#Hack1000Miles in partnership with Equisafety

Falling off is scary, and can leave riders with lingering anxieties about it happening again. It can be particularly frightening if it has happened on a hack, with the added worries of catching your horse and deciding whether to get back on and ride home, or lead them in hand. I’ve only ever fallen off on a hack once – luckily I walked away with just bruises, but the image of my mare cantering around the field alongside the road with just a shallow ditch between her and the cars whizzing past has stuck with me ever since. My mare was also completely fine – I caught her with the help of a friend and we plodded home together, me feeling sorry for myself, my mare still jogging with lingering adrenaline. Even though that happened nearly a decade ago, it’s still something that occasionally pops into my brain if my horse starts to get a bit spooky or silly on a ride.

“It’s very common to worry about things going wrong on a hack, and it’s completely normal to be nervous after falling off,” says Liz. “Falling off hurts, generally speaking, so no rider wants it to happen. But it can evolve into a bigger problem as you can get into a vicious cycle of ‘what ifs’, which become more of a problem than the actual fall itself.”

There aren’t any ‘rules’ when it comes to confidence, or why you do or don’t feel anxious in certain situations and not others.

“I’ve worked with riders who are worried about falling off on a hack but not in the arena. But I’ve also had the opposite – riders who are worried in the arena, but not on a hack,” says Liz. “I’ve also worked with riders who are worried about hacking their own horse, but are happy to ride someone else’s.

“It varies so much depending on the rider, their experience, and what they’ve got going on in their life – factors like work or menopause or peri-menopause for women can cause anxiety. Lack of confidence isn’t necessarily caused by anything to do with the horse, but when other things crop up in life.”

Why falling off on a hack can cause a cycle of lost confidence

If you’ve fallen off whilst on a hack, it’s unsurprising if you worry that it might happen again, particularly if your horse is spooky or fresh. Your brain wants to protect you, and if you ride back to the place where you fell off, come across the trigger that caused the fall, or your horse gets strong or lively, you can start to imagine it happening again.

“Psychologically, our brain will know when it’s time to get nervous, especially if you’re hacking a route that you previously fell off on or you felt worried about something,” explains Liz. “The problem is that because of this, you’ll change the way you ride – you’ll tense up or change your breathing – and your horse will pick up on this change. They’ll pick up that you’re worried and become nervous themselves.

“It can become a vicious cycle and leave a rider feeling out of control.”

The other factor that can feed into a rider’s nerves of falling off on a hack is what might happen to their horse?

“Riders really care about their horses, and this can factor in to their nerves. They might be worried about falling off, but they’re also concerned about their horse – what if they hurt themselves or run out onto a road?” says Liz. “The ‘what ifs’ feed into the cycle.”

Liz has plenty of advice for rebuilding your confidence after a fall on a hack…

1 Leave your worries at the gate

If you’ve fallen into the cycle of worrying about the ‘what ifs’, the chances are you feel nervous about hacking out before you even step foot on the yard.

“Worry can kick in as soon as a rider thinks about riding, and it causes physical changes in your body,” says Liz. “Everything feels like it’s harder – you feel heavy, you chest might feel tight, your heart rate and blood pressure rise, and your adrenaline starts to kick in – and you might not have even tacked up yet.

“If you approach the horse at this time, the horse picks up on this and knows you’re worried. They’ll be on alert themselves, and more likely to spook – again, feeding into the cycle.”

So what can you do?

“Imagine leaving all your stress and worries at the gate before you enter the yard,” suggests Liz.

2 Try visualisation

Liz believes Visualisation can play a massive part, both in helping to rebuild your confidence or in fuelling the cycle of anxiety.

“If you visualise or imagine falling off all the time, you’re subconsciously practising falling off and telling your brain what to do,” says Liz. “Instead, visualise having positive experiences. Practise riding past the spooky objects or scary place – how will you ride your horse past it successfully?”

If you struggle with this, start by picturing how a good rider you admire would handle the same situation. Then replicate that, instead with yourself as the rider.

3 Prepare at home

There’s lots you can do at home or in your arena to get yourself and your horse ready to hack out. If you’re worried about coming across certain things on a hack, try to replicate that so you can practise navigating it in the safety of the school.

“Do your ‘hacking homework’ – make sure you and your horse are happy with things like bags, banners or umbrellas,” says Liz. “If you do it at home before you head out, it’s less scary as you both have the skills you need.”

4 Think about what you do in the saddle

“You need to start bringing an awareness to how you are before you get on, and how you are when you’re in the saddle,” says Liz. “There are four areas to focus on.”

1. Sit up tall 

“If we start to worry, our natural instinct is to go into the foetal position and curl up like a hedgehog, which isn’t helpful on horseback,” says Liz. “Think of the old adage of having string in your head lifting you up tall.

“Then imagine having another string attached to your belly button pulling upwards too. This will get you to engage your core a little bit.”

2. Unstick your hips 

“Make sure your hips are moving, as this is a key point of communication with your hose. As the horse is walking, you should feel your hips passively moving left and right with each step,” says Liz. “When you get worried your hips tighten up and do’t move, so focus on relaxing by allowing your hips to open and your legs to hang down.”

3. Hug with your legs

“When we’re worried, we either take our legs off or clamp on tight – neither is ideal,” says Liz. “Be aware of what changes in you. What do you do when you’re worried?

“Instead, make sure your legs are gently hugging the horse’s sides. Your horse should feel you there.”

4. Keep breathing 

“The last thing to remember is to keep breathing. Don’t stop breathing,” advises Liz. “If you struggle, then keep talking – you have to breathe when you talk. You can try singing, humming, talk to your horse or chat with a friend.”

5 Accept that every day might not be a hacking day

Whilst you might want to hack out and make progress, don’t feel like you have to constantly push yourself out of your comfort zone.

“Keep checking in with how you feel. Take small steps at a time – don’t feel like you have to go out and hack straight after a fall. Start in the arena and build back up,” advises Liz. “If it takes a few weeks, it doesn’t matter. Confidence is built up slowly.”

Putting too much pressure on yourself to get back out hacking if you’re still feeling nervous can actually make things worse, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Some days will feel easier than others, and that’s normal.

“Sometimes other issues in life can contribute to anxiety, and it can mean having to tackle things that aren’t even to do with riding or hacking,” reminds Liz. “And if some days you don’t feel like you can hack or ride because it’s too much stress, that’s fine. Spend time with your horse doing groundwork or grooming instead.”

Meet the expert: Liz Horner is a rider confidence, performance and mindset coach. She is a freelance BHS Level 3 instructor, NLP Master Practitioner and Master Hypnosis and Time Line Therapy™ Practitioner based in North Yorkshire. In addition, she is also a certified Life Coach and Embodiment Coach, and is currently working towards an Embodiment Toolkit certification and menopause coaching certification. Visit her Facebook page or website for more information. 

This content is brought to you in partnership with Equisafety, high viz clothing for horses and riders. 

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