Practical Tips for Nervous Horse Riders from One Nervous Nelly to Another
I sat in the barn parking lot, sweaty hands clasped, trying to take deep breaths, and willing myself to GET OUT OF THE CAR. This happened pretty much every Saturday when I arrived for cow working class, but my nerves routinely kicked into high gear up to 48 hours prior.
I had struggled with anxiety for more than a decade, and even though I now wear a Hit Air Vest for extra protection, my brain still sometimes convinces itself I’m about to be eaten by a sabertooth tiger.
Anxiety is an unfortunate reality for many horse riders (including me), but nerves don’t have to control your life. Riding should be something you look forward to, enjoy, and can’t wait to do again. If your nerves are making it difficult to ride well (or at all), it’s time to make some changes.
In this blog, I share 33 practical (and unusual) tips for nervous riders that can help calm your nerves (or at least keep them in check) for good.
Pick and choose the ones that fit your lifestyle, goals, and personality. I keep all of these in my anxiety-battling arsenal, but combine whatever feels like the right mix for you.
Check out my all-time favorite book for managing nerves: Brain Training for Riders: Taming That Lizard Brain.
A Marathon, Not A Sprint
Now two years into equine ownership, I have a much better handle on my nerves. I’m not “cured,” and I’ll probably always struggle with horse riding anxiety.
But fear no longer makes my decisions for me.
Though a lot of hard work, research, trial and error, and support, I’m able to cherish the time I spend at the barn with my horse. #missionaccomplished
Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional and I’m not giving any medical advice with these tips. They’re simply things that have helped me overcome my nerves and enjoy the ride.
33 Practical Tips to Overcome Your Nerves When Horse Riding
Tip #1: Be Kind to Yourself
No one likes to be anxious. It’s not a life we choose, and it can often seem like everyone else around is totally fine… so why aren’t we?! I spent many years feeling ashamed of my own anxiety and panic attacks.
I wanted to be fearless, ride fast after cows, and jump big things!
But that’s not who I am. I’m cautious. I worry. I get nervous. That’s the real me.
This doesn’t mean I can’t reach my goals. This doesn’t mean I can’t glide into a reining sliding stop or jump a cross country course. It simply means I need to be a bit kinder to myself along the way.
Instead of mentally beating myself up over every perceived “failure,” I focus on how far I’ve already come.
I have to remind myself that being a sensitive person makes me more intune with my horse and more empathetic toward other riders. And, on days where I still can’t seem to shake my nerves, I’m kind to myself.
How? I change my plans and work on something my horse and I are already confident doing. I swap my agenda in the arena for a laid-back jaunt around the field. I take silly selfies with my horse, groom him, feed him treats, and call that good for today.
Whatever you can do today is enough. You’re enough.
Tip #2: 20 Seconds of Insane Courage
This one changed my life–so much so I bought a tank top and a bracelet on Etsy featuring the phrase to keep it top-of-mind. Though I hadn’t seen the movie at the time, I stumbled across a transformative quote from We Bought a Zoo.
Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.
Let that sink in for a moment.
That phrase is what got me through my early months of cow work. I would get SO nervous before every class that I’d turn into a sweaty, nauseous, shaking mess.
Every time I faced off with a cow, I would remind myself: “You just need 20 seconds of insane courage.”
That thought took so much mental pressure off and helped me make big progress in small increments–20 seconds, to be exact.
(I use this phrase with jumping now, too!)
Tip #3: Learn About Horse Behavior
We may call horses our “pets,” but they aren’t like dogs or cats. Horses are prey animals not predators. They’re herd animals not loners. They’ll always be a bit… wild (in the best way).
But, that means sometimes their behavior can be confusing to us.
- “We’ve walked by that corner of the arena five thousands times. How can you still be scared of it?”
- “Everything was fine, then he suddenly blew up!”
- “He hates when I try to touch his back legs to clean out his hooves.”
Demystifying your horse’s behavior is an important step for every nervous rider.
The more we educate ourselves about why our horses do what they do, the less surprised we get. The better we can support them and help them feel confident. And the more confident and comfortable our horses are, the more confident we’ll be around them.
My all-time favorite book on this topic is How to Think Like a Horse: The Essential Handbook for Understanding Why Horses Do What They Do. From body language to the five senses, training tips to herd dynamics, author Cherry Hill helps readers understand the why behind the what.
Tip #4: Explore Sports Psychology
Growing up, I thought sports psychology was for mainstream activities like football, basketball, or soccer. I also assumed sports psychologists were only available (or suitable) for professional athletes.
Neither assumption turned out to be true. I learned so much about how equestrian brains work by reading the books below.
I recommend them to everyone I meet who struggles with calming their nerves around horses, and the margins of my copies are covered in notes.
They’re that good.
- The Rider’s Edge: Overcoming the Psychological Challenges of Riding // Author Dr. Janet Edgette shows how to develop healthy attitudes and perspectives that help you to make better choices regarding your horses, training programs, and yourself to bring about better riding.
- Brain Training for Riders: Unlock Your Riding Potential with StressLess Techniques for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance, and Finding Focused Calm // This book teaches you how to handle fear, anger, anxiety, and embarrassment, hone your mental game and focus your riding time to get the most out of your hours in the saddle, care for your emotional injuries the same way you would care for an injured horse, and produce a state of “Focused Calm.”
- Rein in Your Brain: Do-it-Yourself Mental Training for Riders and Drivers Paperback // This book offers a self-help approach to acquiring the mental and emotional control that can make any equestrian from any discipline, whether they ride or drive competitively or recreationally, more effective in reaching his or her goals and dreams.
I’ve also cracked the cover on Pressure Proof Your Riding: Mental Training Techniques. I love the author’s explanations about how pressure, stress, nerves, distraction, and anxiety come hand in hand with doing what we love.
You can even engage an equestrian sports psychologist for 1:1 virtual consultations or take their online courses. Here are a few good places to start:
- Tonya Johnson // Mental Skills Coach (Visit Her Website)
- Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette // Equestrian Sports Psychologist (Visit Her Website)
- CRK Training // Free and Paid Online Courses (Visit Her Website)
- Confident Rider // JoyRide Program, 1:1 Consulting, Audio Lessons (Visit Her Website)
Tip #5: Name Your Nemesis
Negative self-talk takes a large toll on your confidence, focus, and ability to learn. We all have that quiet (or not so quiet) voice in our head saying things like:
- “You’re never going to get this.”
- “Wow, that was even worse than last week.”
- “Remember that time you fell off doing this?”
- “Everyone’s staring at you…”
- “Your horse deserves a better rider.”
- “That jump is way too high.”
- “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
- “You’re gonna die!”
If you have an overly active brain, too, getting that little voice to shush is a real challenge. I had a breakthrough in my twenties when I decided it was time to name my nemesis. (I call him Lance. He’s the worst.)
Mentally separating negative self-talk from “myself” made it easier to dismiss. The thoughts became less personal and less frequent.
It sounds silly, I know. But it works for me!
After all, I wouldn’t allow a friend to speak to me the way Lance does. I wouldn’t invite someone who said hurtful things to watch my lessons or hang out with me at the barn. That’s my time.
So you know what, Lance? Keep your opinions to yourself. #nonemesisallowed
Tip #6: Arrive Early
One thing that triggers my nerves is rushing. That’s why I arrive a full hour before my lessons. Am I capable of tacking up in five minutes? Yes, but that doesn’t set me (or my horse) up for mindset success.
Building in plenty of buffer time allows me to:
- Calmly go fetch my horse and spend several minutes chatting with him in the pasture or paddock before coming in. Showing him we’re not in a rush puts him at ease, too.
- Set out all my tack and equipment in an orderly fashion so everything I need is within arm’s reach and stays organized.
- Take my sweet time grooming. This is one of the best parts for me and my horse. I like to think of it as spa time. He gets to be pampered, and we get to chat and catch up. (OK, I do most of the talking.)
- Brush out his mane and tail before every ride, which is a particularly soothing activity.
- Score an “easy win” by ensuring my horse starts our lesson happy, calm, and clean.
- Expect the unexpected (e.g. chatty friends, lines for the bathroom, misplaced boots) without throwing my timeline into chaos.
Tip #7: Take Regular Lessons
We have a favorite phrase at our barn:
They go like you ride them.
It means that the better we ride our horses, the clearer we communicate with them, the better our horses will behave and perform. So… simply ride better, right?
Yeah, not helpful. When you’re a nervous rider, practicing on your own can be stressful and confusing. It’s also easy to spiral into a pile of nerves if things don’t go well, and that pesky nemesis starts whispering in your ear. (Shut up, Lance!)
Taking regular lessons with a qualified trainer or coach can work wonders for us Nervous Nellies. It has for me. I take three lessons per week with two different coaches. In the beginning, for about six months after I bought my horse, that was all I did.
At first, I didn’t ride alone often because I didn’t feel like I had the tools to do it well. And that’s 100% OK.
Having a coach helps me:
- Stay focused on the task at hand.
- Have “eyes on the ground” to tell me about things I can’t feel from the saddle.
- Baby step toward my goals.
- Have someone to bounce ideas off of.
- Push myself out of my comfort zone a little every lesson.
- Share concepts and exercises I can practice outside lessons.
- Remind me how far we’ve already come.
Most importantly, lessons help me ride better. And, sure enough, my horse goes like I ride him!
Tip #8: Watch Lessons & Clinics
One of the best (and easiest!) ways I’ve improved my confidence and calmed my nerves is by watching other riders’ lessons and clinics. Not only do I learn a LOT by watching and hearing coaches’ advice in various circumstances, I take the focus off myself.
When you’re a nervous rider, it can feel like everything is about you.
(You don’t want it to be, but that’s how it feels.)
I provide encouragement to my friends, watch them struggle–and win–during lessons and clinics, and see that I’m not the only one on this mental toughness journey. Sometimes it’s as simple as flashing a thumbs up, whistling, or smiling as a friend rides by the bleachers, clearly struggling, that makes all the difference.
Best of all, you can practice this tip from the ground. Sigh of relief!
Tip #9: Ride on a Lunge Line
Lunge line lessons aren’t just for kids.
Plenty of professional riders ride on a lunge line to improve their seat and rhythm without splitting focus to control their horse.
If you’re nervous riding alone or want to improve your stability in the saddle, request a lunge line lesson from your coach. Your horse will move around the coach on a long lead line, and it’s the person on the ground’s job to keep your horse moving around the circle quietly at the preferred paces.
You get to focus on your position, not what your horse might or might not do next.
Once you’re more confident on the lunge, it’s a great place to practice riding without your stirrups or try bareback. No stirrups work is a wonderful way to develop a more secure seat and better balance in the saddle. Even practicing at the walk will help, so stick to the speed you’re comfortable with. You’ll know when it’s time to move up.
Tip #10: Work the Training Scale
Before I moved to my current barn, I’d never even heard of the “training scale.”
(You either? Here’s a great blog post from Strides for Success explaining the levels on the scale.)
The training scale is a classical step-by-step approach to the horse/rider partnership.
It begins with foundational elements like relaxation and rhythm and goes all the way up to collection. And you don’t have to be a dressage rider to use it!
Riders of any level in any discipline benefit from the training scale. For example, when my coach explained the scale and we began focusing on rhythm, I realized how un-rhythmically my horse was traveling. He slowed down, sped up, got choppy…the list went on.
It was then that I realized I was part of the problem. My position wasn’t secure, so every time I moved out of place he changed to accommodate me. During transitions especially, I turned into a “bobble body.” My position wasn’t clearly telling him what speed and rhythm I wanted, so he was all over the place trying to guess. Poor guy!
The training scale is great because you can always go back to the beginning if you’re having an off day.
Instead of continuing to beat your head against the wall on a harder exercise that isn’t going well, take a step back. Think about the training scale. Is my horse rhythmical? Is he supple and relaxed?
Chances are, he’s not–and neither are you. Take a deep breath, and stabilize your foundation.
Tip #11: Safety Equipment
Using the proper safety equipment is one of best and easiest steps you can take as a nervous rider. Not only do the items below actually keep you safer in the event of an incident, they also help you feel safer and more confident in the saddle.
- ASTM/SEI Certified Helmet // I explain more about helmets in my article about what to wear horseback riding, and you can get my exact english helmet and western helmet on Amazon (for less than you’ll pay at a tack store).
- Inflatable Air Vest // I LOVE my air vest, so much so that I wrote an entire Equestrian Hit Air Vest Review about my first fall while wearing it. (Spoiler alert: Walked away without a scratch!)
- Static Body Protector // I also have an Airowear Outlyne static body protector, which I bought for the awesome side protection. I layer this under my air vest when eventing.
- Boots with Heels // Our 9 Rookie Approved Horseback Riding Boots for Beginners covers which boots are safe for riding and which aren’t.
- Quality Stirrups // This is often overlooked, but stirrups are key to your safety. If you’re an English rider, check out Shelby Dennis’ list of the best jumping stirrups for top choices.
- Medical Bracelet // This is an inexpensive but effective addition to your safety strategy. I talk about them more in What to Wear Horseback Riding, and you can get a medical bracelet at Amazon.
- Satellite Phone // If you’re trail riding or riding on the roads where cell coverage is spotty, a satellite phone is a must have. We talk more about them in the 7 Best Satellite Phones for Horse Riders Who Need Help NOW, or you can check out the InReach Satellite Phone that I have at Amazon. I never hit the trail without it.
My air vest has made such an impact on my confidence that I wrote a detailed Equestrian Hit Air Vest Review.
Tip #12: Focus on Fitness
This one was a surprise to me, and I discovered it much by chance. Before I got back into riding with my own horse, I never associated physical fitness with mental fitness. Now, I see the two are inextricably linked.
Remember the “bobble body” I talked about in tip #10? I lacked the core strength to maintain my position, which resulted in poor rhythm from my horse. Once I developed a stronger core, everything got easier (for both of us!).
The more control I felt over my own body, the more control I had over my horse.
Improving my own physical fitness also helped my breathing. When I started jump lessons, I could barely make it a quarter of the way around the arena in two point before stopping to suck air and rest my shaking legs.
The more I practiced, the stronger I got physically, the better prepared my body was for the work.
And the better prepared my body was for the work, the less time my brain needed to spend telling me I was about to faint, fall off, and die. #kiddingnotkidding
Focusing on physical fitness also extends to your horse. My gelding Monkey had plenty of cow working muscles, but he’d never jumped or done dressage before. He hadn’t built up those muscles. I began focusing on our collective fitness by integrating conditioning rides into our schedule.
Long trots and canters around the cross country field built up our stamina. It also allowed us to make progress without stressing over intricate exercises or difficult tasks.
Tip #13: Horse Massage & Stretching
“Wait…isn’t this article about helping ME calm down?” Yes!
Helping your horse relax is also soothing for your nervous system.
As you know from tip #6, I much prefer to leisurely groom and tack up vs. rushing.
Adding in that extra time also lets me do things like stretch my horse pre-riding. While I’m picking out each hoof, I pause to stretch the leg before setting it back down. I also do a tail pull stretch (make sure your horse is comfortable with this first) to elongate the spine and a belly scratch stretch to strengthen his core muscles.
My horse loves it and often licks and chews with contentment. Of course, he loves our post-ride neck “carrot stretches” even more.
The other thing I started doing is asking my horse to release his neck during breaks when I’m riding. For example, I like to give him a good stretch while another rider is working cows or jumping the course and we’re waiting our turn. I release the reins completely and work my hands down the crest of his neck until he releases toward the ground.
This is something I learned from the body work professional who comes to our barn. This movement releases endorphins that make my horse feel more relaxed. And seeing him relax? That relaxes me. #winwin
You don’t have to be a certified horse massage therapist to learn a few basics either. Here’s a really helpful video from Evention that I used to get started:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx6rfJYVQ64]
Tip #14: Cause the Right Thing to Happen
My trainers often tell me:
Don’t wait for the wrong thing to happen. Cause the right thing to happen.
Talk about a piece of advice tailor made for nervous riders!
If you’re anything like me, your mind is on constant overdrive. It likes to tell you all the things that could go wrong at any moment. When I realized I had the power to cause the right things to happen instead of waiting for the wrong things to happen, it changed how I worked cows forever.
I used to be very tentative when approaching my cow, hanging back and waiting to see what it decided to do.
Then, I’d do my best to deal with the result. It was nerve wracking.
Now, I approach my cow with purpose and have a plan for what I want to happen next. Furthermore, I put my horse in the best position I can to cause the right thing to happen.
This mindset shift has caused a huge change in my horse’s confidence and attitude, too. He feels like I’m in charge, I have a plan, and I’ve got his back no matter what.
Tip #15: Milestones & Goals
Riding without purpose won’t get you any closer to your goals, and it won’t help build a strong partnership with your horse.
Here are a few ways I set milestones and goals and work toward them step by step:
- New Year’s Resolutions // Each year, I make a new list of milestones I want to hit. I talk through the list with my coaches, and they often add a few items of their own.
- Proactive Lesson Goals // For my private lessons, I always come prepared with at least one thing I want to work on. In fact, I text it to my coach a few hours prior so he has time to make a game plan–and to hold me accountable.
- Ride With Purpose // I used to ride around fairly aimlessly in big circles, unsure what to focus on if I wasn’t in a lesson. When I learned to give myself distinct “jobs” and ride with purpose to achieve them, everything got better. Instead of big aimless circles, I’d challenge myself to trot a 5-loop serpentine with halts every time we crossed the centerline. Have trouble thinking of things to work on? Try making a set of flashcards with one exercise or task per card. Shuffle the deck before you get on and pick out 3-5 cards to work on that day.
- Schedule Clinics // Clinics are one of the best milestones nervous riders can set. They aren’t competitions, so a lot of the default stress doesn’t apply. Clinics are meant to be educational and supportive, and I always leave with a lot of great things to work on. Plus, having a clinic or two on the schedule gives me a bigger milestone to work toward. Not ready to ride in a clinic yet? Ask if you can audit!
Tip #16: Responsive IS Safe
Like many anxious riders, speed isn’t my friend. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, and going fast can make me feel out of control.
As a result, I didn’t require my horse respond to my leg RIGHT NOW. The result was having a horse behind my leg that I couldn’t quickly maneuver.
Then one of my coaches said:
The sooner you get in position, the faster everything slows down.
You mean if I require my horse to step up to his cow right away, with precision, the rest of our ride will feel less chaotic? You mean if I ride my horse positively (i.e. with purpose and strength) towards that oxer, he’s much less likely to get wiggly, spooky, or refuse? Yep.
Once I realized that upping my standards my horse’s response time actually made our ride safer, I was all in.
Tip #17: 10-Year-Old Girl Training
One of the professional trainers I follow on YouTube is Warwick Schiller from Australia. When he released a video called “10-Year-Old Girl Training,” I was intrigued.
He told a story about watching a young girl ride the same horse he nearly got bucked off of earlier in the day. It made him stop to think about what young girls do with their horses that adults typically don’t.
The answer? Just hang out with them.
Little girls often spend as much, if not more, time grooming their horses, talking to them, hand grazing them, taking them for walk, and simply being with them. Adults tend to rush to the barn between other commitments, throw a saddle on, ride for 30 minutes, then leave.
Bonding and building trust doesn’t happen during a 30-minute ride. It happens by living life alongside your horse.
After all, that’s how the herd bonds, isn’t it? They spend hours grazing together, snoozing together, and meandering around without an “agenda.”
Photo Credit: Mya Brathwaite
Seeing that video gave me permission to slow down, hang out, and not always ride when I went to the barn. You don’t always have to be practicing something. You don’t always have to have a to-do list.
If you simply hang out with your horse for a few hours, groom him, talk to him, and then put him away, you did more to build your relationship than any 30-minute training ride every could.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nNh5VI696U]
Tip #18: Give Yourself An Out
This is a tip I use at the barn and in my daily life. Sometimes what makes me the most nervous is feeling like I don’t have an exit option. (It’s probably why I don’t really like flying or parties.)
When I realized I could give myself an out for every situation, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I wasn’t trapped. I wasn’t out of options. I had freedom to make my own choices based on however I turned out to be feeling at that time.
- If my horse misbehaves in the warm up arena, I’ll scratch from my class at the show.
- I’ll stay at this gathering for thirty minutes and then excuse myself to run XYZ errand.
- I’ll ride down the road to that stop sign, and then I can turn back home even if other folks continue on around the block.
- I’ll cancel that meeting tomorrow if I don’t feel well enough to go, and it’ll be fine.
- I’ll jump that new oxer at a trot but not a canter.
Once I gave myself full permission to leave, stop, change plans, I almost never used my exit door.
Knowing that I’m not “trapped” in any situation frees my mind up to realize… “Oh, hey. I’m actually fine right here, right now.”
Tip #19: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
I often say “I’m not trying to go to the Olympics.” At a recent clinic, I even joked about wearing a sign on my back that said “Not interested in competing.”
I ride for fun. If I’m routinely not enjoying it, something is wrong.
Keeping the main thing the main thing can be hard though. Your friends may beg you to go to shows with them. Your trainer may want you to jump bigger. Your brain may tell you not to be satisfied where you are.
If you’re doing this for fun (which I hope you are), remind yourself of that. Often. You don’t have to compete. You don’t have to jump higher than a cross rail. You don’t have to ride lots of different horses. You don’t have to try fox hunting.
You don’t “have” to do anything you don’t want to do.
Horses are supposed to be a joy, and that should always stay the main thing.
Tip #20: Recognize Your Triggers
Whether you deal with occasional anxiety or full-blown panic attacks, learning to recognize your own triggers is important.
A trigger is something that historically causes your anxiety to peak or signs your body gives you that it needs help calming down–pronto.
For me, here are some sure signs I’m getting anxious:
- My mind fills with worst-case scenarios.
- I feel lightheaded.
- My ears start to ring.
- I get an upset stomach.
- I lose sleep from fretting.
Knowing (and even writing down) your own mental and physical triggers is key. Think of them like little warning lights flashing that give you time to react.
Here are a few things I do when I recognize a trigger:
- Give myself an out. (See tip #18.)
- Take several deep breaths, counting to four as I breath in and out.
- Sit down and drink water.
- Remove myself from social situations where I feel the need to “act like everything is fine.” (This can be as simple as taking a few minutes in the barn bathroom, walking around the parking lot, sitting in your car with the A/C on full blast and your favorite song playing, or delivering some treats to horses… in the farthest pasture.)
Knowing your physical and mental “symptoms” of anxiety means you’re less likely to be broadsided by problems. Often taking a few minutes to yourself to refocus, remind yourself that things are OK, and give yourself an out is enough to nip anxiety in the bud.
Tip #21: Don’t Go It Alone
Sometimes it’s nice to take private lessons and ride alone, but other times being the center of attention or not having anyone to bounce ideas off of can send your nerves into hyperdrive.
When I started jumping as an adult (on my western cow horse, no less), finding the right riding partner made such a big difference.
My trainer paired me with another gal around my age and experience level. She turned out to be someone I clicked with as a friend, who shared my sense of humor, and who had similar riding goals.
Suddenly, I had someone by my side to share the wins (and losses) that come with any learning journey.
We laugh a lot, meet up to practice between lessons, and cheer each other on. We even plan our clinic schedule together each year so we’re working toward specific milestones and holding each other accountable for our goals.
Group lessons (i.e. more than one other person) can offer similar benefits for nervous riders.
As long as the other riders are kind, fun, and welcoming, you’ll learn a lot from watching others and being part of a “team.”
When I started learning how to work cattle, I joined a weekend group class. I had no idea what I was doing, and consequently went into every session super nervous. For nine months.
Not only did being in a group lets me take more (deep) breathers while other riders took their turns, I was able to study what the more experienced riders did and focus on cheering others on rather than worrying about me-me-me.
Tip #22: Build Trust with Groundwork
Confidence and partnership with your horse are built on trust. Horses are constantly asking themselves: “Am I safe right now?” It’s their top priority. As a naturally nervous rider, I can certainly relate!
A great way to build trust with your horse is groundwork. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of groundwork is “something that is done at an early stage and that makes later work or progress possible.” Exactly.
As the name implies, groundwork takes place with you on the ground–not in the saddle.
Your horse can stay on a lead line, lunge line, long reins, or be at liberty (i.e. unrestrained) in a round pen.
The overarching goal is to establish your leadership and help your horse want to follow and trust you. After all, horses are herd animals who live in a hierarchy.
Groundwork helps you communicate “I’m number one, and you’re number two.” BUT, you don’t establish this by force or using fear.
You show your horse that you’re a fair leader who can be trusted to look out for his well being and will clearly communicate expectations.
The best place to begin? Join up. This is a magical exercise you can learn more about from Monty Roberts.
If you’re new to groundwork, this is a great book to get you started. It includes 101 groundwork exercises with detailed illustrations and instructions. That’ll keep you busy for a while!
Another way to build trust from the ground is clicker training. Check out our 6 easy clicker training exercises for horses.
Tip #23: Find the Right Equine Partner
Before you get upset, this list of tips isn’t in order of importance. Riding the right horse for your skill level, personality, and goals is obviously critical.
Whether you’re riding a lesson horse, leasing a horse, or plan to get one of your own, your equine partner should help bolster your confidence–not erode it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who ended up riding the horses other people didn’t want to, right?
That’s why I put my foot down when it was finally time to find my own horse.
I wanted the right horse, not just a horse.
I immediately ruled out young horses that needed lots of training, “project horses” with severe behavioral issues, and hot blooded, fire breathing dragons.
I knew myself well enough to realize my nervous tendencies would be better matched with a middle aged schoolmaster, so that’s exactly what I bought. What a blessing!
My horse Monkey can get his engine going after a cow or canter toward an oxer, but he’s just as happily hang out snoozing in the cross ties. (He’s not an adrenaline junkie either.) He has already taught me so much, largely because I know he’s a safe, sane, steadfast partner.
Not sure what breed is best? I discuss my 11 Best Horse Breeds for First-Time Owners here.
Tip #24: Quit the Comparisons
Comparing yourself (or your horse) to others is toxic, especially for anxious riders.
- “Why can’t I ride as beautifully as she does?”
- “He takes those big jumps like they’re no big deal. I should be more like that.”
- “Her horse is push-button. She never has to worry about anything.”
Negative self-talk, self-deprecation, and comparisons never serve you well. So stop.
In my yoga classes, we like to say “Stay on your own mat.” It means stop worrying about what everyone else is doing and focus on what you’re doing. Perhaps we should modify it to “Stay on your own horse?”
Tip #25: Yoga & Meditation
Speaking of yoga, give it a try! Many equestrians agree that regular yoga and/or meditation practice is transformative for their riding.
I actually started doing yoga on a yoga and horse riding vacation years ago, so the two have always been intertwined for me. There’s so many lessons we can take from our mats to our saddles like balance, mindfulness, and breathing.
Read about the 5 Yoga Poses Equestrians Should Do Before Every Ride.
Meditation is also a proven way to calm your nerves. It doesn’t have to be difficult either. My favorite way is through the mobile app Headspace. They have guided and unguided meditation sessions as short as three minutes.
Tip #26: Breathing Exercises
I’m a shallow breather. There, I said it. Sometimes I joke that you’d have to hold a mirror in front of my face to see if I’m still breathing at all.
Add some nerves to the equation, and my shallow breathing gets even worse.
Mastering your breathing in the saddle is key for anxious riders, and it takes practice.
I loved this article in Horse Journal about the importance of breath and how to breathe better while riding.
(Remember: Yoga helps you breathe better too! See tip #25.)
Tip #27: Find the Right Coach
This. Is. Huge. For most of my equestrian life, I had “instructors” not “coaches.” It was only after I moved to Montana and found my current barn that I realized what I’d been missing all these years.
A great coach:
- Is passionate about teaching. (He or she doesn’t just do it for the money.)
- Adjust the approach for each student student’s unique challenges, personality, and goals.
- Is a subject matter expert in the discipline you want to learn.
- Is professional and helpful.
- Pushes you out of your comfort zone, but only when you’re prepared to succeed at the next level.
- Explains concepts in a way you can understand.
- Is personally invested in your success.
- Tells you what you don’t want to hear… when you need to hear it.
- Brings out the best in you and your horse!
With the right coaches, you can go from lackadaisical trotting, ground pole tripping, and chaotic cow chasing to flying changes, 2’6 jump courses, and taking cows “down the fence” at a gallop. (I know because that’s what happened to me!)
Tip #28: Find the Right Discipline
One of the wonderful things about equestrian life is that there are so many different disciplines you can try.
From jumping to cow work, driving to trail riding, dressage to eventing, mounted shooting to barrel racing (and many more), there’s something out there that will match your personality, physique, interests, and horse.
Finding the right fit can be a bit of a journey, but you don’t have to stick with one discipline either.
(Says the girl who does dressage, jumping, reining, cow work, and trail riding…)
Think of it like trying to pick a major in college. And a minor…or three.
Remember: Just because a certain discipline isn’t the right fit right now doesn’t mean it’ll be that way forever. I had my horse well over a year before I finally had the courage to start jumping lessons. In the early days, that wasn’t even an option in my anxious mind. But, after a year of building trust (and a better position!), I felt ready to try something new.
Tip #29: Visualization
Many anxious riders find relief through visualization, which is basically creating images (and feelings) in your mind like riding a successful jump course, feeling at peace on a trail ride, or trotting past “the spooky corner” without incident.
The goal of visualization is to create mental and physical muscle memory so your body knows how you want it to respond in stressful situations.
Professional riders are often masters of visualization, but the skill is accessible to all levels of riders.
If you’re interested in giving it a try, here are a few resources:
- Equestrian Mind Skills
- Using Mental Imagery to Improve Your Riding
- 5 Visualization Techniques to Improve Your Riding at Any Level
Tip #30: Medical Assistance
Anxiety isn’t necessarily “just in your head.”
Chemical imbalances can cause our nerves to go into overdrive, and seeking a medical opinion is wise if you’re struggling.
Whether the result is a referral to a therapist, a prescription, or testing for other potential causes, you’re never wrong to seek a second opinion. (And not that of your nemesis!)
Tip #31: Learn How to Fall
Until this year, I had no idea there were programs out there that helped riders learn how to fall off in a safer way. What a brilliant idea!
- Landsafe (US)
- Medical Equestrian Association offers Fall Training (UK)
- Horse Rider Fall Safety Training (AU)
If you’re someone who processes best from reading, there’s an entire book dedicated to this topic called Surviving the Unexpected: Fall Safety Training for Horse Riders.
The author is a former Olympic gymnast, so she knows a lot about tumbling well and has trained more than 400 riders.
If you want to read about my favorite fall in 30 years, check out my Equestrian Hit Air Vest Review.
Tip #32: Control What You Can Control
When I was a kid taking weekly riding lessons, I would arrive at the barn with a stomach ache nearly every time. I wanted to ride–I really did–but I got super nervous about it.
Looking back, I realize much of my anxiety stemmed from having to walk into the office and look at a yellow notepad to see which horse I’d be riding that day. I didn’t do well with the uncertainty, and I didn’t do well switching horses all the time.
As an adult, I’ve learned to control what I can control like:
- Knowing ahead of time which horse I’m going to ride // This has taken the form of leasing a horse, request a specific horse on trail rides, and finally buying my own. (Wonder who I’m riding tomorrow!)
- Going to the barn in off hours // Like many stables, our barn is most busy in the evenings once folks leave work. I’m lucky enough to work from home with a flexible schedule, so I always try to go out in the morning or early afternoon when things are quieter. The arenas less crowded, and I can take my time.
- Having a consistent riding partner // You heard about this in tip #21, but I prefer riding with the same person for my semi-private lessons. It’s much less stressful when you know who you’ll be riding with and what his or her horse is like. Less surprises = less nerves.
- Choosing where I ride // I’m fortunate enough to have several options of where I can ride. We have two indoor arenas, one outdoor arena, a cross country field, and miles of deserted country roads around our barn. Depending on how I feel, and where others are riding, I can choose to join an existing group or have a quiet ride on my own.
- Feeding and watering…myself // Seems obvious, right? For some Nervous Nellies (like me), I don’t feel like eating anything when I’m anxious. I noticed, however, that having a nutritious meal and drinking tea prior to my lessons helped me feel better. (Duh, I know.) Even if I don’t feel like it at the time, I try harder to guzzle some water, tea, or energy drink before swinging into the saddle. I also bring healthy snacks to the barn (usually ones I can share with my horse) so I don’t get lightheaded.
Tip #33: Get Rid of Your Rabbits!
One of the most frustrating things for anxious riders is having your horse freak out about something you’ve done or seen plenty of times before.
For example, you might be on a trail ride and see a deer crossing the path ahead a dozen times. Your horse continues on without much fuss, and you assume all is well.
Then, one more deer crosses the path and… OMG! Your horse loses his mind, spins, and bolts back to the trailer — without you.
Trainer and vlogger Warwick Schiller has a wonderful story about this conundrum called “13 Rabbits.” Pause to watch the video below to learn what I’m talking about.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfd8cpI-baw?start=11]
As Warwick explained, allowing your horse to slowly build up anxiety without “getting rid of his rabbits” will eventually drive him to a mental breaking point.
He simply cannot handle One. More. Rabbit!
Being more tuned into our horse’s anxiety (especially when it’s not obvious) and teaching him out to calm himself down is one of the best ways to keep you both safe.
Not surprisingly, humans do the same thing. We get a little nervous about something and push the feeling aside. Then another situation adds to our anxiety because we’re still hanging onto the first issue.
Finally, we’ve piled on so many little issues that the sum of all our fears becomes overwhelming.
Finding ways to get rid of your own rabbits as they hop up is key.
(There are 32 great tactics in this article alone!)
This concept, silly as it sounds, has changed my approach to riding on the roads around our barn. I do a quick checkin every few minutes to see if my horse has picked up any “rabbits” — or if I have. If either of us has, I pause to help him (or myself) get rid of them.
That may mean a simple neck scratch to reassure my horse. Or, it may mean adding some levity to the situation with a few rabbit jokes to myself. Regardless of method, my goal is always to be riding forward without ANY rabbits in tow!
Think you’re adding to your horse’s anxiety? Read about Can Horses Sense Fear & Anxiety?
Overcoming Horse Riding Anxiety
How do you stop being an anxious horse rider? The answer, frustrating though it may be, is one day at a time.
Most importantly, don’t go it alone.
Share your feelings with a trusted trainer, fellow equestrian, and/or family member.
By putting the tools from this article into practice, seeing which ones are most effective for you, and training your mind to perform calmly under pressure, you’ll have a bright (and fun) riding future.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to calm nerves before horse riding
This article has given you more than 30 tools to help get rid of those butterflies in your stomach — so start with those.
Once of the best things you can do when your mind starts spinning is remember this phrase:
Or, it’ll be fine.
All too often, we allow our Lizard Brain to run through every worst-case scenario without considering the (far more likely) outcome — that things will be fine.
Build your skills as a rider. Build your trust with your horse. Build a routine that calms you both.
How to calm a horse while riding
Guess what? We’re no the only ones who get nervous. Our horses do, too!
One of the most challenging things for anxious riders to do is handle a nervous horse. With a slight shift in perspective, though, you’ll find it gets a whole lot easier.
Empathy and leadership are key.
Start with tapping into your empathy. You know how hard it is to focus when you’re nervous or scared, so don’t get angry when your horse struggles to listen under pressure.
Even though you know he’s not about to be eaten by tigers, he thinks it’s a real possibility. His perception is his reality.
Showing your horse calm, focused leadership is the best way to ease his anxieties.
Doing so requires you to use all the tools in your anxious rider tool box to get your nerves under control first. Remember that your horse needs you to be the leader, and you have to earn his trust.
By riding confidently, reassuring your horse, and taking baby steps until he becomes calm (e.g. doing circles near a scary jump before asking him to approach it), you prove that you’re a trustworthy leader.
A few of our favorite tactics for handling nervous horses include:
- Making intentional circles
- Focusing on transitions between and within each gait
- Asking for bend and flexion
- Doing figure eights
- Speaking calmly and kindly
- Releasing pressure when your horse does something right
- Giving your horse a “job” and keeping his mind on it
If your horse feels uncontrollable or dangerous, there’s no shame in stepping off and doing some ground work. The safety of you and your horse come first.
How to make a nervous rider action plan
There are two ways to create an action plan — unstructured and structured.
Most riders take a trial-and-error approach. They test various tactics (like those mentioned in this article) and repeat those that prove most useful for them.
If you’d like more guidance and structure, though, consider The Nervous Rider Action Plan from The Confident Rider. It’s a series of self-help homework exercises, relaxation techniques, hypnotherapy sessions, and educational materials about stress and anxiety.
Best horses for nervous riders
So are there better horse breeds than others for anxious riders? It’s hard to say.
Every horse is unique, though certain breeds are broadly known for calmer temperaments. You’ll fine some of our favorite breeds discussed in these articles:
- Friendly & Fun: 4 Best Horse Breeds for Beginners
- Keep Calm & Ride On: Meet the 5 Calmest Horse Breeds
- Say Yes to the Horse: 11 Best Breeds for First Time Horse Owners
Reset, Relax and Ride!
Lots of riders struggle with anxiety (whether they admit it or not), and there are steps you can take to keep your nerves in check. You have more than 30 new ideas from this blog alone.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember that you’re not alone.
Also, remember that your anxiety can also stem from life circumstances completely unrelated to horses. If you’re stressed at work, you’re probably bringing that stress to the barn. If your kids are struggling at school, you’re probably swinging into the saddle distracted.
Depending upon what’s happening in your non-horse life, adjust your schedule, expectations, and goals at the barn.
Horses should help you feel hopeful and enjoy life, not be one more thing you have to squish into your hectic day.
With a few intentional changes, though, you too can feel the weight lift from your shoulders and a smile return to your face. Horses are a gift, and we owe it to ourselves to arrive in a mental place to appreciate them.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- My Favorite Fall in 30 Years: Equestrian Hit Air Review
- Scared to Ride Your Horse? Here’s How to Get Your Mojo Back
- What Are Some Ways to Gain Confidence Horseback Riding
- Horse Riding Safety Equipment That’s Worth Every Penny
- Safe vs. Sorry: How Often to Replace a Horseback Riding Helmet
- 7 Best Safety Stirrups for Adults
- Coming Back From a Bad Fall: Day by Day Vlogs