anxiety-ridden student - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 12 Old 01-25-2013, 09:05 AM Thread Starter
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anxiety-ridden student

Hello all,

I teach English and western at a big barn and I have recently inherited an interesting student. She is 17 years old and on medicine for severe anxiety. She rides 3 times a week and has been for almost 3 months now.

I have only taught her once so far and she did well, but I could see the anxiety in her eyes. We only put her on the very "chill" horses and she can walk, trot and go over poles. I don't want to push with cantering yet (I agree with her old trainer on waiting), but is there anything I can do to help her along a little?

She already grooms and tacks as a part of her lesson and I plan on teaching her more detailed parts of this. Any other thoughts would be great! Thanks in advance.

(I tend to get a lot of anxious students because I try to keep the lessons fun and relaxed. This girl just happens to be the most extreme case I have so far.)
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post #2 of 12 Old 01-25-2013, 10:07 AM
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I've spent a lot of time involved in therapeutic riding- I get that's not what you're doing, but with the severe anxiety issues, I think there are some similarities. From those experiences, I've found that riders with severe anxiety do really well by given a lot of choices in their lesson. It may take some getting used to, but if you train yourself to ask this girl if she is ready to do "x" or try "y," you may find that giving her the choice is actually empowering to her and helps her progress faster.

We had a lovely 7 year old at our barn who had a lot of anxiety, which was compounded by falling off her 2nd time trotting. For a year, the instructor asked her every lesson if she wanted to trot. For a year, the student said no. But one day, she finally said yes, and from there, she loved it.

I think the key is to ask questions without having implicit judgement in your tone or the words you choose.

Things like, "would you like to try cantering during our lesson today?" or "what do you think about doing x since y went really well?"

Just avoid things like "don't you think it's time you move on to x" which might make the student feel put down. But you probably know that ;)
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post #3 of 12 Old 01-26-2013, 11:19 AM
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I think you need to find a balance between comfort and pushing her. I can't tell you how many times something bad has happened and I got extremely anxious, only for the instructor to demand that I do it again which turned into something amazing both in terms of what happened and me overcoming my fears.

This sounds blunt, but you can't baby someone when it comes to riding because you're not going to do them any favours in the long run if you only stick them on the calm horses and never push them or open them to new experiences that may or may not be nerve wrecking for her. I'm not saying stick her on a hot Arab but you gotta open a dialogue with her, get a feeling for her riding goals and help her achieve them by pushing her - just not as hard as the next student.
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post #4 of 12 Old 01-26-2013, 11:40 AM
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With some riders horses is something therapeutic and they do not want to be pushed. They want to be on a horse and just experience that phenomenon. This type of rider does things on their own timeline - like the first poster said they will let you know when they are ready. For a person like this if they are pushed too far they may just quit. Because pushing them may just make the activity scary, and the fun therapeutic benefits are gone.

First, I think you need to find out what the riders goals are. Do you just want to just enjoy being on a horse? Or do they want to be the best rider ever? If they want the later I would agree with the last poster. If not I would agree with the first.

Last edited by brittabam; 01-26-2013 at 11:42 AM.
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post #5 of 12 Old 01-26-2013, 11:47 AM
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If she's on medication for anxiety then I would hope that that she's already being treated, or been treated by a therapist. I would ask her, or her parents if appropriate if there are any particular strategies that you should employ in your teaching.

In response to jinxremoving I would say that it sounds to me that this rider is riding for therapy as much as to 'learn to ride' and that in this instance 'babying' her might be exactly what the OP should be doing.

Hopefully with your help she will develop confidence, and techniques to manage her anxiety that she will be able to take into other aspects of life. If she learns to ride well too that would be a secondary benefit.

Get up, get going, seize the day. Enjoy the sunshine, the rain, cloudy days, snowstorms, and thunder. Getting on your horse is always worth the effort.
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post #6 of 12 Old 01-26-2013, 01:40 PM
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I should mention, of course if the rider is riding for "therapy" then by all means don't push her. I suffer from extreme anxiety myself but once you put me on a horse, I am calm as can be, until the crap hits the fan... then I need to be pushed. However, if she's not riding for therapy than the OP still needs to find what her ultimate goal is and go from there.
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post #7 of 12 Old 01-26-2013, 02:49 PM
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Even riders without severe anxiety issues must deal with the fears that arise in connection with horses, because fear around horses is normal: it's your brain trying to protect you.

HOW we deal with the fear is crucial to success: stiff upper lip doesn't work with horses coz they feel your unconfidence/lack of leadership even though you're trying to hide it. What does work is "working with your edges": baby steps, moving that edge out farther, going to the area where fear has arisen yet is tolerable, & staying there a bit. Stephanie Burns wrote a book about it, "Move Closer, Stay Longer", which might help your student.

I think that explaining to the student that ALL brains try & protect their humans, & that ALL must use "MCSL" strategy will make her feel empowered/more "normal" right at the start.
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post #8 of 12 Old 01-26-2013, 03:31 PM
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What tack do you use? How tall is the horse? Is a trail ride with other confident horses & riders an option?

Our 13 hand mustang can be a handful in an arena, but put him on a trail with a couple of other horses, and he'll walk cheerfully. Worst case, his canter and gallop are glass smooth, although his trot can make you pee blood. But rational or not, his short height (he's a vertically challenged horse, not a pony) makes most people feel calm, and his instinct for self-preservation combined with growing up in the desert make him a pretty safe ride. He'd be nervous on his own, but he's very confident if another horse is there.

With a 4'11" rider:

Riders ask "How?" Horsemen ask "Why?"
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post #9 of 12 Old 01-26-2013, 04:04 PM
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I assume these are private lessons?

As a fellow instructor I have to say this is always a challenge. Trust is the most crucial aspect in a instructor/student relationship - especially for nervous beginners.

Originally Posted by jinxremoving View Post
I should mention, of course if the rider is riding for "therapy" then by all means don't push her. I suffer from extreme anxiety myself but once you put me on a horse, I am calm as can be, until the crap hits the fan... then I need to be pushed. However, if she's not riding for therapy than the OP still needs to find what her ultimate goal is and go from there.
While I completely agree with what jinxremoving had to say about pushing the student at the right time, this can be a very delicate situation with students that have this level of anxiety. The last thing you want to do is lose your students trust. I would sit down and have a chat with both the parents and the student to discuss what her goals are for riding - IE: therapeutic only or does she have plans to eventually compete, as well as discuss her comfort zones. Sometimes speaking with the parents before the student is more beneficial because you get the inside scoop on where the child's anxiety issues stem from - that way you aren't going blindly into the discussion with the student.

Keeping the lessons fun and relaxed is key and will definitely help in the long run for her to overcome her anxiety. Encouragement and praise for every accomplishment will also go a very long way (although I'm sure you have that covered ). I commend you for planning to work on tacking, grooming and ground work with her as well, she is probably much more relaxed on the ground and this will hopefully build up a better trust between her and the horse as well.
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post #10 of 12 Old 01-27-2013, 01:19 PM
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It sounds like you are doing a great job. I would think that the more you can teach her about ground work, the better. One of the girls I grew up riding with was very anxious and found that her confidence grew the more she learned about horse behavior and was better able to predict how a horse might respond to various stimuli.

I absolutely disagree with the poster who said that she needs to be "pushed" if she is not riding as therapy and "not pushed" if she is riding as therapy. The student may or may not see riding as therapy, but should be treated the same either way. My very anxious friend was more willing to try new things when they were both presented with a compliment and set up in small steps in a safe manner. For example "Your walking and trotting have been looking really good today. Should we try cantering today? I will put the horse on the lunge line and we will try for 5 strides of canter. If you get nervous at any time, say "Whoa" and I will bring the horse back to a halt." Then follow through with exactly the program you have described and do not push if the student is truly frightened. My friend found initially that she progressed much faster in private lessons at low traffic times of the day at the barn as she was not worried about her progress relative to others'.

Also, for some riders the goal may be to simply enjoy time on a quiet, well trained horse, not process to higher levels of showing or training youngsters/hotter horses. There is no shame in this - there are many quiet, well broke horses out there that would be happy to have a home with a quiet and caring rider.
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