Tips for beginner riders on how to overcome fear and nerves

This horse was a handful, but we came together in the end

I’ve been riding horses since I was a little girl, but to say I’ve never been afraid would be a huge lie. These are 2,000-pound animals that you have to communicate with, and sometimes they have bad days just like we do. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to be afraid! Even the best trainers and professional equestrians get scared, especially before a performance. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over my years riding saddleseat about how to handle your nerves and use them to your advantage.

If you’re nervous, that means you care

This is a quote my trainer used to tell me before every show, and I now use it as inspiration whenever I feel nervous about something. You only feel nervous when you know you’re about to do something challenging or scary, so it’s your body’s way of preparing you for what’s next. Instead of letting these nerves paralyze you, recognize them and accept that yes this might be scary, but if you weren’t nervous then that would mean you don’t care about what you’re doing. Horses are a lot of work, and riding takes lots of practice and dedication. If you don’t get nervous a little when riding or trying something new with your horse, then you shouldn’t be in the saddle!

This is me stopping to take a breath during practice at the World Championships

The power of breath

Simply taking some deep breaths and counting to 3 or even up to 5 can go a long way on horseback. Horses have the ability to pick up on subtle cues our body gives off without us even realizing it. Taking a deep breath before giving your horse a command lets them know that you are relaxed and in control. I find slowing down and counting to 3 in my head is especially useful during transitions, like from a halt to a canter or trot to a walk. Let your horse know that you are in control and they are safe to follow your commands by remaining calm and relaxed.

Fake it till you make it

This sounds a little counter intuitive from my last point, but if you’re really having trouble controlling your horse this can really work. Horses are herd animals, and they rely on a structured hierarchy to let them know their place in the herd. It’s your job to take up the position as the dominate individual, and your horse should then respect and follow you. This can be hard, especially when you’re a beginner. Many of the school horses I’ve ridden can tell right away whether you’re a leader, and they will take advantage of any weaknesses (because they’re lazy, not mean). When I sit up on a horse, especially one I’ve never ridden before, I sit up tall and make sure I have good posture. I am confident in my guiding and commands, and continue to be relaxed and breathe. Even f you’re a little scared of your horse, if you can start by pretending to be in charge, your horse will feel that energy and take it to be real confidence. Then eventually, you will feel more confident. Be who your horse thinks you are!

My first blue riding the stubborn Shady Lady; look at that confidence!

Try, try again

My last point is perhaps the most important. We are all human, and we must allow ourselves to make mistakes. I’ve had many, many bad rides and too many falls to count, but every single time I get right back in the saddle and try again. If you don’t want your horse to be a quitter, then set a good example and never give up. There isn’t one brilliant trainer alive today that hasn’t screwed up a million times, and we all have to start somewhere. So don’t be so hard on yourself, in time and with a lot of practice riding will be second nature to you.

We had a tough ride, but that couldn’t get my spirits down! Always be in the moment.

I hope these tips help to ease your stress when it comes to riding. Check out another similar article about how to handle nerves from Saddle & Bridle magazine: 5 Tips for Nervous Riders. Be sure to share your comments below and, as always, happy trails!