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I grew up spending my allowance on trail rides. I got serious about learning how to ride 10 years ago at age 42. I leased a push button trail/lesson horse for about seven years until he had to be put down because of age/health problems. I was then given a show horse to lease. This horse was kept in a stall away from others horses because of his attitude. The horse was known to attack any horse that came near it and could not be turned out with any other horses. It wasn't fun riding him in a group lesson, especially when another rider had trouble controlling her horse. After two years of leasing this horse, I went from being a confident rider to holding the saddle horn (as I did before I started taking lessons). My husband finally bought me my own horse, who has a great personality. I moved to another barn shortly after I got my horse because of a falling out with my instructor. Riding was no longer fun and I began hating riding.

My new instructor insists that I have fun every time I ride. She knows that I have developed a fear of riding and is usually good at getting me to relax during the lesson. My horse is totally different than the show horse that I use to lease. My horse wants to please me and will not attack other horses. However, I get scared and my horse can sense me getting nervous.

My question is what do I do to over come this? I tell myself that I am not going to get nervous, yet every time, I start getting nervous. My instructor usually gets me through it, but I am not really getting over it. I have had my horse for 18 months now and have never cantered on him. Sometimes I only walk.

Thank you for any advice that you can give - but please don't tell me to relax. If I could, I would. I am going to keep riding, even it I do it with white knuckles and being terrified.

Thank you,

- S. L.


It may seem that I'm ignoring your question and going off in a totally unrelated direction, but please bear with me while I share something that I've only told a couple of people about until now.

Several months ago, I experienced what is called a "panic attack." It was a strange, unpleasant, and very unsettling experience for me; especially since it involved something I had done hundreds of times before. As I pondered this event, I realized that I had panicked because I knew that my physical skills were not what they once were. In short, I'm getting older and more suceptible to serious injury.

I got over it after thinking about the fact that my years of experience more than compensated for my advancing age.

I say this because some simple math gives your present age as 52. [I'm 56.] If you are not aware of the increased hazards that come with the fabulous fifties, you need a little wake-up call. Horseback riding is a wonderful way for us older folks to stay in shape and even help prevent osteoporosis. At the same time, we need to be a bit more cautious - our muscles and bones don't mend as quickly as they used to.

So, what's the key to putting the enjoyment back into riding?

First, quit worrying about becoming a perfect rider. Figure out what you like most about horses and riding and simply do that! I know of no law that requires you to canter your horse. If you don't enjoy it, don't do it. Isn't it better to take a relaxed walk - enjoying the birds, clouds and flowers - than to force yourself into a white-knuckled run?

Secondly, assure yourself that there's no need to keep a death-grip on the saddle horn. You will NOT fall off the horse. How can I be so sure? Here's the secret: If you feel yourself starting to move to one side or the other, simply push your leg out in the direction you're starting to go, and brace your leg against the stirrup.

Still not convinced? Try this experiment: Have your husband take one of your hands while you're seated in the saddle. Brace your leg against the stirrup toward him and have him pull steadily on your hand. Now, if a full-grown man can't pull you out of the saddle, what makes you think you'll ever fall out?!

Finally, have someone work your horse (with you mounted on it) in a circle on a longe line. Try closing your eyes and just get a feel for the horse's movement and your own balance. Now - still with your eyes closed - stretch your arms out to the side and parallel to the ground. Feel how your body moves with the horse to keep you centered and balanced. (A note of caution: if you find that you cannot do these simple exercises, it's time for you to have your doctor check for a possible inner ear problem.)

You may not be the rider you once were, but using your head will more than offset any weakness you have. As one wag put it: "old age and craft will beat youth and skill nine times out of ten!"

Melissa Lemen demonstrates how NOT to fall out of the saddle! Okay, this photo may not seem to be very comforting to a rider who is already fighting fear, but it proves how safe you are in the saddle -- if you ride correctly. Melissa Lemen had just rounded the last barrel and was headed for the run-out when her horse gave a sudden lurch that launched Melissa skyward. She kept her cool, pushing her feet out to keep the stirrups tight. That kept her from falling to the side. Her hold on the reins -- neither too long nor too short -- limited her motion forward or back. Melissa quickly returned to the saddle and finished her run.

For even more security, try an Australian Stock Saddle!

Police horse with Australian Stock Saddle Ever wonder how Jim Craig in The Man From Snowy River could ride down that cliff without clutching the saddle or falling? The secret is that he was riding with an Australian Stock Saddle - like the patrolman at the left of this photo. Note the leather-covered blade in front of his thigh. With the stirrups properly adjusted, the horse has to really work to shake you loose. They generally cost a bit more, and Western purists may scoff, but the  Australian Stock Saddle is exceptionally comfortable, as well as secure. (And you can buy them with or without a saddle horn.)
Happy Riding!

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Police horse photo © 1999 Nova Development Corp. Used under license.