If you are seeking resources to overcome a fear of horses you are not alone. The fear of horses, both clinical (a full-blown phobia that disrupts life) and subclinical (an avoidance that causes only minor inconveniences), is not uncommon, particularly in modern culture where horses are so much more removed than they were from the average life just a generation or two ago. In this article, I’m thrilled to fall back on my Master’s degree in psychology and training as a mental health therapist to discuss the topic of overcoming a fear of horses.
Many people are afraid of horses. For some people this fear may be intense: discomfort even thinking about being around a horse or anxiety symptoms when encountering an image of a horse on television or in movies, but a more moderate fear is far more common. Many individuals struggle with anxiety over horses’ large size and unpredictability. Some individuals are scared of being near horses, while other individuals are only afraid of getting in the saddle and riding horses. Some people may be afraid of horses themselves, while others’ fear centers on falling of a horse while riding.
No matter where you are in your struggle to overcome a fear of horses, in this article you’ll find practical steps you can take to safely encounter horses and how to locate settings that build on one another to help you become increasingly comfortable with horses.
1. Read about Horse Behavior
Before you even start trying to overcome your fear of horses through direct encounters with horses, spend some time learning about horses. Often, we fear what we don’t understand, and reading books about equine behavior or herd dynamics can actually be really empowering to people who struggle with a fear of horses. Once you begin to gain an understanding of how horses communicate with each other and with humans, and the way in which they build social and emotional bonds, you may feel more prepared to interpret a horse’s body language and facial expressions.
Being able to predict a horse’s behavior by anticipating these things can help reduce anxiety about being around horses. If directly reading about horse behavior feels a little overwhelming, start with fiction. Reading about positive portrayals of horses and horse-human relationships can be a way to dip your toe in the water. For a collection of books about horses, check out my recommended reading.
2. Watch horses Interact with each other in a Field
For many people working to overcome a fear of horses, the next step is watching horses- from a distance- interact with each other in a field. Once you know a little bit about how to understand horse body language (for example, a swishing tail or ears laid back flat against their neck) you’ll have some textbook-awareness of what might come next.
Watching horses in a field can help you grow more confident in your ability to anticipate a horse’s behavior and to understand, just a little bit, what they might be thinking. Watching horses at play or at rest and wondering what they’re thinking or experiencing can help us encounter horses in a more interactive way- a way that feels far less scary.
3. Resolve Past Trauma Through Therapy
If the reason that you are struggling to overcome a fear of horses is rooted in a traumatic or painful story involving a horse in your past, get proactive about dealing with that story.
Oftentimes people think an obscure phobia I like being afraid of horses won’t impact their life, but the truth is that when we accommodate our fears, those fears tend to get bigger and spill into other areas of our life. Over time, these anxieties take up more and more space in our brain, leaving us less and less space to freely encounter the world. Even if you don’t feel like overcoming your fear of horses specifically warrants going to therapy, you may find that therapy for a fear of horses could result in psychological and emotional gains in other areas of your life.
Create a Positive new Experience with Horses through Exposure
If learning about horse behavior, observing horses, and working with your past horse-related trauma has you ready to take the next steps in overcoming your fear of horses, connect with a kind and safe horseback rider or equestrian in your life. Seek out safe opportunities to have low-key engagement with horses.
Some good environments to get hands-on experience overcoming your fear of horses are:
4. Equine Therapy
You may be surprised to learn that equine therapists rarely treat equine phobia. Instead, equine therapy generally focuses on anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mainstream diagnoses. However, fully licensed equine therapists have gone through all the training to be mental health counselors and have chosen to get additional training to qualify them as equine therapists. Starting therapy with an equine therapist can be an outstanding way to get hands-on experience with horses in a context that ensures the horses are specially trained to be extra safe with highly anxious people and that the person facilitating your hands-on horse experience is empathic, helpful, and kind.
5. Learning to Groom a Horse
One of the most therapeutic activities that anyone can do with a horse is grooming. Brushing a horse’s neck and back over and over can be soothing to both horse and human. If you are ready to have a hands-on experience that helps facilitate overcoming your fear of horses, ask about grooming a horse.
Have the horse tied in a safe place and grab a body brush. For your first experience grooming horses, it’s okay to just repeatedly brush the horse’s neck and body (brushing legs, rump, and face may cause horses to move or shift their weight, which can startle a highly anxious person). Find a rhythm in the brushing, and repeat brushing the same area until you feel yourself calming down a bit. When you feel your anxiety begin to retreat, give yourself permission to be done for that day- confident that you have taken a big step towards overcoming the fear of horses.
6. Volunteering at a Riding Center for Disabled Persons.
Finally, once you’ve overcome the most intense symptoms of your fear of horses, consider volunteering at a therapeutic riding center. These barns, which only include the calmest and safest horses, are almost always looking for administrative, stable-keeping, and hands-on support volunteers.
Continuing to regularly expose yourself to horses, as you can through weekly volunteer sessions at a therapeutic riding center, can help ensure that the fear of horses that you are overcoming doesn’t return. With more positive experiences around horses, you may find less and less discomfort in the presence of horses as you get more accustomed to horses and the positive therapeutic value they can bring.
Fear of horses is not uncommon, and through learning about horses, observing horses, working through any past horse-related trauma, and seeking out opportunities to have safe hands-on experience with horses, you can overcome your fear of horses so that you are free to go on horseback riding vacations, support a horseback rider in your family, or simply stop avoiding horse-related experiences.
With a Masters Degree in Psychology and two decades of experience as a horseback rider, breeder, and tack store owner, Tatum has developed a unique approach to coaching adult riders that integrates the physical and emotional aspects of developing as a confident rider.