Getting back in the saddle after a break can be tough mentally, especially if the break was enforced due to a fall or bad experience out riding. Suddenly our imagination goes into overdrive as our brain switches into self-protection mode, and negative thoughts, such as ‘what if I fall off again?’ swim to the fore. Here, NLP Master Practitioner Wendy Jago helps you get back into riding with a fresh sense of confidence.

“It’s easy to feel swamped and look for excuses as to why you can’t hack out this weekend, or pop a cross-country fence,” says Wendy. “We’re effectively being held back by a fear of what might happen – and that’s the thing about our imagination. It may be the most versatile and useful of all our human skills, but it can also be incredibly self-limiting.”

As far as our mind’s concerned, there’s no difference between an unreal, imagined scenario and a real experience because both use the same neural links and pathways in our brain. Something imagined can bring on just the same feelings of dread or excitement as the real thing.

“The key to keeping your fears in check lies in changing your imagined scenario and taking practical steps to become more effective in the saddle,” says Wendy. “You need to replace thoughts of ‘what if I lose control on a hack?’ to ‘I know what I can do to take control if my horse spooks on a ride’ and everyone, no matter how nervous a rider they are, can beat their confidence demons if they follow this advice.”

Here are some golden rules to get you started:

* Never blame yourself for your lack of confidence. We’re all individuals and we all process our thoughts and feelings differently

* Don’t play the hero. Fear is your mind’s way of protecting you. There’s nothing wrong with taking evasive action to avoid a problem, and reaching your goals in tiny, achievable steps

Make practical changes to your riding
If a lot of your fears lie in not feeling hugely secure in the saddle, Wendy suggests making it a long-term project to work on this. “Have some lessons on the lunge so you can focus on your position, pop a neck strap on your horse so you have something to hold on to if he bucks, and talk through avoidance strategies with your instructor.” The more practical steps you can take, the safer you’ll feel, and if your body feels safe the less likely you’ll be to tense up.

The next step is to stack the cards in your favour. “If you’re worried about riding on the roads, for example, only ever hack out with a trusted, sympathetic friend on a sane horse. Choose your route carefully, and if all you want to do is walk to the end of the village and back, accept there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. What’s more, a week of quiet, confidence boosting 20-minute hacks, taken regularly over weeks and months, will do you the world of good.” Keep this densensitisation programme going to build a new habit of expecting things to go better, because little by little they have been going better!

Is he right for you?
If fear-inducing spooks, bolts and falls are a regular occurrence, ultimately you may have to accept the fact that your horse isn’t right for you. “Horse owning should be fun, and if you decide you’re worrying more than you’re enjoying your horse, you need to pass him on to someone who is going to be able to have fun on him. Some horses are dangerous in the wrong hands and will be far happier with a new rider who has the experience and skills to gain their trust and embrace their quirks.”

Don’t forget about him
If you regularly go off into a world of fear-induced panic when you ride, you’re effectively abandoning your horse, and he’ll feel it. “Imagine you’re talking to someone and they’re looking past you, not listening. You know at once that they are no longer ‘with you’, and so will your horse.”

Instead, if you feel nerves creep up, be attentive to him, not yourself. Focus on his needs and give him all the help you can. Together you will cope with much more than you expected, with a stronger partnership as a result.

More about our expert
Wendy Jago is a confidence coach, NLP Master Practitioner and author, who helps riders overcome their fears and enjoy their horses to the full. Her books include Schooling Problems Solved with NLP, published by JA Allen. Contact her at