Were you born a fearless person?
I wasn’t. I always had to deal with my feelings of fear and worry about getting hurt. And it wasn’t an easy way to go through life. Especially if you were an athlete and your passion was jumping horses.
Many times when I work with equestrians on their fear, I refer to my adventures of riding horses from a riding stable in Manhattan, New York over to Central Park.
In addition to my tough and sometimes very scary training at my equestrian boarding school in Maryland, I also spent my childhood riding horses up into the mountains in Vermont (there are bears in those mountains, by the way … ) and racing other riders around the lake at my family’s large, overnight sports camp there.
But this “trek” over to Central Park was the other place that I learned about how to handle fear when riding horses.
There are two ways to ride a horse through the loud, chaotic driving pace of the city streets of Manhattan to Central Park. My way (managing my fear) or my friend Lisa's way.
Lisa and I went to a girls’ equestrian boarding school in Maryland. Six years after I left Oldfields, I was in my early 20’s, living and working in Manhattan.
The city was shutting down around noon due to a serious snowstorm in the early spring. As the city was quickly emptying out, I was trying to think of what to do with the rest of my day. I called Paul who owned the only horse riding stable in Manhattan.
I was a member of their riding club, a small elite group of skilled equestrian riders who rode both in the only Manhattan riding stables AND out in Central Park. So I called Paul and told him I was on my way up to take a horse out for a ride in the park. He asked me if I was out of my mind.
“Nancy, no way. You can’t go out riding today. This is the biggest snowstorm we’ve ever had. You can’t even see two feet in front of you! Forget it!”
I baited him with, “So, are you saying you would be too scared to ride because of a bunch of snowflakes?”
“Be here in 20 minutes,” he commanded as he slammed down the phone. (That strategy always works with a man, doesn’t it?)
Located on the Upper West Side of the city, on 89th St. between Amsterdam and Columbus, Paul’s parents had originally owned this unique multistory barn that, from the outside, looked like any other four-story brownstone located in the middle of a residential street.
In fact, the first time I went to this riding academy, I kept walking up and down the street and almost missed it; it was inconspicuous, except for a small sign on the door. Wait, this is the riding academy? This was the stables? There are horses in here?
Yup, designed by Frank Rooke, and built way back in 1892, this equestrian facility boarded horses in the individual stalls located on the second floor as well as in the basement.
The floors were connected by steep, wooden ramps that the horses either walked up or down (all by themselves, I might add) in order to get to the main floor, where the indoor ring and the office were located.
Now, when I say indoor ring, we are talking about the world’s tiniest indoor ring. Not only was the ring small, but the space was obstructed by the added disadvantage of having many obnoxious posts randomly placed throughout that were actually giving support to the second floor.
I couldn’t believe that people were not only riding in this tiny ring but taking jumping lessons in there as well; coming off the jumps and just barely turning their horses in the air in time to miss one of those posts when they landed …
Not to mention, barely missing the constant stream of riders in the center of the ring who were mounting, or dismounting, their horses.
It looked like total chaos. It was a sight to behold. And only those of us with a passion (OK, serious addiction) for horseback riding could understand the total insanity, and sheer joy, of riding there at the oldest and only equestrian academy in Manhattan.
(This was also where I honed my skills for my 360-degree awareness for the warm-up rings at horse shows!)
By the time I got up to the barn, Paul had rounded up a few other riding club members to go out with us. As I walked into the stable’s office, I immediately saw my boarding school friend, Lisa, standing there at the large picture window watching the horses going around the indoor ring.
“Lisa, is that you? What the hell are you doing here?” I asked. I mean, Lisa was very athletic, in fact, she excelled in tennis and field hockey, but she was not one of the riders at Oldfields. I can think of hundreds of other Oldfields girls that I would not be surprised to see there, but Lisa?
She said she was there watching one of her friends and asked me why I was there. “Lisa, I ride horses! One would not be surprised to find me at a riding academy!!” Then I told her a group of us were going out in the storm to ride horses in Central Park.
Huge mistake. She got that crazy “Lisa” mischievous twinkle in her eyes … All excited, she asked if she could go. I was dumbfounded. And scared. Was she out of her mind? Had she even ever been on a horse before?
“Well, yeah … you know, a pony ride when I was little,” she whispered sheepishly with a wink in her eye.
“Lisa, no, I’m talking about lessons! Have you even ever had a REAL riding lesson on a horse? Even as experienced riders, it’s tricky to get on one of the horses we had never ridden before and then walk them one and a half long, wide blocks, through all the city traffic to the park.
It is nerve racking with the lousy New York drivers honking their horns and the crazy yellow ‘cabbies’ trying to run over you.
Some of the horses I had tried to ride to the park had reared up on me and had totally freaked out in the middle of that traffic! The more the horse was rearing up, spinning around and bucking, the more the idiotic city drivers were impatiently blasting their horns for me to get out of the way.”
(Yeah, like honking your horn is going to soothe the horse and calm him down! Thank you very much!)
But of course, all the drivers patiently stopped their cars until my horse was calmed down, right? NOT! They would just keep on speeding right at me, then they would roll down the windows and yell at me as they drove by, intentionally just barely missing us!
And if that wasn’t enough, there were the days that the garbage trucks were going up and down those same city streets picking up and loudly banging the garbage cans into the truck and then back down on the streets again. Yeah, that was a guaranteed fast trip to the park ... barely remembering the horse bolting off and flying over there!
Oh yeah, the horses just LOVED the garbage trucks! NOT!
But Lisa was fearless, and she was not a quitter! She was now obsessed and on a mission, and she was not going to back down and surrender. She kept begging me and insisting she could do it.
Against my better judgment, I finally asked Paul if my old friend could come with us, and he asked how much riding experience she had. (He was fanatical about not letting strange, inexperienced riders go to the park on one of his horses.)
So I lied. “Are you kidding? We went to one of the top equestrian boarding schools together. Fox hunting and show jumping on the weekends! (I even threw in some of the “brand name” girls at the school that we rode with, such as the DuPonts and the Rockefellers.)
She’s awesome, trust me!” And off we went.
I was terrified for Lisa. I thought for sure she would fall off or that the horse would take off with her. She made it through the dangerous city streets to Central Park and then we were off, galloping along the “for horses only” bridle paths with the snowstorm blinding us.
I could barely see Lisa’s horse in front of me, but she was still on! I couldn’t believe this crazy girl was galloping a horse, right through a thick blanket of snow around Central Park.
But the scenery was beautiful. Since it was early spring, the trees and flowers had started to bloom and their rich colors popped out beyond the thin layer of sparkling white snow. That was one of my most memorable and favorite riding adventures.
I was never like Lisa. I was never fearless when I was riding. For me, it was always about having to actively work hard at managing my fear. Whether it was when I was riding down a steep hill to jump over a stone wall, my first fox hunt, or to ride a new horse over a combination of three jumps with my eyes closed, arms out to the side and without stirrups like we had to do in boarding school.
So what is the “trick” to transitioning away from the total fear of riding on the city streets with an out-of-control terrified horse rearing up on you?
And what if you have never been on a particular horse before? What if you were selected by Paul to “condition” the new horse in the barn to riding on the city streets of Manhattan? (Yup, he did that to me!)
How do you overcome your fear when you know you are putting yourself in a new or potentially dangerous situation with a horse? How do you manage your nerves when you are riding a new horse or showing?
For transformational coaching and learning how to retrain your brain, to manage your emotions, and to rewire your nervous systems, contact me for more information.
Have a great week!
Breakthrough Equestrian Mindset Coach & Resilience Trainer