get back on the horse” was coined for us! I love my horses and riding too much to let any fears ruin it for me.

If you have anxiety about being harmed while riding, here are two exposure ideas:

Try lengthening your reins by 1 inch (or even half an inch) for 5 meters of a circle. Practice that over incrementally greater distances, in different gaits and under different conditions, noticing if your feared outcome actually occurs and if your level of distress decreases.  

Or, if gripping your legs is a safety behavior you have identified, try loosening your seat totally for short distances and in different gaits. You can build on that, doing different movements.   

Exposures You Can Do

You may have identified with some of the examples I’ve mentioned; if not, know that you can use the basic ideas introduced here and work with your coach to increase your comfort and confidence and reduce any anxiety you feel on a day-to-day basis. 

It helps to be objective and to start small. It is also important to do as many repetitions as you need to learn that what you feared either didn’t happen, or if it did, that it wasn’t as bad as you predicted, and that you could tolerate it. After five exposures, I would expect you to notice a difference, as you brain learns from the repetition. Most people notice a difference even after one or two exposures.   

Here are some exposures based on some of the common fears I have observed among equestrians that you can try:

  • If you experience anxiety when others observe you while you’re riding, try riding for brief periods in front of a trainer you respect but don’t know well, or sign up for a clinic and ride in it.
  • Let your horse go on the buckle every few strides at the walk, and then more often.
  • Stay riding in the same area after your horse spooks.
  • Ride in windy weather.
  • Ride past things you fear your horse may not like.
  • Ride in a show.
  • Ride without your trainer, if you feel your trainer keeps you safer.
  • Ride more flying changes if your horse gets amped doing them.
  • Go on a trail ride.
  • Gallop down the long side of an arena or on a 20-meter circle.
  • Jump a bigger fence.

Consider Your Horse


Equestrian sport is unique in that there are two psyches involved: equine and human. Your behaviors affect your horse, and vice versa. Researchers have found that horses truly are “emotional sponges” in their interactions with humans. Because of your horse’s sensitivity to your emotions, you want to be mindful of how you express yourself around your horse.

When you engage in avoidance and safety behaviors to quell your anxiety, you telegraph to your horse that there is something to be concerned about. You may unintentionally teach your horse to become more anxious. 

I once worked with a 12-year-old boy named Mark, who competed in the pony hunter division. He worried about going off course during his rounds, and he especially dreaded the pony model class because one of his ponies, Red, was fidgety and a bit naughty in hand. Mark became extremely preoccupied with the possibility that Red would misbehave or move too much, and therefore they would lose points. To prevent the feared outcome, Mark drilled Red, making him be excessively still, beyond a reasonable time Red could tolerate, and then overreacting to any movements Red made. Red started to flinch and anticipate his rider’s reactions, as well as get tense when whenever he was being lead in hand while groomed and braided up. Red was learning from his rider to fear the situation of the model. 

I counseled Mark that it was in his best interest to accept that everyone makes mistakes, including him. He came to understand that perfection is not possible, and that he could move on quickly and smoothly from a mistake. Every competitive athlete must learn to move on and focus on what comes next (rather than beat themselves up about it and get distracted from finishing what they started).

Sometimes the simple act of mentally agreeing with what you fear is a good exposure. I recommended that Mark practice saying to himself, “Yup, that could happen,” instead of vowing to himself that he wouldn’t let it happen. He also did exposures to help him and Red overcome this cycle.

First, Mark braided and groomed Red and took him in hand, exactly as he would in a model class. His trainer had several students line up like a pony model. Mark stood in the model for one minute, with no jerking or correcting Red. He did this for one minute for three days and then increased to two and then three minutes. Mark gave Red pats after each session and a nice treat back at the barn. 

Once both were comfortable with this exposure for up to five minutes, Mark and Red experimented with being in the same situation, working on Red’s pose to show off his conformation optimally, without any jerking or reprimands. Mark worked with his trainer to go with Red’s movements a bit, rather than jerk and prevent any movement. He practiced that each time he practiced the pony model.

Mark and Red quickly made progress with their exposures. Mark reported feeling less pressure to control Red and learned that, as a result, Red became more relaxed and less fidgety. Mark learned to move past little missteps in the exposures, and the missteps become much smaller and often did not occur at all. When it was time for his next Pony Finals, he was worried again, but practiced his exposures. He agreed to treat the model portion just like an exposure, since he had learned that trying to over-control Red made the problem worse. He accepted that even if Red was not statue still, he could still get though the pony model. He did the same with his jumping rounds. 

Try It!

Yes, the CBT process does take a bit of work and courage on the front end. The good news is that you can go at your own pace. It doesn’t matter where you start, just that you gradually change your behaviors and stick to it.

In my experience, people who do exposures are surprised by the rapid progress they make. They quickly learn how effective exposures are in reducing and managing anxiety. If you undertake CBT, I think you will find that you and your horse are much happier, and performance will improve for both horse and rider. No one should ever have to feel ashamed, weak, or less than because they experience anxiety.  

Licensed clinical psychologist Bridget Flynn Walker, PhD, is a life-long rider, avid dressage competitor and anxiety disorder expert who lives in Santa Barbara, California. She is the author of “Anxiety Relief for Kids: On-the-Spot Strategies to Help Your Child Overcome Worry, Panic & Avoidance” (New Harbinger, 2017) and “Social Anxiety Relief for Teens: A Step-by-Step CBT Guide to Feel Confident and Comfortable in Any Situation” (New Harbinger, 2021). She owns three Baroque dressage horses and has ridden and competed up the levels to Intermediaire I. She enjoys the physical and mental challenges of training and competing, and above all, the peace, joy, and balance horses bring to her life.  



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