12 Best Tips to Stop Being a Nervous Rider

Do you love riding but can’t seem to get over your fears?

Did you start riding as an adult despite almost debilitating fear but you love horses so much you do it anyway? Do you know how important it is to convey confidence when you’re riding, yet you’re constantly riddled with anxiety and “what if” thinking? Is fear limiting your progress in your riding? My past self can say yes to all of those!

I didn’t start riding until I was 35, but this isn’t just about those of us who started as adults because even if I’d started riding as a kid, I’m pretty sure I still would have had a lot of these same issues. I’ve never been one to throw caution to the wind, to say the least, and I’m definitely not someone who thrives in the face of danger. My tendency has always been to be cautious and careful about everything I do.

So how on earth can I give advice on how to stop being a nervous rider?! Because I’ve done it! Well, I can’t say that entirely – I still feel fear at times, that’s normal! – but I absolutely now know how to deal with it, how to do what I want to do even if I’m feeling fearful, and even how to make fear work in my favor. Read on!

Are You a Nervous Rider?

My definition of being a nervous rider is someone who feels anxiety about riding their horse (or lesson horse) without an obvious cause, no particular reason – as in no physical reason right at the moment – to be nervous. Their horse is behaving just fine or at least being a normal horse and not being over-the-top reactive, they haven’t had a recent fall, the environmental conditions are conducive to a good ride, and their skill set is appropriate for whatever they’re about to do.

I’m not talking about riders who have had recent falls or serious accidents and are dealing with the aftermath, the horse they ride isn’t trustworthy, or there’s a raging hurricane or other such things going on around them that is the cause of their anxiety about riding, or they are attempting to do something that they have not yet developed the skills to do. That kind of fear is normal. Your body is sending you signs to be cautious and/or not ride in that situation.

Why Are Some of Us So Nervous?

So the question is, why are some of us so nervous just because? Why do some people always see the potential disaster lurking in every corner?

At the risk of stating the obvious, some of us just are natural worriers, overthinkers, over-analyzers, and let’s just be honest – control freaks. If we can’t guarantee the outcome, or at least a relatively safe outcome (safe being a relative term – it could be physically safe, or safe from feeling embarrassed), we don’t want to do it.

But the thing with people like us is, we love horses so much that while we may not be willing to throw caution to the wind and do anything crazy, we’re willing to do face the fear to ride.

The thing is though, we’re not satisfied with just riding.

We’ve come a long way already by putting that foot in the stirrup, especially as adult beginners, but now we know we’re capable of more and the fear is getting in our way. We want to enjoy riding more, we want to enjoy our lessons more, we want to progress more.

Is that you?

The reasons we’re like this are as varied as we are. It might be from being conditioned to it, a result of some bad experiences, or just a natural tendency. Mine comes from a combination of all three of those but mostly it’s because I’m just naturally cautious/risk-averse, I highly value bodily safety (ha!), and come from a whole family of worriers who taught me well. ????

But despite being both physically and mentally not naturally talented at riding (did I mention I’m also only 5’1 with very short legs and arms, but I digress…), by taking programs to help me overcome my fears and through my own trial and error, I can proudly say I no longer consider myself a nervous rider.

In fact, I now consider my ability to stay calm and even help nervous horses be calm, my personal superpower.

In fact, I’ve gotten so good at channeling my nerves into positive, calm energy, I actually now own one of the more “spooky” and reactive horses at my barn and I love it! I love his energy (I would never have thought that in the past – I used to want the calmest, steadiest horse possible!), but more importantly, I love that I can help him feel safe and confident, and the relationship we have because of that is pretty amazing.

I cannot tell you how much of a miracle all that is, as is actually being the one giving advice about how to stop being a nervous rider! Believe me, if I can do it, seriously anyone can. 😂

And without further adieu…

My 12 Best Tips to Stop Being a Nervous Rider

Tip 1: Discover what your fear costing you

  • You may not realize it in the moment, but the price of your fear is your riding dreams. This is big because we’re very good at justifying our fears, but like everything else in life, these moments add up. This was the big thing that really started me on my journey to overcome my fears and not let them rule my life, and it’s what I go back to whenever my fear starts to rear its ugly head. It’s an ongoing journey for me, but now I know my patterns and know the way out.
  • In order to figure this out for yourself, write your riding dreams out. What do you really want to do, to experience? Do you want to take lessons, own your own horse, jump, do dressage, ride on the beach, or go for a hack on a trail? How do you want to feel when you’re around horses, when you’re in the saddle, when you’re leading them, working in their space? How do you look when you’re riding? How do others see you? What thoughts are going through your head as you ride? Write it all out and get a clear picture of what you really want in your riding life.
  • Now, look realistically at where you’re at in your riding. How close are you to what your dreams are? Are you on a path where you can achieve those goals or is fear stopping you in any way?
  • The important part here is to really take stock of what fear is costing you and whether or not you think holding onto the fear is worth the safety it, often falsely, is providing you.
  • Make a decision. Is it worth it to you to take the next steps?

Tip 2: Discover what you’re really afraid of

  • Often we think we’re afraid of one thing, but it’s really another thing entirely. We have to dig deep to get to the true source of our fear. In my case, I thought I was just afraid of falling off and getting hurt. The pain of it actually – I’m very opposed to things that may cause pain, lol. But as I dove deeper, I realized a myriad of things were going on, the biggest of which was fear of not being in control, and feeling like I wasn’t good enough and never would be, no matter how hard I tried or how many lessons I took. It didn’t help that I rode with a bunch of kids – while being an adult taking beginner lessons in her late 30s. Of course, these kids flew by me as they progressed and I crawled along at a snail’s pace! Another tip – never compare yourself, especially to teenagers if you’re an adult newbie! lol
  • To dig deep, ask yourself the following questions:
    • What am I scared of? i.e. falling off
    • Then – what scares me about that? i.e. I’ll get hurt
    • And what scares me about that? i.e. I won’t be able to work
    • And why is that scary? i.e. I can’t afford to not work
    • Why else am I scared? i.e. I don’t think I have the skills to stay on if something goes wrong
    • Why don’t I think I can stay on? i.e. Because I’m not good enough
    • Keep drilling down until you find your core fear.
  • Once you’ve found your core fear, is there anything you see that could help mitigate it? For example, if you’re scared of falling off because you may get hurt/won’t be able to work, look at whether or not that’s a realistic fear. Do you really think that might happen? Use logical reasoning. Yes, horseback riding has inherent risks, but that has to be something we all accept as horse riders. Are you riding a safe horse in a safe environment? Are you riding at your skill level (or just beyond in a lesson environment)? Have you mitigated all risks beyond the inherent risks of the sport?
  • If you have, then you need to either accept the risks that are just a nature of life and riding and let the fear go, or choose not to ride. This goes back again to what is fear costing you… You have to choose if you want things to change. And playing the “what if” game about falling off will only make it more likely that it may happen. We’ll discuss ways to let things go and controlling “what if” thinking further on, as well as the “never good enough” fears. I will also be providing more in-depth help in the future so keep an eye out for that!

Tip 3: Discover the payoff of having your fear

  • Whether you believe it or not, we always do things for a reason – even things we don’t like on the outside – and fear is no exception. If you’re a nervous, fearful rider, there is a payoff in it for you. For me, it meant that I got to play it safe and never leave my comfort zone, as well as limit my chances of being embarrassed by not being good at something.
  • Once you recognize the payoff of your fear, you can look it in the eye and realize how you may have been self-sabotaging. This was me constantly. I truly thought I wanted to be a strong and confident rider, particularly when it came to jumping and showing. However, at the same time by allowing the fear to control me, I was able to keep myself safe from all the things that might go wrong, both physically and emotionally. I would complain about how frustrated I was with how I wasn’t making progress and didn’t know why when I tried so hard, yet I wouldn’t practice the things that I needed to work on. Pretty much a no-brainer when you spell it out like that, but in the moment, I could not make myself do the things I was scared of, even though I was perfectly capable and my horse was safe. I self-sabotaged myself like that for years, not recognizing what I was doing to myself and blaming everything and everyone else for my lack of progress.

Tip 4: Believe what you want is possible – choose a new identity

  • So you’ve realized what fear is costing you, discovered your core fear(s) and its payoffs, and made the decision to move forward – congratulations! Making that intention is huge! It won’t create instant results and you’ll have to remind yourself again and again of your new choice, but the change in mindset is half the battle. You get what you focus on, good or bad.
  • The next step, and this was another game changer for me, was to choose a new identity. As I dug deep into what was causing my fears, I realized that I identified as a “nervous adult rider”. In fact, I identified as being cautious and careful in my life in every other way, so of course, that was how I showed up at the barn as well. In order for me to extricate myself from that role, I had to imagine myself as being someone else entirely different, otherwise, I’d get sucked right back into playing the same part over and over.
  • To do this you can either make up your own new identity or pick someone you admire.
  • If you pick someone you know (personally or not, feel free to pick a famous rider you admire), if at all possible, make it someone you can relate to in some way. Maybe they’re similar to you in that how they came into riding (as an adult or someone nervous) or maybe they have a similar body type so you can learn from watching how they ride.
  • Once you have your new identity, a real person or your own, imagine what it would feel like to be them. Imagine what it would feel like to groom your horse, to get on, to ride, to do whatever your dream is as that person. Whenever you have a few spare minutes, go into this visualization and just feel what it would feel like. And this will sound corny and woo-woo, but go with me on this one as it works – feel the sensation of love and gratitude and send that feeling into that picture.
  • When it’s time to actually ride yourself, leave your old identity behind and embody this new one. Get into character like an actor does and be that new identity.
  • If you slip back into your past self, no worries, just get right back into character as soon as you notice it. Awareness is key.

Tip 5: No “what if-ing”! Focus only on what you want

  • Now that you’re being the character you want to be, you have to discipline yourself to think like that person. This means no “what if” thinking. That is your old identity. The thoughts you think are not truth, they are just a protection mechanism of your ego that is trying to keep you safe – but not safe in that it magically knows the future and is your intuition, but safe in your little box of comfort and not doing anything that puts you remotely at risk.
  • I made the mistake for years of believing my thoughts – thinking these “what if” thoughts were literally there to serve me and were my intuition guiding me. I’d feel the fear bubble up and think it was a message that I wasn’t safe, that these thoughts were my heightened sense of awareness and I needed to heed their direction. Believing those thoughts cost me years of progress. I don’t regret anything and believe everything happens for a reason, but I can’t say I’d have minded if I learned this lesson a bit earlier! 😉 The truth is though that the intuition you get from a fearful mindset is intuition that makes that very thing come true, you get fearful feelings. It is only when you’re in a positive mindset and are not thinking thoughts of fear that you can truly trust your intuition.
  • Instead of paying attention to these fear-based thoughts, hyper-focus on what you are wanting to accomplish and zone in on that and nothing else.
  • The next thing I do, which I know will sound a bit strange to many but is another thing that works for me, is I put my attention on what is often referred to as the third eye (in the middle of the forehead) and this brings a next level of concentration and calmness to me. I am aware of my surroundings, and what my horse is doing, but I’m not looking for things to worry about, such as what my horse might be looking at, why his ears are so pricked forward, etc. I focus intently on what we’re doing in the moment and on nothing that potentially can go wrong.
  • The reason this works so well is because horses have what’s called mirror neurons, which essentially means they reflect and mirror their rider. If I’m calm and focused, my horse will be calm and focused. Whenever I get distracted and then come back to remember this practice, my horse visibly softens and relaxes. It works every time.

Tip 6: Breathe!

  • You may have heard this before, but the way you breathe can either amp up your nerves or help calm them. The same is true for your horse – they are reading your body language and your energy state the entire time you are near them (mirror neurons again), and the way you breathe is another thing that tells them exactly how you’re feeling, and thus how they’ll react to you.
  • You can tell your body, and your horse, that you’re safe by the way you breathe. Slow, deep belly breaths tell your body that you are safe, whereas short, fast, shallow breaths from the top of your lungs tell your body, and your horse, that there’s something to be anxious about.
  • Box breathing is a well-known breath technique known to calm the nervous system. To do it you breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, and repeat. I personally don’t do box breathing as I find if I’m too deliberate about things like that it makes me more anxious, so instead I just breathe deep and slow into my belly. I do this whenever I’m feeling remotely anxious in any situation, for any reason. I just bring my attention to my breath and proceed to breathe slowly and deeply.
  • “Horsey” breaths! I do this all the time! If you’ve never heard of this, this is just basically breathing out a big sigh and as you do, letting your lips wiggle like a horse. Sorry, that’s probably the worst explanation ever, lol. Either way, strange as it may sound, it really does help both you and your horse to relax, so whenever you’re feeling stressed, let out a big sigh and wiggle your lips. I also do it when my horse does it, like hey, yeah, let’s both take a big breath and relax!

Tip 7: Focus on love and gratitude

  • In addition to deep breathing, I also incorporate breathing from my heart and sending love and gratitude to my horse (or anything, but if I’m around my horse, on my way to ride, etc, I think about him). If you’ve not experienced this before, it’s quite an amazing feeling.
  • To do it, just think of anything that you love and notice the feeling of warmth that spreads across your chest. Feel that feeling more and more, and as you do, start to feel the sensation expanding like a warm, tingly glow. Let it expand more and more. If you have time, you can imagine this warm glow spreading all over your body, then beyond it to the room or space you’re in, and beyond. It’s truly a magical feeling and is amazing for the body.
  • To add even more power to the heart-centered breathing, imagine you are sending love and gratitude to your horse (or to whatever you like) and feel your heart expand even more.
  • Fear and love can’t exist at the same time, so when you practice heart-centered breathing, sending love, and gratitude, you cannot feel fear. This is like a superpower tool for switching your focus away from fear to love and gratitude.

Tip 8: Affirmations, askformations, and visualization

  • As I mentioned in Tip 4 – Believe what you want is possible – choose a new identity, a key component to changing our experience of the world is by changing our beliefs about ourselves. What we experience is truly a reflection of our core beliefs and dominant mindset, so if we think the way we’ve always thought and act the way we’ve always acted, nothing is going to change. To help carve this new way of being into your neural pathways, affirmations, askformations, and visualization are key components. You can goal-set and action your way all day long, but if you don’t truly believe what you want is possible, you’ll keep spinning your wheels. Ask me how I know. 😉
  • As I’m sure you already know, affirmations are simply stating what you want in an “I am” statement in the present tense, i.e., I am a confident and skilled rider, I love showing, I am improving every day, I confidently and successful show in the hunter ring. You get the idea. To make these work for you, however, you can’t just say them on autopilot, you have to put some feeling into them. Say them throughout the day as often as you can and just pretend for those moments that what you are saying is true.
  • Askformations are a fun twist to affirmations where instead of saying an “I am” statement, you put it in the form of a question. This is particularly helpful if you just can’t get yourself to even pretend to believe your affirmations. The reason it works is the brain always tries to answer questions its asked. So for example instead of “I am a confident and skilled rider”, say to yourself “Why am I such a confident and skilled rider?” The best part is you don’t actually have to come up with an answer, your brain will start working in the background to find the answer on its own. It actually will start spitting out ideas at you as to why what you said is true. Try it!
  • As already mentioned, visualization is another tool that really is key. It takes some practice if you’re not used to it, but like everything else, gets easier the more you do it. To do it, pick a short scene of something you want, something you want to experience, and imagine being right there in the scene in first person. See it, feel it, hear any sounds, immerse yourself as best you can into the scene as if you’re really experiencing it. Once you have the scene in mind, play it on repeat over and over for as little as five minutes. Do this every day, especially before falling asleep and when first waking up, and the scene will feel more and more possible.
  • The key with all of these, affirmations, askformations, and visualization, is persistence. You can’t just affirm and/or visualize for a few days and expect results. You have to do it over and over and eventually, you’ll start to see changes in how you feel and what you’re experiencing.
  • Another key point that you may have not heard before is to also visualize the opposite happening and being okay with that. Feel the feeling of not ever getting what you want and see how you’ll be okay. This helps let go of the attachment we have to our goals, which is often one of the biggest reasons that keep us from achieving them.

Tip 9: Everything is always working in your favor

  • Believe it or not (no pun intended), you can choose your beliefs. Beliefs are a result of our conditioning and life experience, but you can choose to let go of those that don’t serve you. Beliefs that don’t serve you (like I’m not good enough; my horse “always” does x, y, or z) keep you stuck in the same place, no matter how hard you try.
  • Choose to have the belief that “everything is always working in my favor” and “everything always works out for me”. These are mantras that I say to myself all the time, and I’m not just referring to riding. Adopting this kind of thinking will change not only your riding, but your entire life.
  • Believe that if something goes wrong, it’s because it was necessary to teach you a new skill or to learn how to deal with a certain situation. Always assume everything is for your highest good and that you are being led in the direction of achieving your goals.
  • The path may not be what you expect or want, but embrace an unshaking belief that it is all happening for you, not to you.
  • Reframe any “negative” experience in this light of a learning opportunity. Whenever my horse is acting in a way that makes me uncomfortable, I assume he’s teaching me new skills and helping me reinforce my ability to stay calm, stay connected, and do the best that I can in that moment.
  • Every fall I’ve had has taught me something or made me re-evaluate what I was doing beforehand that either contributed to it and/or made the fall inevitable. My last fall (a big sideways spook that was completely understandable in the circumstances) showed me how I was sitting a tad too far forward and I wasn’t stretching down into my lower leg. He’s a new horse to me and I’m just figuring out the best way to ride him, and I’m trying to rid myself of some old bad habits. Luckily for me, I have a Pivo so I got it on video. I was able to look at what I was doing, saw one of the reasons that at least didn’t help my case of staying on, watched a few riding videos with some tips from other coaches, and then went to my next ride with some new things to try and, what do you know, they worked and helped me with a long-standing issue I’ve had! If I hadn’t fallen off, I wouldn’t have had that “a-ha” moment.

Tip 10: Replay “bad” experiences in your mind backwards!

  • Even if you’re able to see the positive in a scary or otherwise bad experience, you may still have some fear when you think back on it, which can then lead to the what if-ing, understandably. One way to help tone down the memory of fear is to play the memory of your experience (or even an imagined worst-case scenario) backwards! I believe this is an NLP technique (don’t quote me on that – I’ve learned a lot of NLP techniques via videos and books but am not officially trained in the modality as I’ve found the above tips work better for me). You can also add funny music to it like the kind you hear in blooper or clown-type videos. Hopefully you know what I mean! Doing this really helps take the seriousness out of the situation and makes you see it differently. It’s hard to be in the state of fear when you picture yourself flying up from the ground back onto your horse, like when you’re rewinding a video. Then play the scene forward again, then backwards, back and forth.
  • Play this back-and-forth scene over and over in your mind until you can think of what happened and not feel the fear, instead it’s rather funny!
  • I had a fall once where I literally hit a concrete wall. It was my fault entirely as I was doing my usual “trying too hard to get it right”, so when my coach told me to canter across the center of the ring after a jump, head to B and then track left, I focused intently on B until we were practically on top of it, not realizing I was waiting too long to tell my horse we were then going to go left. Since he clearly thought his rider was an idiot and was heading us straight into the wall, he chose to go right once we got there. We made our decisions of direction at pretty much the exact same time, so we, unsurprisingly, parted ways. I slammed into the concrete flat on my back (there was fencing to prevent hitting the wall, but lucky me, I went right between the boards) and then I kind of slid to the ground between my horse and the wall. Luckily I wasn’t hurt (!) but, needless to say, it created a bit of fear for me after when cantering towards that wall. To diffuse it, not only did I learn my lesson about not being so literal and also giving my horse a bit more notice about where we’re going and not assume he was reading my mind, but I also played the scene backwards and let me tell you, it’s pretty funny to see yourself slide up a concrete wall and back into the saddle! This is a technique I use all the time if I’ve had any kind of scary moments. It really does help to take the seriousness out of it and make it feel like not such a big deal.

Tip 11: Skill Development & Fitness

  • Lastly, I must touch upon skill development. While all of the above are key to overcoming your nerves, we can’t overlook the importance of ongoing learning and skill development. We all need to constantly work to improve ourselves and our riding skills, especially when we are nervous riders, as a strong foundation truly is key to confidence in the saddle. Even once the foundation is set, there is always more to learn. You’ll probably find, like me, that once you master your fear of one area of riding, you’ll move onto a new stage of riding and experience a new set of fears. It’s so important to stay safe by being realistic about where you’re at and, if at all possible, finding a lesson program that works for you. That said, if there isn’t one in your area, there are so many resources on the internet, whether that’s via online coaching, joining any of the multitude of programs online, or even watching clinics.
  • I also want to mention fitness because I’ve found that it really does make a big difference. I can definitely tell when I’ve been letting my exercise slack (and I don’t even do much!! I’m talking like a simple routine of pushups, lunges, squats, etc, and some yoga, that take maybe 10 minutes – though I do it every day – plus a walk when the weather cooperates and I have time). I’m by no means saying you need to be a particular size or weight, but core strength, flexibility, and balance are huge factors in keeping you safe in the saddle. In addition, your body knows when it’s not safe, so fitness or lack thereof can definitely contribute to nerves. To give yourself the best chance of feeling confident in the saddle, it’s a great idea to incorporate some form of exercise, whatever works for you, that will give you those key elements of core strength, flexibility, and balance.

Tip 12: Use other resources


So there you have it, my 12 best tips to stop being a nervous rider. I actually have loads more than this, but this post has already become a behemoth so I’d better stop or I’ll never be done.

Truly though, if you follow these tips you will be well on your way to being the rider you want to be. It is definitely not an overnight process, though. You have to be disciplined with your thoughts, keep your goals in the forefront of your mind, and remember what living as a nervous rider costs you, but imagine what will happen if you don’t? Imagine forever spinning your wheels and feeling frustrated with yourself. It’s definitely worth the effort.

That said, I am far from perfect at this, and am far from where I want to be as a rider and horseperson, but yet from where I am now compared to where I started…? Well, let’s just say you would never have believed it possible. I was scared of even being next to horses, yet loved them and riding so much that I pushed through it all. That’s why I’m here now writing this because I know there are others out there like me and I want you to know that you can do it too – and hopefully, your journey can be faster and less painful than mine has been!

But again, I have so much still to learn, so many more fears to get past, but the important thing is I know I can do it. I don’t have to spend years frustrated at my lack of progress anymore and can use these tools to achieve my riding dreams. And you can too.

I look forward to adding more to this site, more tips, tools, and resources. I have tons planned – this is just the beginning! I’m so excited to be able to share all that I’ve learned and continue to learn from the perspective of an adult learning to ride and jump with no prior experience, loads of baggage from insecurities, physical issues from being now in my late 40s, not to mention learning to ride on school horses. That whole package certainly doesn’t make it easy, but there’s still nothing like riding and horses. Every day I know I’m blessed to be able to put my foot in the stirrup and am so thankful for these amazing animals who give us the gift of sitting on their backs. ❤️🐴❤️

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