By Wendy Rice, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist
I’m rounding the corner after my last jump, patting my horse Caspar for a great round when I feel him speed up, lower his head and begin to twist underneath me. Suddenly, he kicks up his hind legs and I know it’s coming…I’m losing my balance. I know I’m falling off. If only I can get my legs underneath me. But no – I’m headed for the dirt head and back first! I know it’s coming and I feel this mixture of fear and frustration. Was I going to get hurt? How seriously? Would 1,500 pounds of horse step on me? There were tons of people at the rail watching and, once I hit the ground, my thoughts turned to “Oh F—! I’m so mad! How is this f—ing happening?” Followed by “Oh good, I’m not dead”, and then “I can almost move my neck!”
So, this is my dilemma: I have been riding and jumping horses for about 35 years. I’m a middle-aged adult and quite a competent rider, yet I struggle with fear of jumping on an almost daily basis AND love it beyond measure at the same time. When the stars are aligned and the jumps come up just right, the feeling is amazing and I can ride off of the high of jumping for days. Unfortunately, this past weekend, fear and I came head-to-head.
Don’t let fear get in the way of what you want to experience. Find your courage with the help of Rice Psychology Group today!
A Weekend of Trials
Let me set the scene for you. After about 30 years of competing in jumping competitions on a variety of horses, I am finally on the horse of my dreams, Caspar. Caspar is safe and talented, brave and level-headed, and takes good care of his rider. He is generally quite predictable.
This past weekend, I was competing at HITS Ocala and my division was being held in the Hunter Ring 1 – the main hunter ring. In my mind, that’s the “scary, windy, big ring with the huge jumps and trees!” It is mildly hilly, has lots of distractions and usually has the most solid and substantially built jumps, even though their actual height and width is limited to three feet for my division. My outlook on competing in the three-foot jump division ranges from: “Those jumps don’t look that big or that wide. We can totally do this” to “OMG! Those jumps look huge. We could crash and I could die!”
Before this event, I had been competing with Caspar for the past several weekends with great results. We were solidifying our partnership and he consistently came through for me. Heading into this big scary ring, one would think that a person who rides at my level would have a fair amount of confidence and just go get ‘em. That was not how I felt. I was almost numb with fear; yet, in I went and did a lot more than survive.
I had a very successful round. On our ride out of the ring, I was thanking my lucky stars and patting Caspar for taking such good care of me over the jumps when he lowered his head and kicked up his hind end several times. I was unseated and found myself falling off my horse – back and head first – to the not exactly soft ground. Caspar is about 16.3 hands tall at the base of his neck, which translates into me sitting about five-and-a-half feet off the ground. Quite a distance to fall.
Back on the Horse
Just like any horseback rider, I’ve fallen off plenty of times before, but this instance surprised the heck out of me and everyone else that knows Caspar. It was truly out of character for him. Luckily, I was not hurt. I just suffered a bit of whiplash and a sore upper back. The next hurdle was perhaps the most difficult one of the entire weekend, deciding if I was going to get back on my horse and brave that ring again. My horse that had previously been highly predictable no longer felt like such a sure thing.
As I sat there on a bench trying to gather myself after such a startling experience, I realized that if I didn’t get back on right away, I was going to be in big trouble. The old saying that when you fall off the horse you need to get right back couldn’t be more of a truism, especially for a person who struggles with fear. Intellectually, I knew I had to face my fear and that I had the ability to ride that course and the entirety of the ring safely, so I hauled myself back up on Caspar and returned to the ring.
I maintained more contact with my reins so that if he tried to put his head down, I would know it immediately and would not “fall” for that again. We did just fine and went back in to Hunter Ring 1 again the following day to earn some very respectable ribbons. By the end of the weekend, I was feeling great about both Caspar’s and my abilities and the connection between us.
What Happens When You Fall (Figuratively or Literally) in Life and Decide Not to Get Back Up?
Fear is an interesting thing. The more you avoid facing things that frighten you or cause anxiety, the stronger your anxiety becomes and the more you want to evade, avoid, escape or seek reassurance about it. That happens because avoidance has immediate results by lowering your anxiety quickly, providing a positive reinforcement to continue to avoid whenever you feel that anxiety.If you push through the fear or anxiety until it drops naturally, you are weakening the anxiety and over time it loses some of its power. Click To Tweet
If you think of your brain as having two parts – a feeling part and thinking part – anxiety has a direct and very fast connection to the feeling part. That part learns from your past experiences. If you avoid things you think are scary, even if they are not truly dangerous or risky, your brain will get tricked into believing they should be feared. If, on the other hand, you face the feared activity or thing head-on, you can retrain your brain to learn that it’s no big deal or, even if it is a big deal, that you can handle it.
It’s Time to Be Brave
The best definition of bravery I know is being scared but doing it anyway, and it’s true that typically the more you face your fears, the less scary they become. Last weekend’s experience with Caspar is a testament to this.
I wrote a blog a few weeks ago entitled “Just Do It“ and this past weekend was my challenge to walk my talk. Don’t let fear get in your way. I’m surely not recommending that you do things truly unsafe, but go ahead and have those difficult conversations you’ve been avoiding. Try an athletic event that is a challenge for you and arouses some anxiety or start that business you’ve dreamt about. Don’t let fear hold you back.