Unpacking our fear around horses (and everything else)…

As I’m writing you today, a forest fire is burning nearby and has been for about a week. The smoke is in the air. It’s an eery feeling. Here on Vancouver Island, normally a lush rainforest, we are in the midst of quite the drought. Water restrictions, trail restrictions, evacuation plans…changes. It’s an easy time to react, to stress, to live in a seemingly perpetual state of on-edgeness. And it seems perfect timing for unpacking the emotion of fear.

As a long-time rider, I’ve gone through phases, periods of almost fearlessness (not so safe) fluctuating into periods of almost paralyzing fear and back to states of ease and flow. Thankfully, my obsession with horses shows no sign of fading and keeps me in the saddle, despite many falls and scary experiences. The truth is, the chances of something unnerving happening when you spend time with horses is astoundingly high. They are, after all, when we get down to brass tacks, 1000lb plus prey animals. I’ve seen many leave the world of horses forever after a dangerous incident or a series of experiences left them feeling everything from trepidatious to terrified of horses and riding.

Even if you’re not a horse person, you’ve felt it. Fear. You know the crawl of your skin, the rising of your pulse, the quickening of your breath, the heat in your muscles, the sweat and the tension. Fear is a naturally occurring and essential emotion. Essential. It is designed to keep us safe. And it does this by creating a specific physiological response to cause a reaction to protect ourselves. This is where we fight, flee, freeze or _______ (insert stress response) to deal with the trigger.

Fascinatingly, the brain has a routing system that completely bypasses all logic in order to react more quickly.

It sends the information about a situation straight to the amygdala (which is powerfully reactive) and the survival-based reptilian brain and then from there to the sympathetic nervous system (bye-bye digestion, hello muscles) and the hypothalamus for a full-blown hormone response. Ever wonder why a grandma can lift a car off a kid given there is enough fear? This is why. Stimulus and response are back to back. Which is awesome if you’re running from a saber-toothed tiger. Not so awesome when you’re having a full blown fear response to something that is, upon further reflection, not really that dangerous.

Ever seen a horse lose it over a leaf blowing across the road? Diva used to be that horse. I tell you, riding was an adventure and I now have what I fondly refer to as a velcro seat! Her survival instincts were just a little too finely tuned, or what we might call over-reactive. And she was impressively extroverted about it. It also meant she was completely tuned into me. Yep, any stress, fear or tension in me and she would react. I had to address my stuff about fear for her to find safety. After all, I was professing to be her leader and steward and she needed me to walk my talk. What amazed me most was this – as I changed my relationship to stress and fear she changed, noticably and immediately. It was like riding an instant feedback system.

Here’s a few of the things I learned…

  • There is a big difference between healthy fear and not-so-healthy fear. Here’s what I mean. Healthy fear is real intuitive feedback to your system letting you know that something is not quite right. Like the time I heard that little voice saying “You should get off now” in my head about two minutes before a heron flew out of a pond ten feet away and I found myself covered from head to toe in mud missing a horse. Yep, I listen to that little helpful voice now. Unhealthy fear is generally coming from the unconscious. It is old “stuff” and beliefs changing the appearance of what we think we are perceiving into something experienced as dangerous. For example, if I hold the belief that jumping is dangerous, based on previous experience, this would actually create a fear reaction in me whenever I was jumping, often without anything else precipitating this response. The trouble happens when my horse reacts to my fear response by having their own – suddenly jumping has become dangerous!
  • Feeling your feelings is a very good thing. Horses abhor incongruency – it makes them feel entirely unsafe. So if you’re feeling fearful, own it. It is the first step to being able to shift it.
  • Breathe. Always. Big deep full breaths into your whole being. Breathing is a powerful way to shift your fear, get into your body and find your clarity. It also is incredibly calming for your horse.
  • Track your tension. Tension is actually not natural, even though it sure is normal. It is actually a side effect of the fear response – when we can’t run and we can’t fight, then we freeze. The more we work on our stress response and our triggers and cultivate relaxation the lower our tension levels. Yay!
  • Working on your triggers is worth it’s weight in gold. Most fear comes from beliefs, trauma, events or situations from the past, all of which are stored away in our cellular memory and our subconscious mind, making it tricky to track down. Get the help you need from practitioners who can help with the tracking and releasing process. You’ll be so very grateful you did, and so will your horse (or family).

Working with your fear is not an easy process, but, speaking from personal experience it is well worth your exploration and understanding. Wishing you the best of luck on your journey – and as always, be in touch if I can support you in any way.

To your utter fabulousness,