Anxiety Sabotage and your Riding

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to speak with a variety of people about their anxiousness with riding. In certain cases people explain their feelings as just being scared….but in truth it is more than just fear, there is likely anxiety.  Some have issue with trail riding, others with performance riding, others with general riding, and some with training. I know that anxiety is very real for many people. In fact, at some time in all of our lives we likely feel some anxiety.

Anxiety is defined as and unpleasant state of inner turmoil that is often accompanied with dread about something that is not likely to happen.  Anxiety is not the same as fear. Fear is felt about something that is realistically intimidating and dangerous. Anxiety combines fear, worry, uneasiness, problems in concentration and muscle tension.  The National Institute of Mental Health states that Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial in some situations.

Sabotage is a deliberate action aimed at weakening an entity through subversion, obstruction, disruption, or destruction. Sabotage is the act of destroying or damaging something deliberately so that it does not work correctly.

So if we put anxiety and sabotage together and think of it in terms of horsemanship we come up with the following: Anxiety Sabotage is a reaction to a stressful situation where the rider feels fear, worry, uneasiness, muscle tension and problems concentrating and the rider focuses on these feelings and thoughts and intentionally acts in a way that they may occur.

One thing I know from my coaching and observations is that horses can easily sense when you are feeling uneasy and have anxiety and if you give them the slightest chance to help you sabotage the ride — they will be the perfect accomplice.  Remember horses are fight or flight animals, most wanting to fly away from perceived, imagined or real danger.  Give them the opportunity by not being their leader and they will take you on the flight of your life.

Let me share with you three examples of possible Anxiety Sabotage in your Riding:

1) The rider is convinced that the horse is going to spook at the plastic bag.  So the rider stares at the plastic bag, holds his/her breath, rides towards the plastic bag and tenses all his/her muscles.  The rider is thinking…my horse is going to spook and run away and I am going to get hurt.

2) The rider enters the arena for a class and thinks the following: my horse does not canter well, how am I going to keep my horse slow and on the rail, can I get over the jump, maybe the jumps are to high, last week we clipped a jump pole…I know that we are going to have faults and the judge is going to see us do something wrong and we are going to lose.

3) The rider is going down the trail and sees a bush up ahead.  The rider tenses, holds his/her breath, stares at the bush and the horse comes to a stop and the rider pulls up on the reins, clenches his/her legs tightly on the saddle and the horse spins around and runs off with the rider.

All three of these examples are real scenarios that I have seen happen to people. I myself took a two-year old out on a trail ride a few weeks back.  Her first time away from home, never been on a trail ride (over bridges, on switchbacks and over a rocky surface and plenty of step-downs), all new horses around, people playing Frisbee gold alongside the trail, mountain bikes going along and people walking on the trail carrying sticks and bags. My first thought was — I must be out of my mind to take this horse with less than 60 rides on this ride.  But I reached inside and said to myself, I have done my homework with this little mare, she works off my legs, I know that breathing is important and if I talk to her a bit…this is going to be great.  Just to make sure it was great, I took the lead on parts of the ride.  So rather than thinking of all the horrible things that might happen, I focused on the positives (by the way — the ride was great and I am proud of this little mare).

Let me again say that I know anxiety disorders are real.  For those people with anxiety disorders I encourage you to find help and support from your family and friends and medical professionals to help you with this issue.

For those of us who encounter Anxiety Sabotage in our Riding — here are a few ways to help you overcome the problem.

1) Work with a good horsemanship coach who listens to your concerns and helps you develop riding plans and lessons to get you past feeling anxious and finding ways to sabotage your ride. If your coach belittles you in any way about your anxiety issues — find another coach.  He or she needs to be supportive and also push you a little outside your comfort zone — but that push needs to come with compassion and care for you and your horse.

2) Work on breathing and look into Tai Chi or Yoga as a way to help you learn to relax to avoid that muscle tension.

3) Talk about your issue with other riders.  Most likely you are not alone and others have experienced the same feelings or situation and maybe as a group you can work together to keep you from sabotaging your ride because of anxious feelings. This is your support team … ignore the naysayers in your life and talk with and find people who can help you become a better and safer rider.

4) Make sure you are being safe as you ride. Wear a helmet, put on some extra clothes for padding, and consider wearing a flak vest. Protect yourself so that you can remove the anxiety surrounding the issue of maybe getting hurt.

5) Be the leader of your horse.  Know that the horse feels all that you are feeling and thinking. So inspire a good ride by being confident.

Take a few minutes and ask yourself if the people around you are giving you the support you need, is your coach helping you, are you preparing and not over thinking the ride, are you enjoying your time with the horse, are you looking forward to riding — if all of these are answered YES — then you have the right team and mindset in place to stop sabotaging your rides.

I look forward to talking with any of you on this topic. If I can help you with getting over your anxiety and sabotaging your ride, let me know. If you need a coach who will help you…I will do that. I want to see you all succeed.  I thank Tammy, a mental health professional, in the San Francisco Bay Area for her great conversation and thoughts on this topic.  With her help I was able to prepare this blog for you all to read.


Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (


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