Riding as an Exercise in Everyday Courage

by Theresa J. Jordan, Ph. D.

Reprinted from The Icelandic Horse Quarterly: Issue Two 2003.
The Icelandic Horse Quarterly is the official publication of the US Icelandic Horse Congress. The magazine is printed four times annually and mailed to the membership. Back issues may be purchased for a small fee and may be read online at www.icelandics.org/quarterly.

I have recently been asked by Horse Illustrated to put together some brief hints for dealing with fear of riding base on my book, Overcoming the Fear of Riding, for one of their upcoming issues. This led me to think about some specific challenges, and fears, encountered by riders of Icelandic Horses. What follows is the article that my initial assignment triggered me to write for us.

Virtually all riders experience something identifiable as fear at some time or other in their riding lives. And if we stop to think about it, we will recognize that riding is a sport that invariably involves some degree of risk, and calls upon us to muster some amount of courage every time we ride. One of the things that is different about U.S. riders of Icelandic horses is that most of us have come to Icelandics after riding other, larger breed animals. While our children may be growing up on Icelandics, most adults in this country began riding when Icelandic horses were relatively new and uncommon in the States. Some of us have found that the smaller size of Icelandic horses makes them more appealing, especially those who dislike heights. Many of us are seeking to continue our sport with a breed that we can trust, given their reputation of being less likely to spook on trails, and more likely to "take care of” their riders. Others are seeking the renowned smoothness of the Icelandic gaits, in contrast to what we have experienced on horse breeds that only walk, trot and canter. We have been romanced by stories of how Icelanders caught in storms set their children on the backs of Icelandic horses, trusting their animals to ensure their little ones' safe passage home. And increasing numbers of us have lived our own romantic tales of how our small horses have carried us home after we fell while walking in a deserted patch of pasture, or other similarly remarkable feats. So, we wonder, how can it be that these wonderful small and trustworthy horses whose well-deserved reputations stretch back into the Icelandic sagas, sometimes terrify us to the point that we are afraid to mount up for a lesson, a show class, or what was to be a leisurely trail ride?

Many riders of Icelandic horses who experience fear have a great deal of difficulty making sense of why they are afraid, and even feel guilty and foolish for being fearful of riding a breed that is so small and has such a wonderful reputation. We might wonder whether we simply "can't shake" whatever scared us when we were riding other, larger breeds - a prevalent concern since many U.S. riders of Icelandic horses have come to this breed after accidents or other unpleasant mishaps on thoroughbreds, Arabians, quarter horses, etc.

What we need to remember is that while Icelandic horses do largely live up to their wonderful reputations, they also bring to us some unique challenges. These challenges are rooted in the very things that make Icelandic horses so appealing, such as their gaitedness and their temperaments. If we bear in mind that our uniquely wonderful Icelandic horses also pose unique challenges for us, their riders, we will be better able to understand, accept, and eventually minimize our fears.

I have suggested below three points that might help reduce confusion about why riders sometimes fear riding their Icelandic horses, and how thinking clearly and a bit differently about these points might help alleviate these fears. What follows after these points are some general hints I prepared for Horse Illustrated on the topic of overcoming fear of riding.


  1. Come to terms with the paradox of temperament.

Some years ago, a group of us had taken our Icelandic horses to a show in which we had a few Icelandic-only classes, as well as the opportunity to participate in some open, cross-breed classes. I remember some onlookers expressing amazement at how our Icelandic horses were so filled with fire during our four and five gait competitions, followed by how calm and unflustered they were during "trail" classes when we asked them to walk over wooden bridges and under flapping tarps, with us dragging rattling contraptions designed to be scary, and stand patiently as we tried to open gates and close mailboxes. It seemed impossible to them that the fiery dragons of the gaited classes could be the docile mounts who stayed cool and calm as they coped with the trail obstacles that sent many other breeds spooking and running.

We do a good job explaining to riders of other breeds our horses' unique breeding and special attributes - but do we, ourselves, adequately bear in mind the exceptionally different temperaments that coexist within a single Icelandic horse, and that can come into play at a speed faster than we humans can react? We explain with pride how our horse can be all speed and fire one moment, then calm enough for our toddler to ride the next. Yet, when we are astride, and we inadvertently shift our balance, or we hit a long and clear stretch of trail, or the handful of sweet feed our mare got into this morning triggers fire and flying pace when we intended calmness and slow tölt, the last thing we tend to think about is how wonderfully versatile our horse's temperament can be. Instead, we may respond with fear, or perhaps annoyance that our horse is doing something we did not intend.

We need to remember that what is wonderful about our horses' abilities to show great temperament as well as great calmness, coupled with their abilities to switch from one to the other with ease, carries within it an inherent challenge for us, their riders. What can be helpful is to recognize that what is good can also be difficult, and what is difficult for us can also be frightening. Think about the amount of temperament you enjoy in your horse. Figure out whether you love fire, or whether you are drawn mostly to the docile side of the Icelandic horse's nature. Then select your riding horses keeping in mind the range of temperament you enjoy and feel competent to ride. Talk with a coach or trainer to help judge your riding potential, because there is a possibility that the very slow and docile horse you would like to ride today might be boring and "wrong" for you after you train for another season or two.

But most importantly, bear in mind that the range of temperament possible in the Icelandic horse can be scary to many of us at different times in our riding lives. The first time we experience that flash of fire in a show ring, the first time we ride flying pace, or the first time we ride hand-gallop with a large group of Icelandic riders, we might feel a surge of positive excitement - or a surge of panic. Keep in mind that it is not unreasonable to be afraid of something that feels calm one moment, and wild the next. And so, it is not unreasonable or foolish to sometimes feel afraid while riding these incredible horses. With time and experience, and a good choice of mounts, the fear can be brought to a minimum and even reframed as exciting fun.

  1. Understand the impact of additional gaits.

Think for a moment about how the rider of a three-gaited, non-Icelandic horse uses the aids to ask the horse for movement. The most complex aid is probably the use of weight, a subtle shifting of the seat while maintaining balance. Now think about the use of this aid on a four- or five-gaited Icelandic horse, and you will realize that the challenge becomes exponentially complex. A slight shift back on a galloping five-gaited horse can put you into flying pace. A rather similar shift on a trotting, four-gaited horse can give you tölt. One of the most illuminating experiences for prior hunt seat riders is that sitting down and rolling your weight aid toward the horse's hind quarters won't necessarily slow down your canter or get you a half halt - and might be more likely to accelerate you into pace or switch you to a very fast tölt. So, one of the first questions that comes to the hunt seat rider who is now moving at warp speed on her Icelandic horse, is how is it possible to stop this thing? It is possible, of course, but for many riders of Icelandic horses, it certainly isn't easy.

Looking at how our Icelandic saddles are designed illustrates something about the complexity of riding Icelandic horses. Compared with other types of saddles, ours are relatively long and flat. 'When you sit in an Icelandic saddle, you do not get clear feedback about where the saddle ends, as you would with a Western saddle that has a high cantle, or even with a deep seated dressage saddle. There does not seem to be a clear "sweet spot"- one particular place where you plant your weight and leave it in position. Advertisements for excellent hunt seat and dressage saddles often tout a saddle's ability to keep a rider in "the" correct position. Icelandic saddles, in contrast, are usually thought to be best when they permit some amount of movement. The long, flat area is essential for the shifts in our weight, i.e. the complex use of weight aids in signaling gaits. Notice also that Icelandic saddles frequently do not come in different sizes for different riders, the idea being that everyone needs to move around anyway. To use an analogy from the world of music, recall how guitars and similar stringed instruments have something called "frets" that indicate finger placement, while violins do not but rely instead on the talent of the musician to "know" exactly where the fingers go to produce each sound. Compared with riding in some other types of tack, riding in an Icelandic saddle is more like playing the violin than a guitar.

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed with seat, balance, weight aids, and just plain stopping your Icelandic horse, first recognize that you are working to develop complex and high level skills. Try some different Icelandic saddles on your horse - while none give the sense of placement you might get from other types of tack with higher pommels and cantles, there are variations that make certain Icelandic saddles wonderful for some riders and impossible for others. Take some lessons on horses that have very clear gaits and are used for schooling so that any random or unintended movements you might make will be less likely to be interpreted by the horse as signals to speed up or change gaits.

Some Icelandic horse aficionados like to say that it is easy to ride an Icelandic horse, but difficult to ride one well. If we consider the complexity of skills that goes along with increasing numbers of gaits, it might be more true that riding Icelandic horses is just harder than riding walk, trot, canter. Given this complexity, it is more likely that we will make gait mistakes on Icelandic horses, as well as mistakes that take us into higher speeds when we are attempting to slow down or stop. We can help ourselves accept the fears we might have of riding our Icelandic horses (and stop feeling foolish for feeling fear) by critically analyzing our beliefs in common "slogans" about our horses, including that they are easy to ride and replacing these beliefs with more realistic thinking.

  1. Recognize the challenges of big movement and speed.

The first time I rode a "big movement" Icelandic horse (one that raises its legs high and has a great deal of "lifting/ carrying" power), I absolutely loved it for the first few minutes of the lesson, and then I fell off. The second time was when I first met and rode my mare Eldbra. For safety's sake, we were on the oval track at Wiesenhof, rather than on the trail, and we were just speeding up out of walk. Since Eldbra's next best gait for warm-up is tölt, I signaled it in the way I'd been signaling tölt on other horses for over ten years. Then Eldbra began doing something completely unrecognizable and, I thought at the time, very bumpy, I figured I had miscued, and gotten a powerful trot. Not to be unseated, I reverted to a two-point position, which had always felt safe during my hunt seat days. To this day, I swear that Eldbra turned to look at me and literally rolled her eyes. As we continued in this strange way around the oval track, I called out to my coach, Dani Gehmacher, to ask, what is she doing? Dani very politely fought to choke down her laughter, and told me that Eldbra's tölt was so strong that she was doing it even with me poised halfway up her neck. That was big movement tölt.

In reality, Eldbra's tölt is not bumpy, once you learn where to put your weight and how to absorb big movement with a relaxed and flexible body. What happens in all her gaits is that you spend a lot of time together in the air. With one stride, she covers ground for which most horses need several strides. She is a very large, four-gaited mare, with an incredible combination of lifting and pushing power, which translates into much corresponding movement in her rider. When I first cantered her on the trail, the trainer who rode with me kept reaching over and pushing me back down into the saddle because I kept flying upward with her powerful strides. After a couple months of intermittent training, I earned the privilege of being permitted to ride out from Wiesenhof into the Black Forest alone on my mare. I felt ready to push the envelope, to find out just how much lifting and pushing power this mare could exert. I headed for one long stretch of trail, checked to see if all was clear, and then let her out. It seemed like riding in one of those "bullet trains" when all the scenery whizzes by in a blur. The wind was so strong in our faces, my eyes were tearing wickedly, and I had one of the best rides of my life.

But nothing could have adequately prepared me for my big movement and very fast new horse. My experiences with a big movement Icelandic were so different from how it had felt to ride my extremely smooth, five-gaited "tölt machine" named Stina, whose tremendous pushing power could be felt in her flying pace, but who has smaller movement in tölt, trot, and canter that always leaves you feeling that you are gliding effortlessly and without bumps over level ground. By the time my coach had found Eldbra for me, she knew I was ready to train hard and to move from pleasure riding to more serious competition. She knew that I was gravitating to big movement, and to more powerful horses. And in the international world of Icelandic horse events, big movement tends to be valued, as is the capability to work with power, at high speed.

It becomes much easier to cope with fears of riding when we can begin by identifying the specific experiences that trigger our fear responses. When we first experience truly big movement Icelandic horses, the strangeness of the situation can trigger fear, and fear in turn typically causes us to tense our bodies, making it less likely that we can absorb the horse's big movement, and more likely that a bump can unseat us.

Just as Icelandic horses vary in the amount of temperament they show, they are unique in their physiology and neurology and, thus, in the amount of movement and speed they are capable of showing. When we consider the range of temperament Icelandics can show coupled with the great variety of experience they provide us both in the number of their gaits and in the size and speed of their movements, we see that we have the possibility to chose what kind of Icelandic riding we each wish for ourselves. To maximize our joy and minimize our fears, we can think through how much movement we enjoy, since this certainly is a personal preference, as well as how much movement our own body is capable of absorbing both now and with additional conditioning. Think about whether you love speed or big movement, you can't wait for a chance to gallop or pace, or whether you choose to stay at a moderate tölt. Particularly if we ride for pleasure, we are free to choose which kinds of movement and speed to pursue, and which we can decide to avoid if they trigger our fears. And if we want to pursue something that scares us now, there are many cognitive-behavioral ways to work through fears and toward our pleasure and competition goals.

When we think about our fears, we would do well to remember that riding Icelandic horses can require a combination of skills so diverse that they span those required in dressage, racing, English style flatwork, endurance riding, jumping, and even pole bending. Believing that our fears of riding our Icelandic horses are foolish because our horses are gentle on the ground, relatively small as horses are concerned, and less inclined to spook does not take into consideration all the factors that can make riding them difficult and complex.


Professional horse people understand that fear is a natural and important part of being around large and powerful animals. But when fear begins to interfere with the pleasure we take in riding, and even prevents us from going to the barn and mounting up, we need to put that fear into perspective. Here are five hints that can help:

  1. Figure out whether your fear is "reasonable."

This means first facing up to the fact that you are fearful, instead of avoiding your fear - and perhaps your horse altogether. There are many times when fear can be friend rather than foe. For example, being seriously overfaced, riding a horse that is very much beyond your ability, can make a rider reasonably fearful. A horse that is more advanced than you are as a rider can present a positive challenge and an opportunity to grow, but a very highly trained and sensitive horse might misinterpret a novice's gripping legs and heavy hands and be a prescription for a mishap. Similarly, it can be reasonable to fear a "green horse, green rider" combination. If you have trouble figuring out whether your fear is reasonable, find a coach or trainer whose work you respect, and talk over the situation. Reasonable fear should be your signal to make some necessary changes in how you are riding. If you decide that your fear is unreasonable, you might be making what psychologists call "irrational demands" on your horse, yourself or the riding world. See if the next two hints help you make sense of your unreasonable fears.

  1. Understand the difference between fear and phobia.

Fears of riding, and of being around large animals, are common among riders at all levels. Phobias are less common, more severe, and typically signal the need for professional assistance. Think about a phobia as beginning with a relatively small "core" of fear. You might or might not be able to identify the starting point of a phobia, but if you can it might be something like being thrown from a runaway horse for the first time. What has scared you is the feeling of being out of control, a sense of truly being at risk, and experiencing the aches and pains of being dumped or even seriously injured. It would be reasonable to try to avoid that kind of situation again, to analyze what happened and try to remedy it if possible. Perhaps your horse reacted with her own fear to something in the environment beyond your control, such as a deer bounding out of the woods, or to something you can change, such as riding her out on a cold, brisk day after neglecting to work her for a whole week. Now imagine that for a few days after your fall, you feel nervous when you mount your horse. After a few more days or weeks, you find that your nervousness starts the moment you get into your car to drive to the barn, or even when you start putting on your riding clothes. This feeling can "spread" so much that the arrival of your favorite horse magazine in the mail can set off your fear - and eventually, the mere thought of a horse can cause serious fearfulness. Most lay people have better success overcoming phobias when they seek the help of a mental health professional, particularly someone who uses behavioral or cognitive-behavioral methods. Trying to overcome a phobia simply by "toughing it out" usually backfires: If you continue to dress, travel to the barn, and ride your horse feeling very fearful, you are practicing being afraid of riding! Like most kinds of practice, practicing fear will only strengthen your phobia. (People who feel extreme fear in a range of different situations, including riding as well as experiences completely unrelated to riding, might have a panic disorder rather than a phobia. Again, this should be the cue to get some professional advice.)

  1. Take smart risks, not bad ones.

To grow as riders, we all step up to challenges we have not encountered before. We go from walk to trot (and/or tölt) to canter, and perhaps to flying pace. We go from flat work in small arenas to trail rides to what one rider has described as the "eternity" of the oval track, With each challenge, we develop better balance, a better seat, softer hands and we risk falling off. When we work with coaches and trainers who are wise teachers, and who can gauge not only what we are capable of accomplishing but also the amount of risk appropriate in our individual lives, we minimize the chance that something unacceptable will happen. We might risk popping off into the sand, but if we are riding a well-schooled horse that will remain calm when we fall, and are wearing all appropriate safety gear, the chances are strong that we will have only a few bumps or bruises. Smart risks are the risks that move us forward in our riding skills, with only a small likelihood of injury, and a very large likelihood that our injuries will be minimal. Demanding that riding should be riskless is irrational. If you find that you cannot tolerate the risk of falling from a horse, understand that there is no way to change your horse, your self, or the world to meet this demand. Perhaps you are at a point in your non-horsey career life at which you believe that being sidelined with a riding injury would be devastating. If even smart risks are not for you, you should reconsider your choice of sport.

Bad risks are those that increase the chance of a mishap beyond what is sensible. Here there are some general principles, as well as those that are unique to each individual rider; Riding your horse out on glare ice before you have shod her for winter is probably a bad risk for both you and your mount. Attempting a three foot fence before you and your horse have done a one-footer is probably a bad risk. Entering a flat class in which you will be asked to canter before you have cantered in your lessons is a bad risk. Now think about how what is considered a bad risk can vary from rider to rider, If you are a professional rider who makes a living training and showing horses, taking a horse who has never shown before into the show ring for the first time is a risk that is probably appropriate - though certainly not a risk you would encourage your novice students to take. One rider's smart risk can be another rider's bad risk, so learn to think of risk in terms of generally appropriate safety standards as well as where you as a unique individual stand in your abilities and experience.

  1. Learn to see your horse as an ally, not an adversary.

While this is often very easy - even too tempting sometimes with Icelandic horses - even with Icelandics our relationships can become adversarial. If we understand the nature of horses as herd animals, and accept the responsibility of herd leaders when we train and ride our horses, we will realize that our horses tend to be more comfortable when they successfully comply with our requests then when they cannot. Unless your horse exhibits serious behavior problems, which can be caused by anything from a brain tumor to being raised alone (or to your aggressive behavior which she interprets as "predatory"), your horse will most likely see you as a herd member, an ally. If you fell off your horse when she spooked and ran in response to a deer bounding out of the woods at her, she was acting instinctively as a prey animal. Her reflexes were so much faster than your human reflexes, that you were unable to accommodate and stay in the saddle. To avoid seeing your horse as an adversary, you must remember that she acted out of her instincts, not out of a desire to terrorize and injure her rider.

When we humans perceive ourselves as being in an adversarial situation, we are likely to react with the choice of "fight or flight." We know that reacting aggressively (the fight response) is usually the wrong way to interact with our horses. The other choice (called flight) is actually an expression of fear. Since we are pretty limited to these two basic choices when we think we are confronting an adversary, it is easy to see why perceiving our horses as adversaries is a "no win" situation. Take stock of how you think of the horses you ride and train. Do you attribute to them negative motives, a will to either hurt you, scare you, or thwart your riding progress? If the answer is yes, and your horse is showing no clear signs of physical or behavioral anomalies, work on thinking of your horse more accurately as the herd animal she is, who would rather please you than be stressed by conflict with such an important "member" of her herd.

  1. Understand the impact of your physical condition on your fear.

A phrase that is commonly heard in contact sports is fatigue makes cowards of us all. You may have noticed that there seem to be times when you truly are "up" for riding, as well as times when even the thought of riding seems stressful. Particularly if you ride for recreation rather than as your occupation, you may not think much about the intense physical demands riding makes on your body. Riding requires you to balance, flex, coordinate, react, endure, and exert strength. Unless you are a professional athlete, your non riding day will not condition you for the rigors of your sport. At some point during your lesson or during your trail ride, your blood sugar levels may drop, lactic acid begins to build in your muscles, and your hydration levels fall. While you might not be aware of some of these changes, especially if they are subtle, they nevertheless exert psychological impacts. The challenges that might have seemed exciting at the start of your lesson, an hour later might be the frustrations that bring you to tears. Part of this frustration is very likely to be physical.

When we feel we cannot cope, we are more likely to be fearful, and given the role that our physical self plays in riding, this means that fear can be triggered or enhanced by physical fatigue. If we can learn to recognize the physical antecedents of fatigue, we can actually help ourselves avoid mishaps. There is everyday wisdom in the notion that the most accidents happen "in the last ski run of the day." The fear that we tend to feel more strongly when we are fatigued can be a "good" or "protective" fear that is a physically based reminder that we would be wise to end our ride on a positive note, before our judgment becomes clouded and our reflexes dulled.

Finally, for many of us who ride for pleasure, riding is a wonderful antidote to otherwise sedentary lives. Some riders make a visit to the barn after work to relieve the stress of their day. While this can provide an important balance in our lives, beginning our ride when we are already fatigued can make us vulnerable to mishaps and fear. Riding is most likely to restore balance to our lives when we are wise enough to remember that we must bring to our ride the reserve of physical energy our level of sport requires.

Some riders enjoy the thrill of a sport that requires at least some courage every day. However, most riders who experience fear would much rather experience excitement and pleasure - even a "rush" - rather than outright fear. Our unique Icelandic horses, though relatively small and absolutely wonderful, are certainly capable of scaring us. We would do best to acknowledge and accept these fears, so that we can move forward to enhancing our riding pleasure.

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