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Rebuilding your confidence after a fall

Getting back ‘on the horse’ after a fall or near-miss can be a scary experience. To compound the issue the equestrian industry is, at least generally speaking, a ‘tough love’ environment when it comes to coping with a fall, encouraging a ‘get straight back on’ approach after an incident.

And yet, as much as ‘the flesh’ may be willing to leap back into the saddle, ‘the mind’ often isn’t, and it’s important to take the time to recognize this and work through any issues properly before they grow out of proportion. Even if we succeed in ‘getting back on’ immediately, suppressing our anxiety and ‘pushing through’ in this way always catches up with us in the end, and our unconscious mind is surprisingly good at allowing the triggering issues to grow and grow until anxiety and nerves eventually take over. It is, therefore, crucial to deal with the anxiety surrounding a fall constructively before moving forward.

In this article, we look at the role of the subconscious mind, and how working with it rather than blindly following its avoidance patterns or fighting and suppressing it, can help you rapidly get your confidence back after a fall.

The subconscious mind

The subconscious mind is one of the ‘oldest’ parts of the human brain; it has existed since we were hunter-gatherers living in caves and fighting for our survival.

This means that sometimes, in our modern-day scenarios, the subconscious mind can be a little overenthusiastic in ‘worrying’ about the threats we face. Whilst the risks our ancestors faced were along the lines of lions in bushes waiting to kill us, the risks we face on horseback tend to be a little less life-threatening. Despite this our subconscious mind still scans our environment automatically (and at lightning-fast speed) to look for potential risks and hazards. This capacity for creating a seemingly endless list of everything that could go wrong based on previous experiences, and treating these elements as ‘lions in bushes’ in the priority-stakes, can play havoc with your confidence around riding, particularly if you have recently had a fall or accident.

The unconscious mind can also distort the perception of reality as it has a tendency to prioritise the negative aspects of any situation, disregarding any positive experiences or previous successes we’ve had as riders. This predisposition to dwell on the negative was vital for keeping our ancestors alive, but in our context, finding only worst-case scenarios can create a feedback loop, reinforcing fears, stopping any action and preventing us from moving forward after a fall.

Breaking the cycle

It is important to note that it’s completely natural to experience some nerves, anxiety and even fear after a fall. The problem comes when the subconscious mind takes over, allowing those fears to dictate our actions and causing us to avoid similar situations or even avoid riding altogether.

With this response, the same fear and anxiety you are trying to overcome is strengthened as you inadvertently send messages to your subconscious mind that riding is, indeed, dangerous and something to be feared and avoided. This only serves to strengthen the neural pathways associated with fear, creating further uncomfortable emotions that cause you to further avoid riding, making it even harder to get back into the saddle. This vicious cycle is very difficult to break.

A similarly problematic response to the subconscious mind, however, is to suppress the messages it is sending, ‘pushing through’ despite overwhelming anxiety. While this response appears function externally and may keep our riding instructor ‘off our case’ it ultimately catches up with us as the subconscious ‘shouts’ louder and louder to make its fear of the threat heard.


Did you know?

The subconscious mind is responsible for triggering the freeze, flight, fight and fright response designed to protect us from harm by triggering the release of adrenaline and a heightened awareness in potentially dangerous situations. While this mechanism is vital in the case of genuine threats, it can misfire and create a hyper-vigilant state. In this state, the sub-conscious mind becomes hypersensitive to any danger causing anxiety and fear to linger long after the event.


Step 1: Write it down

As soon as possible after the incident, take a pen and paper and jot down everything that comes into your head about the event. Challenge yourself to write without judgement or filters; nobody else is going to read what you have written so be free in what you say! Your mind is likely to begin with only the negative thoughts but as you keep writing you should find something positive, such as a potential lesson, coming through in the writing. Keep writing until you achieve a glimmer of positivity.

Step 2: Focus on the facts

One of the keys to managing uncomfortable emotions around an incident such as a fall is to focus your attention on the facts. When our subconscious mind processes an event, it creates interpretations based on a perception of what happened and generates all kinds of emotions. These emotions can be powerful and sometimes get in the way of rebuilding our confidence.

Instead, ask yourself what actually happened. How well can you describe the facts of the incident without any embellishment or emotion? Lots of us will find this surprisingly difficult. Once you’ve run through it in your mind, write it down on paper in the most basic and factual way you can. From this point onwards, try and think and speak about the incident using just this description, removing all extraneous detail and emotion out of it.

Step 3: Draw lessons

Now you have the most concise representation of the event, you can take a moment to consider what helpful and constructive lessons your mind can take from the incident, bearing in mind that your previous programming might make you jump straight to the negative, which is totally normal.

Useful prompts for this exercise can include thinking about the event from the perspective of an impartial observer or considering how you might create opportunities for growth going forwards, even if you are still struggling to take lessons from the specific fall or incident.

Step 4: Visualisation

Visualisation and imagery techniques harness the power of the mind to create positive mental images and build confidence. By creating scenarios in your head, you can train your mind to focus on what you want to happen rather than relying on the default negative setting.

This powerful practice helps you focus on the positive possibilities instead of being distracted by old fears. Embracing positive imagery empowers you to feel more confident and optimistic, enabling you to face any riding situation with renewed courage.

To overcome your fear of getting back on, or riding in a similar situation to the one in which you fell, you should sit down quietly and visualise every step of getting back on your horse and riding. Think through the ride as if it went absolutely perfectly. The more specific your thoughts are around the process the more effective the technique will be; for instance, try and think about the feeling of the leather as you adjust your stirrups or tighten your girth, or think about the feeling of your horse moving from a trot to a canter. This additional detail helps make the process more real, and increases the benefits of the visualization.


Did you know?

Visualisation has been shown to activate the areas of the brain that are active when you are performing an activity i.e. if you imagine yourself performing a half pass, the same areas of the brain that would be activated if you were doing a half pass are switched on. This allows you to strengthen the neural pathways associated with a thought or movement pattern from the comfort of your chair at home, rather than on the back of the horse!


Step 5: Step-by-step approach

Use gradual exposure to manage your experiences in a controlled and progressive manner.

Begin with activities and small steps that stretch your comfort zone, and are manageable for you. Then incrementally increase the challenge by gradually exposing yourself to move difficult situations as you gain in confidence.

Seek support and guidance by working with a trusted instructor or coach who can help you throughout the process. They can structure your sessions and offer expertise to ensure your safety.

Remember that progress takes time, and everyone’s journey is unique. Be patient with yourself and celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they may seem. With consistent effort and a positive mindset, in time you’ll overcome your fears and regain your riding confidence.


Top tip

If you’re afraid of riding again, work with your horse on the ground to regain confidence in him. In time you’ll feel more positive and want to get back on board.


Final thoughts

Regaining confidence after a fall is a personal journey that requires understanding, patience and an openness to new ways of thinking and feeling about riding. You have the power to overcome your challenges and create a positive, fulfilling riding experience again so accept the process, be kind to yourself and embrace your journey back to the saddle.