A farmer was walking through his field when he happened upon a large egg lying in the dirt. At first he thought only of taking the egg home and feeding it to his dogs. But on second thought, and interested to see what kind of bird the egg held inside, he decided to put it in with a batch of eggs his best laying hen, Cora, was currently sitting on to see if she could hatch the egg. So that is what he did.
Several days later, the farmer went into the chicken coop to find several new chicks under Cora’s wing. In with the chicks, the farmer was quite surprised to see – a baby eagle – the product of the egg he had placed with Cora. The farmer decided to leave the eagle in with Cora, and she ultimately raised him as her own.
Cora did a fine job teaching the baby eagle, whom she called Sam, how to be a chicken. She taught him how to hunt and peck and scratch at the ground in order to find bugs and worms an other tasty morsels; how to roost in the chicken coop at night and how to run across the ground with the distinctive chicken waddle. Sam learned his lessons well and became a good, albeit, rather large chicken.
Then one day, many years later, Sam was in the barnyard scratching at the ground looking for worms, when the large shadow of a bird with wings outstretched moved across the ground in front of him. Sam looked up and was astonished to see an eagle soaring high above him. Having never seen an eagle before, he watched in amazement as it floated effortlessly on the invisible air currents in the sky, currents that lifted the majestic bird ever higher. Then the eagle would dive with great speed toward the ground, only to catch another current and float upward again. The eagle hovered over the barnyard for several minutes before flapping it’s magnificent wings and disappearing over the fields and valleys below.
Sam would live another five years, and during that time, not a day would pass in which he wouldn’t wistfully recall the eagle he saw that day. At night he would dream of soaring high on the currents of air hidden somewhere up in the clouds, and during the day he would wish he could just flap his wings and lift himself off the ground, but always being a bit too frightened to actually give it a try. Those things were for eagles, he told himself day in and day out. It was silly for a chicken like himself to wish and dream of such things. After all, he had seen what happened to chickens that had somehow gotten up on the barn roof and tried to fly down, and it wasn’t pretty. He was not going to risk that! And so Sam simply lived out the rest of his life as chicken, too afraid to to even open his wings, much less flap them.
Then, on the day Sam died, the farmer and his wife took his body from the barnyard and buried him in the little cemetery used for all of their favorite farm animals when they passed on. Having finished filling in Sam’s grave, the farmer turned to his wife and said, “He sure made a good chicken.”
“Yes,” his wife said wistfully. “But isn’t it a shame he never knew he was an eagle?”
I really like that story, and over the years have told it a number of times and in a number of different variations to help illustrate the effect fear can have on our lives – if we choose to let it.
Fear is one of those issues that we see a lot with folks who attend our clinics. Sometimes it’s fear in the horse, sometimes it’s fear in the rider, and sometimes it’s fear in both. Fear, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It’s the factory installed, on board safety valve that all have and that usually stops us from doing things that we probably shouldn’t be doing anyway. It’s an instinctive mechanism that is designed to keep us from unintentionally injuring or even killing ourselves, and healthy fear, quite often, will do just that.
It is unhealthy fear, however, that most riders, and/or their horses struggle with on a daily basis. Unhealthy fear is what keeps us from living a full life due to the fact that we begin to shy away from those things we love or would really like to do simply because we are worried about what might happen should anything not go as planned.
So when it comes to understanding fear in horsemanship, I think it might be helpful to begin by looking at the demographic of today’s average recreational rider. Most people in the industry aren’t too surprised to learn that today; women make up the vast majority of recreational riders – 85% total. The average age of those women range between 40 and 60 years. Of these, nearly 80% came to horses late in life (at around age 40-50), and 80% of those will likely get out of horses within five years of having gotten in. Interestingly, however, roughly the same number of women will also get into horses every year so that particular statistic is basically a wash.
In general, the women coming into the horse industry every year are often either new “empty nesters,” or they have found themselves with disposable income and can now afford to buy and keep a horse. In either case, most of these same women had owned or ridden horses when they were younger, but gave them up for school, career, to raise a family, or for any number of other reasons. Most women who fit into this demographic will have been out of horses for at least 20 years by the time they decide to start up again.
The most important statistic here, and the one that has the biggest impact on the level of fear that riders experience, has nothing to do with gender, however. Rather, the most important statistic is the age range of those involved.
We hear all the time how fearless everybody was when he or she rode as kids. But after being away from horses for a while and then getting back in, the level of fear these same individuals are experiencing now is surprisingly high. There are actually a couple of reasons for this kind of anxiety; particularly in folks recently back into horses after a lengthy lay off. The first has to do with the age. As we stated, the majority of recreational riders these days range in ages between 40 and 60. Research has shown that the older we get, regardless of gender, the more cautious and self-protective we naturally become. So as we age, we all just naturally begin to lose that sense of invincibility that the majority of us possessed when we were younger.
Couple this with the fact that as we age, many of us begin to lose strength and flexibility in our muscles, range of motion in our joints, and sometimes we begin to put on a bit of excess weight. As a result, our balance often begins to deteriorate and our reflexes begin to slow, not to mention that most of us will have also suffered some kind of serious injury over the years that cause us to be more cautious and self-protective as well. These injuries may have come through sports, or tripping over the dog, or slipping on an icy driveway, or perhaps being in an auto accident or whatever. In any case, all of these things together can easily add to our feeling of physical vulnerability, and thus uncertainty and fear when we are around or on a horse.
The second biggest cause of fear in horse folks is a simple lack of knowledge and/or ability. A limited knowledge base, regardless of the activity or job, will almost always add to the anxiety level of almost any individual. And keep in mind here that this is true whether we’re talking about humans or horses. The less we understand and the less we are successful at things we do try, the more worrisome all things naturally become.
The third most common cause of fear in riders has to do with dealing with a fearful horse. Unfortunately, the specific reasons for horses becoming fearful can be pretty wide and varied and much too involved for us to go into here. However, what we can say is that the most common reasons a horse may be fearful, unpredictable or lack confidence are: a general lack of direction, consistency and leadership by their owners/riders; past and unresolved abuse or rough handling, or chronic physical issues due to ill fitting tack, an old injury, teeth or feet issues, or any number of other causes. Of course these things are usually only exacerbated by the fact that we are fearful or lack confidence when we are around the horse, as well.
So in short, getting hurt, fears of the unknown, and troubled horses are three of the main triggers for the development of worry and lack of confidence in riders. They are certainly not the only triggers, but most any other trigger will usually bring us back to one of those three.
The question then becomes, what can be done about all of this if we are one of those riders with a fear or confidence issue?
Well, understanding is often a good place to start. It’s very difficult to alter an issue as deeply rooted in our own fabric as fear, without first knowing where those fears might be coming from. But beyond understanding, we also need to recognize that we are all bound, to one degree or another, by our own limitations – whether those limitations are physical or emotional.
Here’s the good news regarding that last sentence. When I say we need to recognize that we are all bound by our limitations, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to accept those limitations…only that we need to understand them. Sure, with age there always comes a certain deterioration of physical skills, ability and overall physique. That’s life. But that deterioration doesn’t have to control us, and we most certainly don’t have to give in to it.
A great number of people who get into horses late in life have already accepted that their current ‘deteriorated’ physical (and/or emotional) state will be their ongoing lot in life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whoever we are today isn’t who we have to be tomorrow, and allowing ourselves to think in such a way is not only a choice we’re making, but also one that can be a great disservice if and when we ultimately decide we want things to be different. We need to remember that it is never too late for anybody who is in even marginally good health to be able to choose paths that can move him or her into an even healthier lifestyle.
Keep in mind that good health and fitness brings with it a number of benefits that can be extremely helpful in horsemanship. These include better stamina, better range of motion, improved confidence, balance, reflexes and respiratory function, just to name a few.
Beyond taking care of ourselves physically, another way for us to help limit our fears is to understand where both us and our horse truly are in our level of training, and whether or not that level of training is conducive to the kind of activities we are doing with our horses. Not only are many folks out there trying to do things with their horses that are beyond their own knowledge base and skill level (which ultimately gets both them and their horses in trouble) but a large number of horses are being asked to perform activities that they simply aren’t fully prepared to be doing, as well. Sometimes those activities include something as simple as trail riding or arena work, and other times they can be much more complex, such as jumping, performing in the dressage ring, or dragging a calf to the fire.
Often times these horses, regardless of age, are missing critical foundational pieces in their training, such as understanding how to willingly give to pressure. Not understanding this one simple concept can cause all kinds of miscommunications and misunderstandings, which in turn can translate directly into worrisome behavior. One of the most common complaints with the riders of these horses is that their horse has a tendency to be unpredictable, or that they seem to lack confidence. Yet, the rider seldom sees this inability in the horse to perform simple tasks consistently as potentially being at the heart of the behavioral issues. Still, when these missing foundational pieces in the horses’ training are filled in, horses not only usually becomes much more amenable, confident and predictable, but they also become a lot more fun to ride and work with as well!
It is interesting that most of the riders of these horses, almost across the board, will usually tell us that they knew something was ‘wrong’ but that they had no idea what it could be. After all, the horse could be ridden, was safe ‘most’ of the time and could do the job he was being asked to do ‘relatively’ well. But still, every once in a while this uncomfortable feeling would creep in, giving them the impression something just wasn’t right. Interestingly, the reason things just don’t feel right with our horses is because the subconscious mind understands when something may be potentially dangerous, even when our conscious mind tries to reason its way out of it. A horse that is missing critical foundational pieces in it’s training can feel (to the subconscious mind) dangerous, and so the subconscious will constantly be sending that message of uncertainty to the body, thus creating an uneasy feeling (warning) within us.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that any time we begin to get one of those uneasy feelings, or when that “little voice” inside us tells us something might not be quite right – especially when it comes to horses – it’s time to take a step back and honestly reevaluate our situation. More times than not, if we look at our situation honestly, the source of the issue will usually show itself and we can work toward resolving it. And if we can’t figure out what the issue might be on our own, then it’s usually time to seek help from a trusted professional who can hopefully help get us and our horse back on the right track.
So in truth, while fear can be a very strong, and at times even debilitating emotion for us, it doesn’t really have to be that way. By trying to understand where our fears might be originating, and then making a few adjustments or modifications to what we are doing, we might find that things aren’t really all that scary after all. And in doing so, we may find that the simple act of taking control of a situation which, at first, seems out of control, could be inspiring enough to bring out that eagle in us as well.