Learn to settle your nerves and push yourself outside your riding comfort zone for a memorable ride.

Years ago, I ran a summertime trail riding operation in the mountains of Colorado. The horses and business belonged to a friend of mine, whose main occupation was outfitting in the fall. He owned many gentle horses that were seasoned to the mountains, so it was a natural fit to rent them out during the summer. It was a simple existence, but a beautiful place to work, with Pikes Peak as my backdrop and afternoon thunderstorms to keep the meadows green and the lakes full of deep blue water. I worked with my sister and we took several rides out every day on a few hundred acres that bordered national forest.

I met a lot of characters in the two summers I worked there, from gamblers celebrating a casino win in Cripple Creek to vacationing families who had always dreamed of being photographed, smiling while horseback in the wilderness, for their annual Christmas card.

I learned a lot having that job. I honed my people skills and got a good feel for what length to fit a rider’s stirrups just by eyeballing their legs. But on a deeper note, one thing that really stuck with me was the difference between having nerves and being scared. 

A lot of the riders who went out with us were very inexperienced and a little nervous to climb up in their saddle. Of course, we had good, quiet and seasoned horses, but I always tried to take some extra time for anyone who seemed a little concerned or bothered before the ride. I tried to help them feel empowered on their horse and show them how simple the “buttons” were (stop, go, turn left and turn right, to keep it easy). And as they gained experience and rode with us and their families and friends, most everyone who started out nervous had an absolute blast by the end of the ride. Between the scenery and the experience of having a steady horse take care of them, they were usually grinning ear-to-ear by the end of the hour (although if they took the three hour tour, the smile often morphed into a grimace from being so saddle sore).

people riding horses through the mountains

Now on a rare occasion, someone would show up who was flat-out scared to ride. Often the person didn’t really want to go in the first place, and their group or partner coaxed them into joining. When I had a rider like that, I told them to keep their money and kept them back, while my sister took their group out for a ride instead without them. People with a true phobia were just going to resist the whole ride and never truly enjoy themselves.

If someone who was scared wanted to attempt saddle time, I would offer to take them to ride in the round corral, but usually they were more content afoot. The fear often ran deep and had a bad experience to accompany it. I felt that it was unfair to their group, themselves and the horse, so I often wouldn’t even take them.

I’ve been thinking lately about my own shortcomings as a rider. With the little that I’ve competed, I’ve noticed how my nerves can really get the best of me when I care a lot about the class or competition I am in. Often, it’s just nerves, and if I prepare myself properly and set realistic goals, I usually end up doing better than I expected and almost always have a wonderful time. And sometimes I screw up and have a situation to make better next time.

On the flip side, certain things scare me and I have learned not to do them. If we start a horse that seems to be lacking self-preservation, there’s no way I will climb up on it— nor will my husband, Luke. We will take as much time as we need to in order to prepare that horse to think properly through pressure and be safely ridden. I’ve had horses slip and fall with me on slick ground and crossing pavement and I absolutely will not ride across blacktop to this day. It scares me for a really good reason.

We’ve got to push through the nerves. Make ourselves uncomfortable. Seek out people and experiences that will help us become our best selves as competitors, humans and horsemen and learn from them, however nervous it might make us. But don’t ignore that voice of reason that tells us to stay away from a situation that instills a little panic.

There’s often a reason for those boundaries that we mentally shy from, and pushing through that just to prove a point might cause more harm than good. 

I miss my Colorado view sometimes, and I miss the friendships and cool water that my summers in the mountains brought me. However, I carry those vacationers in my heart daily as I work my horses and ride. Many of them realized a lifetime dream in the hour they spent in the saddle with me, and (although I have to remind myself sometimes) it taught me not to ever take advantage of the opportunities I am presented in my own life. 

And I’d like to think that a few still have the Christmas card with those wonderful smiles that started the ride as nerves.

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