The first step in conquering fear is to recognize & acknowledge it. This exercise is a way to visualize your fears without re-living them, a way to look at an individual fear from a third party perspective.
First, draw a bulls-eye circle pattern. In the center of your bulls-eye sketch a drawing of a place, a horse &/or a situation you are absolutely 100% comfortable with. No one else needs to decipher your drawing, as long as you know what it is! If you’re a more verbal learner you might find it easier to write words in the circle, just the name of your favorite horse is enough, no need for paragraphs. If you think you may not recognize your own drawings you can label them, or turn the project into a cut & paste project with pictures from your favorite horse publications &/or the internet!
In the next ring of your bulls-eye add a horse or situation that you are comfortable with a majority of the time. Maybe a horse you are comfortable riding in the arena but not on the trail, or a picture of a place you ride that you wouldn’t describe as being 100% absolutely comfortable with. This is your working circle, these are the activities that you need to continue to safely & successfully accomplish repetitively until you are ready to move these images into the center circle & announce, Oh yeah I’m comfortable doing that!
Outside of the circle is where you place your dreams, the things or situations that increase your anxiety now but that you hope to accomplish someday. A picture of someone riding down a beautiful trail, someone riding bareback! Whatever your fears might be, put a positive picture out there! So riding past the mailbox makes you anxious, OK put a picture of the path just past the mailbox. Imagine yourself riding right past that mailbox, no need to have the mailbox in the picture for you to know it’s there. You want to ride bareback? Put a picture of you riding in your saddle & place stickers over your saddle, a star or a flower maybe! Imagine it! Dream it! & work toward it! J
Sometimes it’s easier to work from the outside in. Especially if you’ve already spent a significant amount of time thinking about your fears! So take that into consideration, and ultimately spend more time on the positive things you are comfortable & confident with in the center of your circle of trust. If you are 100% comfortable with grooming, I expect to see three pictures of you grooming, different parts of the horse, different grooming tools, etc. for every one picture outside your circle.
Now it’s time to work toward those goals, spend more time in the outer circle, until those situations & activities that you were comfortable with before become activities you are comfortable with all the time. Break down steps to your dreams & goals that are outside your circle. Here is an example of breaking down a goal. It’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book:
Let’s start with a common example: riding in an arena vs. out on a trail. I have worked with quite a few clients who get stuck on this one, they’ll explain the issue and then when I ask if they ever ride with the arena gate open they look at me like I’m crazy! “No! That could be dangerous!’ Is it? More dangerous than going on a trail ride? No of course not, fence on three sides seems safer than none! Chances are good that the rider & horse have worked in the arena while someone else entered and/or exited, so the gate was open for some amount of time while they were mounted. Even if they haven’t, or even if their horse is gate sour, methodically breaking this fear down into ‘baby steps’ will challenge you & your horse to progress.
So get a friend to open & close the gate for you, ‘but my horse is gate sour’ boy you just have all the excuses don’t you? Don’t worry this is how you cure that too J Dismount & watch if you need to, or stay mounted but stand still, you can even face away from the gate, don’t worry your horse will know that that gate is opening. Then walk while the gate is being manipulated.
So now you can ride with the gate open! Sure! It was open half the time! So start at the end of the arena furthest from the open gate, do groundwork if that is inside your comfort zone, make small circles, do some Go To exercises. Mount up, do those exercises at a walk, and then a trot. When that is no problem, expand the size of the area you are working in, using ½ the arena then ¾ gradually getting closer & closer to working near the open gate. If or when you and your horse have trouble progressing to the next area closer to the gate, retreat back to a place you can ride comfortably regain your confidence & try the next area again with a positive and optimistic mindset.
If in order to comfortably & safely use ¾ of the arena you need to dismount & do groundwork in that area closer to the open gate by all means go for it! Just remember to mount up after each successful groundwork session, and complete the exact same task mounted. This will keep you on track for your goal of riding on the trail. So many natural horsemanship followers get caught up in the groundwork & are unable to apply that groundwork to their riding. By doing groundwork followed immediately by mounted work you are making that application real for both yourself & your horse.
Make these steps as small as you need working within your comfort zone, where you are safe & confident but always being conscious of expanding that zone & building on the confidence you are finding. Slowly you will find yourself regularly accomplishing goals that would have been on the edge of your comfort zone earlier, and setting your sights on new goals now on the horizon. Goals, that may have felt unattainable at some point earlier in this process.
It’s best if you use your time in the arena to really work on your other exercises, bending, laterals, even circles of all sizes, specific riding patterns, etc. Don’t get caught thinking about that open gate. Give yourself & your horse another job to do while you are working in the arena. If your gate buddy is still around, play cow. Follow your buddy as if s/he were a cow, push & put pressure on your friend (tell them to always stay 10 feet away from your horse like a cow would). See if you & your horse can ‘push’ your ‘cow’ into a certain corner or to a specific spot or letter on the rail, then see if you can push them out the gate!
So now you’re riding right by the open gate, it could be days, weeks or months after you started the process, and that’s OK! Every horse & rider pair is going to take a different path. Remember that different objectives can lead to the same goal. Just as long as you give yourself that pat on the back you deserve at every newly achieved objective leading you to your goal. End each ride or session on a positive note of success. Leave your horse thinking of what he did well, and even more importantly leave yourself thinking about what you have accomplished that day. Did you get one fence rail closer to the open gate? Did you work more confidently today in the area you’ve worked in before? Did you remember to take deep breaths? Did you keep yourself calm, comfortable & confident throughout your ride? Awesome! Congratulations! Any single one of these accomplishments is something to be proud of. Recognize your achievements & acknowledge them. Spend more time thinking positively of your riding experiences. Chances are you’ve already dwelled on the negatives, now is your chance to counteract that…dream on the positives.