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As a child, Allison Tick made annual summer trips to her mother’s native Jackson, Mississippi. Tick's mother grew up competing in rodeo barrel races, so horseback riding was an important part of Tick's experience in Jackson. Several summers in a row, Tick rode a beautiful white horse named Rook — the tallest in the stable.
One afternoon when Tick was 9, she was alone with Rook in the ring before a lesson and decided to try her hand at a low jump. “I set up the approach and started toward it,” Tick remembers. “But Rook stopped short just in front, and I slid forward and down to the ground. It happened in slow motion and super fast all at once. Next thing I knew, my teacher was holding me and asking if I was OK. Rook came over and gently nuzzled me with his nose.”
Fortunately, Tick wasn't injured — and, equally fortunately, her teacher made her get right back on the horse. To this day, she is grateful. “I’m so happy that this didn’t kill my love for horses,” she says. “I still think they’re so beautiful and sensitive. And, as a lesson, it’s impossible to ignore the ‘back on the horse’ experience.”
Unfortunately, overcoming a fear of horses and riding is not always so easy. For Seth Nagel of Los Angeles, one bad experience was enough to keep him away from stables for good: “I was thrown off a horse as a kid and never got back on,” he recalls. “Two horses got in a fight and one took me for a joyride through the woods. The thought that I was about half an inch away from getting kicked in the head after landing on the ground was enough for me.”
Clearly, there’s a reason why “getting back on the horse” has become a metaphor for overcoming setbacks. Like many of life’s challenges, horses can be intimidating, and the idea of getting up again after a fall can be overwhelming. Fortunately, experts have methods for helping people move past their fears and get back in the saddle — literally.
According to Laura Cornelsen, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in sports enhancement therapy, quite a few things can be intimidating and frightening about a horse — including its size. “You hear, ‘The horse is too big!’ a lot from people who have never been around horses or have heard stories about people getting kicked or having accidents,” explains Cornelsen, a dedicated rider herself. “A horse is an animal with a mind of its own, so it’s true that it can be dangerous. There’s a reality there. Riding takes practice and focus and involves another being. But the fear is surmountable.”
Guy Hibbs, a horse trainer and riding instructor at Little Acres Riding Club in Pennsylvania, agrees: “On average, horses weigh about 1,000 pounds, so that’s one of the biggest fears. The size is off-putting." In addition, he adds, "many people haven’t experienced them like they have cats or dogs because of their environment. Maybe the only horse they’ve ever seen is in a city, passing by.”
Both Cornelsen and Hibbs suggest that new riders spend time getting comfortable with the animals and with their surroundings. “What works is to desensitize,” Cornelsen says. “Let the person pet the horse, groom it and give it treats.” That way, a nervous new rider can see the horse as more approachable and also learn to respect its size and demeanor instead of fearing it.
Hibbs, who has 30 years of experience as a trainer and instructor, also believes that knowledge is power: “If you can give people some information on how the animal works and thinks, then usually you can get them up safely, for a good experience. Knowledge helps people feel more comfortable and in control, which is best for the rider and the horse.”
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