Rider Health

Dealing with Mature Rider Angst

Psychologist Shelley Goodwin provides expert advice for reducing riding anxiety.

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By: by Shelley Goodwin, PhD. |

Recently, a group of experienced riders between the ages of 45 and 65, were out on a leisurely hack when the discussion turned to how adventuresome their riding had been when they were younger and how some, particularly the women in the group, found themselves more cautious now. While none were ready to give up hacking, several suggested that riding outside of the ring was not always their first choice these days. As one rider put it, when she turned 50 things just got a bit scarier.

This shift in bravado can be confusing, frustrating and downright embarrassing for seasoned riders. Some can find it difficult to muster the courage to confront their physical and mental blocks in the saddle.

You’re Not Alone

Mature equestrians are similar to many other athletes in that they may struggle with decreased physical strength as well as fitness and flexibility issues (Did someone shorten my stirrups?). One topic, however, that is frequently ignored is the increased anxiety and, in some cases, fear that can begin to invade the self-assured rider as they approach their senior years.

These emotions, specifically the feelings of apprehension or dread, can arise when one becomes more aware of the possible risks associated with horseback riding activities. The consequences of a fall can begin to outweigh enjoyment for those with significant financial and familial obligations, or who worry about potentially debilitating injury.

Fear and Anxiety

Fear usually refers to the emotional response one has to immediate threats, such as a spooked horse or riding along the road as a large transport truck approaches. In other words, fear is what you are feeling when the event is occurring, while anxiety refers to the emotion you might experience as you think about possible future events, like all the things that could go wrong on your next ride.

Although anxiety over being hurt or unable to manage your horse in a spook situation is a common concern for riders of all ages, those who are older may be more at risk of changing their riding behaviour because of these emotions.

Women, in particular, tend to be prone to anxiety. In anxiety epidemiological studies, which look at patterns of health and illness and associated factors in a population, the sex ratio related to anxiety is approximately two-thirds female. Regardless of your sex, however, you may someday encounter that nagging in your belly or the stiffening of your muscles as you consider mounting your horse.

How do you begin to address the invading worrisome thoughts that may start to reduce your confidence and make you take a second thought about saddling up your horse for an afternoon ride? There are several strategies that can begin to calm those nerves, put things into perspective and return that level of confidence as you put your foot in the stirrup.

Anxiety Busters

  • Call it what it is. Denying your feelings is not going to make the situation better, so just own up to it. Only by addressing your anxiety can you begin to take steps to change it. Horseback riding is a risky activity. No matter how well you ride, how good your seat is, or what type of events you participate in, there is a very good chance that at some point in time gravity will win and you will end up on the ground looking up at your horse. There is also a chance that you may get hurt. If you have this discussion with yourself and you still decide that you want to ride, then the next step is to make riding as safe as possible while accepting the risks.
  • Prepare yourself mentally. You can psychologically prepare for scary moments and your reaction to them. All riders know that certain things happen after a scary encounter, such as questioning your own ability and that of your mount. Being aware that you are going to experience this doubt enables you to deal with it better when it happens. With this knowledge, you can create a protective mechanism from the negative impact of the scary event. This process is called inoculation training.
  • Talk it out. Talking yourself through anxiety periods by focusing on your strengths, your solid preparation and your horse’s strengths can help you introduce rational thoughts to your anxious and often irrational thoughts. Finding others to share with can also be helpful. When you are busy talking with a riding partner about life and fun stuff, anxiety tends to get forgotten, so consider asking a friend or stable mate to join you in your riding routine. Make sure that your riding partner is not an anxious rider and that their horse is not a nervous Nelly, as your goal is to calm yourself, not increase the tension.
  • Ride within your skill level. When you are feeling anxious it is a good time to stay in your comfort zone. A challenge is only a good thing if you have the foundation skills and confidence to succeed at that challenge. If you overextend yourself, you risk undermining your ability and confidence further. This means riding a horse that you are comfortable with, who is wellmatched to your abilities, as well as riding in activities that do not take you outside of your comfort zone.
  • Recognize hormonal changes. After age 45, women in particular, are aware that their bodies are going through some changes. What they often don’t realize though, is that normal hormone changes can influence anxiety levels. So, even though your psychological perspective of your ability to ride has not changed, your body can react to the increased hormones that are being generated physiologically. This can cause increased adrenaline, nausea, nervous energy, worrisome thoughts, and may make you more anxious or question your ability to be competent in the saddle. If you know this ahead of time, you may not give the butterflies in your stomach as much credence. You will realize what is happening to you and that will allow you to tackle it head on.
  • Think about safety. If you do come off, or have a bit of a mishap be prepared and protective of your physical and cognitive abilities. Wear a CSA-approved riding helmet and consider a protective vest, especially when riding out of ring. Also, carry a cell phone on your body when mounted.
  • Get the right coach. Find a good solid coach who understands your anxiety and is aware of how to best help you work through it. Together, evaluate your abilities and develop ways to improve your riding skills.
  • Reduce external stimulants. Cut out the caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants. If your body is producing adrenaline (which is our body’s natural stimulant), don’t add extra.
  • Do your research. There are several books available that may also help with overcoming the anxiety of putting your foot in the stirrup including Overcoming the Fear of Riding, by Jordan & De Michele and It’s Not Just About the Ribbons, by Jane Savoie.

Take Back the Saddle

Recently, I was on a fox hunt with the Annapolis Valley Hunt Club. There, I met an amazing silver generation rider who was a real delight. She could charm the flies off a horse in July. At one point during the day, she zipped by me on her feisty, but reliable steed, clearly relishing the moment of galloping through the field and orchard. She was an inspiration to any person that day who questioned their ability to ride rigorously into their mature years.

Whether you look to professional athletes like Captain Canada, show jumper Ian Millar, who rode in this ninth Olympic Games at the age of 61, or to Bonny Bonello, who competes at the top levels of dressage at age 59, with a hip replacement, or people like this hunt club member, you can be inspired by their spirit and reminded of the importance to keep putting your boot in the stirrup.

My Story, with Suzanne Fitzgerald

“In my twenties, I was much more assertive, more sure of my horse ability. I had a horse with a tendency to be spooky and dance around. I would think, “Oh you want to dance around, okay I will deal with that.” I never thought I would get hurt. That never crossed my mind.”

By her mid-thirties Suzanne Fitzgerald of Yarmouth, NS, reluctantly hung up her helmet. Like many riders, Suzanne’s family and professional obligations made it difficult to ride as often as she wanted. She realized that horse ownership needed to be put on hold for a while.

“I may not have had a horse, but I was still looking in fields for them. When I was 50, my youngest went off to school in September and Luke came to my barn the same month.”

Luke was a registered green broke three-year-old Quarter Horse. Suzanne was excited “to focus on Luke’s training and riding lessons, but I noticed that my personality had changed a bit. I was more passive toward my horse. I would let Luke get away with smaller things instead of correcting them right away.”

Just before Luke was to head for training for three months, on a crisp winter day, he was feeling frisky and kicked Suzanne in the arm. She spent the next six weeks recuperating with pins and screws in her arm.

“I noticed the anxiety when I first got back in the saddle after the accident, which I couldn’t understand because the accident happened on the ground.”

As the winter progressed, so did Luke’s and Suzanne’s training. Under the trainer’s guidance she gained more confidence. After his three months of training ended Suzanne and Luke returned home, but so did her anxiety. She immediately missed the support group that she enjoyed at the trainer’s barn.

“I continued riding, but became increasingly more fearful about riding alone, so I only rode a couple times a month when I could find a friend to ride with. This meant Luke was not being ridden enough.”

“I faced extreme fear every time I got in the saddle thinking about what could happen if I fell and really hurt myself. Riding became not a pleasant experience.”

“I realized that things needed to change or I needed to get out of the horse world. That is when I set my mind that when I quit it will be because I want to, not because of fear. I knew I would regret it, if it was from fear. I was determined to overcome this situation.”

“After making up her mind, Suzanne made another wise move and found an experienced horse person who could help her. This person happened to be someone who wanted to ride, but also had a busy family and professional life and was not able to juggle full-time horse ownership too. They worked a deal and Suzanne’s confidence grew and Luke began to develop into a “great horse that loves trail riding, lessons and shows.”

In the past year, Suzanne purchased Rosie who is a “10-yearold bombproof mare” and now they zip across fields together too. She belongs to a group of senior riders who do day trips on different trails and socialize frequently together. Nothing stops her from saddling up and heading out for the day on trial rides that may include full out runs in open fields and beaches.

“At 54, the horse world is good for me. I am meeting great people, keeping active and healthy and no anxiety. Just feeling like my old self and having fun.”