Fear is the Mind-Killer

snarkycapria_200Fear is a dangerous and pervasive thing. Sometimes it can be useful–then it produces caution, and prudence, and awareness of consequences. But all too often, it leads to paralysis and worse.

This is true pretty much everywhere. Life. Publishing. Horse training. Everyone’s afraid of something. It’s how she deals with it that matters.

A few years back, for quite some time, I had a horse trainer who seemed to be good at what she did. She talked a lot about “Mistakes are how you learn,” and “We always think of the horse first,” and “This is what’s correct–keep practicing till you get it right.”

It took a long while to realize that what I was really being taught was fear. Her fear. She was afraid, and she held back her students, keeping them on safe little circles, at safe little gaits (walk and trot; canter seldom and eventually never), riding safe little exercises. Over and over and over.

She wasn’t always an acute case. It came on over the years, with the horizons getting narrower and the lessons getting more basic, especially once she acquired a teacher of her own, whose specialty was making students terrified to do a thing without her approval. Because they might get it Wrong.

I woke up one day to find myself sitting at ringside, while teacher’s teacher taught the lesson, and teacher rode my horse. I wasn’t riding at all. I wasn’t good enough. I was terrified of making a mistake.

That was fear used as a weapon and a training technique. Fear that kept the student bound to the teacher, because as long as the student was afraid to do anything on her own, the teacher never had to fear that the student would outgrow her.

This teacher has a blog now, to share with students. First entry: “Fear and Anxiety.” Second entry: definitions of fear.

The goal, I think, is to speak to students who come to horse and riding with fear, and to teach them what fear is, and somehow, that way, to help them resolve their fear. But it’s coming at it from the wrong end. Setting up a wall of negativity–and assuming that of course every rider must be afraid.

Old horsemen used to say, “Never let the horse smell your fear.” No matter what the actual emotions, the rider or trainer should always project calm. Horses being prey animals, wired for flight, inclined by nature and instinct to run first and think later, need human partners with calm minds and the ability to think ahead.

Fear destroys that ability. It also destroys trust. If you’re afraid, you can’t rely on anything, least of all yourself. Everything is a threat. All you can do is react–or curl up and hope to disappear.

Make no mistake about it. Horses are big. They’re powerful. They don’t think at all like humans. It’s eminently sensible to respect those things. But it’s dangerous to be afraid of them.

It’s also rather sad. When a trainer so bound in fear that that’s the first thing she wants to teach–that’s not where a trainer needs to come from. A trainer is a teacher. A teacher has knowledge to impart; wisdom to share. And with horses, there’s a partnership as well, an alliance between species.

An alliance requires trust. Fear kills it. Fear also kills the joy that comes with a strong working partnership–for the horse as well as the rider.

When I woke up that day at ringside, I made up my mind to stop being afraid. I turned it all around. Fear to respect. Fear of mistakes back to mistakes as learning experiences. Caution where indicated–when riding green horses or horses with hormones or horses who have issues (especially issues created by a surfeit of fear–but never so much that I stopped being able to do anything at all.

That’s been a good lesson in other areas of life, too. Writing. Navigating this brave (not, take note, fearful) new publishing world. I can ride my horses with about the same attitude as I try to write my books. Caution, prudence, a decent amount of sense–but no fear.

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Fear is the Mind-Killer — 12 Comments

  1. I’ve got anxiety issues, and sometimes they will hit me. I’ve had panic attacks on a horse more than once, and sometimes my body has panicked when I was not afraid (cavaletti lesson on Old Faithful; the horse was a smooth and super-safe jumper): that was a most peculiar situation.

    And I used to be scared to hell on Crumble, in certain situations, when he was melting down, because he just Was Not Listening (and not far from Not Able To Listen – confirmed bolter) – and once the bolting was confirmed the fear turned out to be a valuable tool, because yes, the horse really *was* that dangerous, and not letting the situation escalate into a bolt (if necessary, walking home) was a prime survival tool.

    He was a horse that was pretty much untouched by my moods. That was inconvenient when – for reasons known to himself (many of which probably had an origin in unidentifyable pain) he was scared and upset; but it paid back when I started to ride him again after scattering my collarbone – I was a bundle of nerves, but since he was calm and happy, we had an uneventful ride. On that day, I might have sent a sensitive horse into orbit. (He also took little clue from other horses, so that was A Thing.)

    But one thing about being an anxious rider is that yes, there are times when I have butterflies in my stomach and feel lousy about things, but I also know that with exposure and good experiences that feeling will go away again; I’ve known ‘brave’ people be scared and have no idea how to deal with that feeling (and ultimately, give up riding!) whereas I knew I’d get over it. I’ve found the trick to remain inside my comfort zone and stretching it – not to curl up into a little ball and do nothing at all, but to set myself up for success, and build on that success.

    safe little gaits (walk and trot; canter seldom and eventually never)

    Most of my riding life has been spent like this, and if there was one thing I’d change about almost all riding instruction then it’s ‘a horse has three gaits’. The vast majority of lower level riders and riding schools ride at walk and trot, and then do a couple of canters on either rein – much of the time unbalanced and out of control and ever so slightly too fast (if they’re not riding cobby types that are hard to get to canter and which beginners often can’t canter in balance). I had the great gift of a schoolmaster who preferred canter to trot, and whose canter was slow, controlled, comfortable, and always present; but it took me six months or so before cantering had become as natural as trotting, and the next horse I rode – whose natural canter was awful – benefitted from me being able to shape the movement.

    • Amen to “only two gaits” as a training tradition. I used to ride all three casually, then got into this thing where one dinks around endlessly, perfecting the angle of one’s wrist. It’s a nice way to a steady salary for the trainer, since the rider never progresses, and neither does the horse. Trainer just has to keep assuring rider, convincingly, that when perfection is achieved, the next step will then miraculously happen.

      • when perfection is achieved, the next step will then miraculously happen

        And yet the classical way is almost the opposite: each movement is designed to be both a test of what you can do (and thus showing up holes in the training) and a way of developing the horse. A piaffe isn’t just a pretty show piece or a way of showing up horses that aren’t honestly collected and able to extend at will after being screwed together, it’s a way of developing the horse’s carrying power, and will lead to better extentions. And you start each step small – a few strides of shoulder-fore with a greenie rather than a whole long side or circle of the advanced horse – but you do start them long before the previous step is perfect, because the previous step will never *be* perfect unless you keep moving on.

        I like the concept of pushing the horse inside the comfort zone – with a few exceptions, every new thing should be easy, but that does not mean that no pushing ever occurs.

  2. I don’t ride horses, but I do teach, and the most important lesson was the one I had to learn: I have to let my students go. I teach natural childbirth and I cannot have the baby for the student, nor can I be there to remind them of everything. I have to trust that they learned what they needed from me, and that they’ll go out and handle their labors according to their own personalities and proclivities.

    I have to have confidence that they’ll do just fine. Letting them see that confidence is just as important as the classes.

    • Oh my, yes. Giving birth is such a huge thing, and it’s amazing how much society delights in terrorizing the mother-to-be.

  3. I think it was telling that my trainer told me that Mocha and I looked like the most comfortable pair at speed during our reining competition. Mocha prefers schooling at the canter, and when she learns a new movement such as flying change or countercanter, she wants to learn it at speed, then slow down as she gains balance and confidence in the new skill. Once I made my peace with that, we really progressed a lot more quickly.

    And her canter is smoother than her trot–didn’t used to be that way.