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Fear of Stirrups: How I Conquered My Anxiety and Got in the Saddle

I have anxiety. 

I was officially diagnosed with it about two years ago and started taking medication, but looking back on my life, I’m pretty sure I’ve always been extremely anxious. As a child, I remember reading a science book and then being terrified that the sun was going to blow up and we were all going to burn up and die. I was scared during fireworks displays on the Fourth of July that bits of smoldering fireworks were going to drop on my head and burn me. School turned me into a wreck if we had to answer questions in class or read out loud because I was terrified I would mess up and make myself look like an idiot in front of my classmates.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve had anxiety my entire life and no one really noticed. I was a crybaby, and anti-social, and a scaredy-cat, and any other manner of mean name you could call a child who has anxiety and no one is willing to open their eyes to that fact. 

As a child, I always wanted to have a horse and learn how to ride. That dream didn’t start coming true until I turned 30, and suddenly I had the opportunity to work with horses and learn how to ride. Learning to ride at 30 years old is not easy, let me tell you. First of all, most people at that age know very well that they can die at any moment, thank-you-very-much, and so I didn’t have the luxury of learning during that fearless time that young children have. Though sometimes I wonder if, because I have had anxiety since a very young age, I ever had that “fearless and immortal” period of my life at all. 

“Even with medication, all these falls started making me anxious.”

Anxiety on Four Hooves

One of the first times I ever got in a saddle without someone else checking the girth (the strap that holds the saddle to the horse) for me, the horse walked away from the mounting block while I was just starting to get on, the saddle slipped, and I fell under the horse. During a riding lesson at another barn, I went to get on a lesson horse who wouldn’t stand still at the mounting block at all and I ended up going right over the other side and falling. Before I had another couple of falls in the past year and a half of riding, ninety-percent of my horseback riding related falls were while I was trying to get in the saddle.

Even with medication, all these falls started making me anxious. Since they happened mostly when I was getting on the horse, I began to get seriously terrified of not having my girth tightened enough that my saddle wouldn’t slip when I got on. Getting in the saddle when there was no one there to hold my horse was also a nightmare, because what if I tried to get on and they walked off without me firmly sitting down in the saddle?! The horror!

It got to the point where I would double and triple check my girth before getting on the mounting block. Then I would play a game called “The mounting block isn’t the correct distance from the horse”, and I would go down and up the mounting block several times, adjusting its position until it was perfect. Then I would stand on the top of the mounting block, staring at my saddle as though it were a firing squad. Eventually, I might get in the saddle, or I might just call it quits and decide not to ride at all. 

We got a VERY tall mounting block eventually at the barn I boarded at, and that made things a little bit easier. I could put my horse (a rather short Morgan mare) next to it and literally swing my leg over and sit down, no stirrups required. And since there were no stirrups required to get on, I could be reasonably sure that my saddle wouldn’t slide and deposit me on the ground underneath an animal with four hard hooves and that spooks easily. 

But this didn’t really solve my anxiety. And things just became worse when the person who owned that mounting block left, taking my salvation with them. 
I got a breastplate, figuring that even if it wasn’t actually designed to stop a saddle from rolling side-to-side, it would be enough of a placebo effect that I would be able to calm my anxiety and get on. But even with the extra piece of tack to give me peace of mind, the anxiety was still there. 

“Yes, anxiety about being anxious! I truly am a mess!”

I soon realized that the anxiety was stemming not just from fear of the saddle slipping, but also from the fear of the horse walking away before I could get in the saddle, AND from my embarrassment about my anxiety. Yes, anxiety about being anxious! I truly am a mess! I knew that I was going to have to get over this and get on my horse like a normal human equestrian is supposed to, not climbing down onto the horse’s back like I was doing a squat in the gym. (Besides, the taller mounting block only allowed me to do that if the horse was as short as my personal horse, and not many of them are. If I rode a taller horse, I was out of luck and HAD to use the stirrup to get on!)

I was in a bind. Nothing I’d tried had worked yet, but I was determined that I was going to stop having so much anxiety about an activity that I truly love and I was going to teach myself to get over this and stop being stared at while I climbed into the saddle like it was my first day of riding. By now I had been riding for almost five years and this just seemed silly. But I was lost on how to make myself not anxious when even buying a piece of tack that was supposed to help me didn’t help at all. 

The answer came to me one day when I was going through TED Talk videos on YouTube. I’ve been in a huge “personal development” phase this year and I randomly stumbled across an interview with Mel Robbins conducted by Tom Bilyeu on how to stop procrastinating and stop being anxious. I watched the interview, enthralled with the simplicity of this technique. And it really, really is very simple. If you don’t have time to watch the interview or don’t know about Mel Robbins’ “Five Second Rule”, let me sum it up.

In the Five Second Rule, you give yourself a task that you need to start. Let’s use getting out of bed since it’s her example in the video. So you say to yourself, “I am getting out of this bed now,” and then you count backward from five to one, and you start that task. It helps squash procrastination because you have a set time limit to start the task, and it kills anxiety because five seconds isn’t enough time to second guess your decision. A simple “5-4-3-2-1” seemed… TOO simple. 

But it was worth a shot when everything else had failed me, right?

I was eager to try this technique and was going riding with some friends the next day. I told myself that I was going to make sure my girth was tight, then I was going to do my countdown and get in my saddle- and I was going to use my stirrup to do it like a normal equestrian! 

“5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1!”

The next day came and I repeated my plan over and over again to myself as I tacked up. I made sure my girth was good and snug and that my helmet was on, and I went to the mounting block. I made sure to adjust the mounting block back a little further than normal so I would have room to use my stirrup. Then I got to the top step, adjusted my reins, put my foot in the stirrup, and said “Five, four, three, two, one!” 

Boom! I was in my saddle! I was giddy over this little victory, could my stirrup worries be over with, finally? I had to get down at one point during that ride to adjust something in the arena, and I used my countdown to get on using my stirrups again. Two for two, I was on fire! Then my friend asked if I wanted to ride her horse for a few minutes because I had never been on him before. This horse is significantly taller than mine, and I knew I was going to have no choice but to use the stirrup for this one. Another countdown and BAM! I was on a horse that I’d never ridden before, and I’d used a stirrup to get there, and I hadn’t fallen off! I was over the moon!

I am happy to report that I now have very little anxiety while getting in the saddle. I can’t say that it’s completely gone, because I often ride a friend’s horse bareback and that horse walks away from the mounting block like she’s just been kicked in the butt the second you get on her back. But when I’m on my horse I use my stirrup and I don’t get anxious about it. I know now that even if my saddle slips a little, I’m good enough that I can still get on without falling. Those little baby steps and a five-second countdown gave me the confidence I needed to get through the anxiety and start enjoying the beginning of my rides. 

I still have a long way to go with my anxiety, even when I’m riding, but I know that I can get there. And I know that because I conquered my fear of a silly little thing like putting my foot in a stirrup. 

Have you ever had an anxious reaction to something that you knew was silly, and if so how did you deal with that anxiety? Have you ever used the five-second rule to deal with your anxiety? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments or on Facebook! Or you can email me to connect too.



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