Girl riding a horse

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.

Fear of the Unknown

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.”

Fear of Riding

For those who have had negative riding experiences, the solution can be more complicated. For those people, the fear is often not of the horse itself, but of riding. Nina Doig of New York City rode competitively throughout her childhood — and was thrown into a hurdle the day before a show. “The horse, Danny, shied at the solid wood jump … in an outdoor arena,” she recalls. “It hurt. I was bruised all over, my mouth was bleeding, and I lost a tooth. I was scared of riding him the next day in the horse show in front of a crowd and was ridden with anxiety. I really loved the thrill and feel of jumping, though. It wasn’t so much fear of the actual horse, but the fall, where I might be thrown or injured again.” At her mother’s prodding, Doig got right back on Danny, and the show ultimately went smoothly: She placed third out of 30 riders.

Cornelsen believes that it's important for children to confront their fears and get back on the horse, as that act can help stave off an insurmountable trauma later. “Children do a better job of bouncing back for several reasons,” she says. “They’re more active and used to falls. They also don’t have the responsibilities or life experience to understand that they can get really hurt. Kids and teenagers feel invincible, while adults realize that they’re not. It’s best to get riding as soon as possible after an injury, especially as a child, so you’re not incapacitated by it. It’s true in many sports: figure skating, gymnastics. You have to show yourself that you won’t be stopped!”

Doig agrees: “I was so young when I first fell off a horse. My mother always had me get back on, and that gave me confidence. She wasn't forceful about it; she was gentle. And I always felt better. It gave less time for fear and anxiety to settle in. And I guess it made me feel a bit tough and proud in some way, too.”

Treating Past Trauma

For adults, the fear or trauma after a fall can be compounded by past experiences. Cornelsen had a patient who developed negative feelings about riding after a bad jumping accident. During treatment, the patient discovered that her fear of falling dated back to childhood traumas. “We had to work through all that past trauma to get her over her fear,” Cornelsen says.

Talk therapy — commonly used in such situations — consists of exploring the issue, identifying the fear and choosing concrete goals. Cornelsen stresses the importance of helping her patients remember how successful they have been at riding in the past and working with them to envision what riding could be like again. Her treatment also includes a process called brainspotting, which she describes as a neurobiological tool that uses eye position and bilateral sound (administered via headphones) to reveal, release and process previously unavailable emotional experiences.

No matter what kind of therapy a rider opts for, cases involving deep-seated trauma usually require outside help. Hibbs emphasizes the importance of the right support, whether that means a therapist or an experienced riding instructor. “A lot of times, the fear sticks in your mind,” he says. “If it’s not a physical problem and you’re OK, you must still make sure you’re in the right environment to attempt [riding] again. Horses are animals, and bad things can occur, so you need to at least have someone there who is knowledgeable enough about equines to be supportive.”

The Consequences — Good and Bad

Whatever the treatment, it’s important to face the trauma before it impacts one's riding ability. “People can be hesitant to take the same risks [after an accident], and their riding may regress,” Cornelsen notes. “Some are hesitant to try treatment and simply say, ‘This is where I’m at now,’ and never get back to their original level of riding. It’s a matter of gaining confidence again.”

In some cases, facing and overcoming fears can make a rider stronger. That was the case for Kacie Lehner of Los Angeles, who has been riding since she was 10 and currently competes on the hunter/jumper show circuit. Lehner's most traumatic fall happened when she was 15. “I was going down to a combination in the jump-off, and my horse was just going too fast,” she recalls. “My horse tried to take it in one stride instead of two, caught his shoulder on the solid jump coming out and flipped himself over. He was close to landing on me.” Luckily, both horse and rider walked away with just a few scrapes, but the experience was frightening.

Lehner was afraid to jump again, but her love of horses motivated her. “I didn’t trust myself not to make that same mistake,” she recalls. “But I would never have forgiven myself for not getting back on. My love for it was greater than my fear. I had to trust that I was a stronger, more knowledgeable rider because of it and recognize that I could learn how to prevent this from happening again."

For Lehner, there was an upside to her fall. "Although this fear would sometimes hold me back from riding my best, and it took a long time to get over, I know I am a better rider because of it. I'm smarter about the decisions I make; I'm not reckless. And I have a real understanding of my horse. In competitions, I am often complimented on my ‘feel’ for a horse." She adds, "I wouldn't have had that without this fall and the lessons I learned from it."

Ultimately, where there’s a will, there’s a way, Hibbs says. Someone who really wants to overcome a fear of riding can usually do it. “I’ve taught people who were so fearful that it was very difficult for them to try to ride,” he says. “But in all my years as an instructor, every person I’ve encountered eventually got on the horse. As long as you’re determined, you can do it.”