Panic Triggers

At my old riding school we had two pony mares who hated each other. And I mean hated. Given the slightest opportunity they would bite chunks out of each other’s necks or aim a sly kick in the enemy’s direction.

One evening there was an advanced kids lesson. When I say advanced I mean riding in open order and jumping reasonable sized fences. This particular evening one mare passed the other and suddenly they erupted into a kicking fight. Bucking and reversing into each other, riders screaming, the instructor trying to pull them apart.
It took a few minutes to separate them but both riders were on the floor and the damage was done. Fortunately neither child was seriously hurt, and neither pony had back shoes on so they had superficial injuries.

For one rider though, the damage was much more severe. It was psychological. This kid was highly intelligent and a very good rider and horsewoman, but from then on she was petrified of horses getting too close. She was fine and confident on private lessons but in a group she would suddenly clamp and panic if in a ride, or halting for individual work.

I think half the problem for this kid was that no one understood her problem. I’m no psychologist but I’m sure having some sort of mentor or individual attention would have helped her overcome her fears. I tried everything in my power, given that I didn’t teach her regularly and couldn’t opt to adopt her as a client, to talk through the issue and get her to focus on the positive and controllable aspects of riding but she made little progress and as the months went on school pressures overtook and she gave up.
I think it’s a huge shame as she had a lot of talent but hopefully as an adult she’ll return to the sport.

This makes me all the more determined not to let another little girl I know go down the same route. For an unknown reason, as I’m sure she hasn’t experienced it, this girl is scared of horses standing still together. Like my previous client, she is fine in private lessons or with one other pony but every so often she has a meltdown.

Take last weekend for example. I have just got her riding in a group of three, halting in a ride and cantering on her own. She’ll have a whimper, if the pony behind happens to get too close to her would-never-in-a-million-years-kick-another-pony pony but in large it’s ignorable.
Anyway, on Saturday we had a windy rain shower. You know, when the rain comes in at an angle. All three ponies turned their quarters to the rain and the girls exclaimed. Quickly I explained what the ponies were doing, but it was too late for my client who was crying and curling up like a hedgehog on her pony.
I feel like we’ve taken some steps backwards. Her mum had a long conversation with her about it, but we didn’t get to the root of the problem.

I think it’s a cognitive thing. This kid thinks “what if” all the time.
“If the pony behind gets too close my pony will kick him”.
“If we walk in the woods and there’s mud my pony will fall over”.

I hadn’t got as far as explaining that she often panics when out hacking despite being perfectly safe and on a dry track.

Somehow I need to change the process from her not feeling she can influence events. Such as steering around the muddy puddle, to a more positive attitude and to realise she’s the boss.
Easier said than done with a seven year old.

My last hope is that she grows confident with her mums little horse and can start to be in control on the ground which will transfer to being in control when she’s riding. And hopefully get mum can lead her round the tracks (when they’re dry) and by talking through her horses actions. What he’s looking at, why he’s dodging around the dip in the ground, she will learn to understand and trust the horses.

Any psychologists out there willing to put their bit in?

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5 thoughts on “Panic Triggers

  1. Susan Friedland-Smith May 15, 2014 / 7:45 pm

    I’m no psychologist, but can’t help noticing what an empathetic, kind instructor you are. Hopefully someone with that kind of training (psychology) will pipe in and share some ideas. I hope this little girl sticks with horses. 🙂 PS I have a couple of friends who are psychologists. One is not a horse person per se, but she used to make trips to see my horse (by herself) to feed him carrots. She said the environment was so relaxing, she loved her mini escapes (in the heart of LA). Stay tuned.

    • therubbercurrycomb May 15, 2014 / 10:13 pm

      🙂 thanks! I studied psychology for A-Level and found it fascinating in how it links to everyday life, I just wish I understood more of it. Fingers crossed someone can help explain it to me 🙂

  2. Sam May 19, 2014 / 1:41 pm

    Hmm I have no real idea about the psychology of it. I have many panic triggers with horses and they all stem from one event I’ve had, even though I might have done the same thing 100x before and never had an issue. Also some things scare me more than others. For example…
    I get scared going round corners in mud or puddles in the school or on a hack because I rode a horse once and he fell over in a boggy part of the arena and I flew over his head. Even though, I’ve never had any issues with it before or after and it was probably just a one off thing I’ll never experience again (irrational but there)
    I have quite a few like that… They eventually fade so they don’t cause too much trouble but they are always there lurking around ready to scare you!

    • therubbercurrycomb May 19, 2014 / 9:16 pm

      I see where you’re coming from. I once fell off my pony riding past a house gate when a dog suddenly barked and Matt slipped over. Now when I go near houses which might have a dog I’m really cautious and have to stop myself tensing up. So we need to find the route of my clients problem and cognitively solve it. And yes, I did study psychology A-level 😉

      • smnthklly May 30, 2014 / 9:29 pm

        Yeah I have to say going through it again and again (and hopefully not having a recurring event ha) is probably the only thing that would solve it. Well it’s good you did, you use it a lot in your job!

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