FAQ Riding

I lost my nerve for horse riding. Now what?

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Written by Horse Rookie

It’s not uncommon to have an unexpected experience and become fearful of horse riding.

Part of the joy of horseback riding is that you’re interacting with another living being. Of course, that living being sometimes has different ideas from you, and that unpredictability results in a scary situation. 

It can be hard to get back in the saddle if you’ve lost your nerve for horse riding. First, realize that you do NOT have to ride again before you’re ready. Second, know that with gradual work, you can find your love for horses and confidence again.

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Let’s begin by talking through the source of your fear. 

What happened is very important

As uncomfortable as it may be, you need to identify the underlying cause or bad experience that led to the loss of your hard-earned riding confidence.

Perhaps your horse spooked, and you had a bad fall. Maybe you were on a quick horse that you didn’t feel like you could stop.

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Seeing your fears in writing is critical for healing.

The important thing is to understand exactly what part of your experience caused you to associate riding with being uncomfortable and unsafe.

Now, write it down. Say it out loud. That makes it less scary.

Want to read a detailed account of how we manage our nerves? Check out our blog about 32 things you can do today to calm your riding nerves forever.

Ask yourself what you want to do

Contrary to popular belief, your answer does not have to be a quick “Ride again, of course!” Really think about your fear, its cause, and what (if anything) you authentically wish you could do if your fear vanished.

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What do you miss most about your horse time?

Start by asking yourself questions like:

  • What do you miss most about spending time with horses?
  • What do you miss most about riding horses?
  • What do you want to do with horses going forward — and WHY?
  • What would the perfect day look like if your fear vanished and you found yourself at the barn again?
  • Who do you know with similar experiences who has moved past his or her fear?

This exercise helps you separate the you of today (not riding) and the future you who enjoys riding again.

It’s time to put your thoughts into a few sentences — actually write it down.

Follow this format: 

  • While riding my horse, [insert what happened] because [insert potential cause].
  • My horse [insert behavior] and I [insert consequence].
  • After that, I felt [insert emotions] about riding.
  • In the future, I want to [insert goal.]

For example, you might say:

“I was bucked off while I was out riding in the pasture when my horse spooked at a dog. I fell off and sprained my wrist. After that, I got knots in my stomach even thinking about leaving the safety of the arena. In the future, I want to start trail riding again.”

Now you have your goal!

A common question is “Can horses sense fear and anxiety?” You may be surprised by the answer!

How do you get from “then” to “now” to “future?”

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Small steps add up to big progress.

With your goal in mind, it’s time to dig into the details of how your fear manifests itself a bit more. Ask yourself:

  • What’s scaring you now? Be specific. (e.g. When I hear dogs barking at the barn, I get nervous.)
  • Are you afraid to get close to horses?
  • Is it hard to mount up and start riding?
  • Where do you feel safe — and unsafe?
  • At what speed do you feel safe — and unsafe?
  • What steps will it take for you to reach to your goal?

For the scenario above, the steps could look like: 

  1. Listen to audio clips of dogs barking while doing breathing exercises.
  2. Once calm, visualize friendly dogs barking hello while you’re riding — and your horse being calm. 
  3. Work through desensitization exercises with your horse from the ground. (Ask a trainer for help.)
  4. Take a short ride in the arena while supervised. 
  5. Take a short ride in the arena with a friendly dog on a leash nearby, then inside the arena. (Have a friend handle the dog.)
  6. Hand walk your horse in the pasture.
  7. Hand walk your horse in the pasture with a leashed dog.
  8. Take a short ride out to the pasture while supervised. 
  9. Take a short ride out to the pasture with your friend and a friendly, leashed dog.
  10. Ride out to the pasture alone while visualizing a calm, enjoyable experience.

If, any any point, you feel nervous, drop back to a previous step and repeat. There’s no deadline for progress!

Plus, head over to our Riding Mindset FAQs for more information:

The hardest part is to begin

As we talked about in our 32 tips for nervous riders article, there are a lot of great ways to build your confidence again. Pick and chose the ideas that resonate with you.

If you’re still nervous about being around horses at any level, take small steps to desensitize yourself to the idea. We talk about what to do when you’re scared of your horse and need to get your mojo back. 

Think of riding confidence like a muscle. Yours got a little weak after it was hurt, but you just need to give it some exercise to regain your former strength!

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to: 

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About the author

I began riding horses at age six, and I'm just as infatuated (OK, more!) with the sport decades later. My AQHA gelding exemplifies the versatility of the breed -- reined cow horse, reining, roping, ranch riding, trail, dressage, and jumping. We're also dipping our toes (hooves) into Working Equitation!