Breaking Down Barriers
Confessions of a Timid Rider

Breaking Down Equestrian Barriers: Learning From Other Disciplines

Why do I hold myself back?

That is the question isn’t it? Why do I put up walls. I need to focus on breaking down the equestrian barriers and learn to relax, let go, and step outside of my comfort zone. My friends meeting at the Tom Quilty endurance race in Australia asked the question, “Why doesn’t Heather ride like she dances?”

Growing up I was passionate about two things, dancing and horses. The former discipline I am confident, unapologetic, and free. I’ve performed in front of crowds and danced multiple disciplines. The latter? Often the opposite.

When they asked this question, I really thought about it because they are correct. While opportunities for dancing now are fewer and farther between, these are my friends who I traveled with to Mongolia. There was a lot of dancing in the desert and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I felt open and free and the dancing was a celebration.

Riding a horse is a form of dancing, a partnership that works best when you are in sync and moving to a tempo in harmony. Yet, I have a mental block when it comes to letting loose on horseback. It is no surprise to me that I like to lead in dance, something which I actively try to suppress. Is it a control thing? Absolutely. By why the distrust? What am I really afraid of?

My whole life I’ve been a Type-A personality. My family dynamic is such that I was a very mature and responsible child, often in charge of my younger sister. I’m organized, a planner, and the idea of spontaneity was anathema to me. Of course, I’ve been working on that, joining The Gobi Desert Cup and motherhood has certainly kept me on my toes.

Dancing has a set of rules, beats, moves, tempo…however there is a lot of room to play and “freestyle”. Growing up in a barn and feeling the pressure from my family and trainers to show because “that’s what you do”, left me feeling stifled and anxious. Returning as an adult left me some freedom but the equestrian world loves its rules and while I do not need to adhere to them necessarily, I do feel the pressure to conform to certain standards. Most of the pressure is my own internal voice, of course rather than reality.

So when my friends question why I don’t ride like I dance, I know exactly what they mean. Why do I care so much and put up that barrier that prevents me letting go and feeling free on horseback? I love and trust my horse, but I don’t trust myself. Not like I do when dancing to the music.

Because I refuse to sit and wallow in ineffectiveness, I’m going to come up with a plan and some goals that I think may help me.

  • Listen to music while riding.
The Timid Rider
© Jamie Baldanza

Music helps me to relax and unwind. It allows me to feel, giving my brain a much-needed break. My barn’s indoor has a stereo system and speakers, giving me an opportunity to listen to music while riding Ferrous. Perhaps combining two of my favorite things will give me a jumpstart! Also, singing along will keep me in the present moment and take my focus off my imagined mistakes. More, it creates relaxation.

  • Consider dressage lessons.

I’ve always thought a knowledge of dressage would be essential for all riders. The technical aspects make me nervous as I fear that it would feed my overthinking and overanalyzing behavior. More, I tense when being watched. Yet, if I can get over myself just a little bit, I feel I could perhaps begin to marry my love of dance and riding together.

Breaking Down Equestrian Barriers

I recently had the opportunity to visit Patewood Farm, owned and operated by Suzanne Marshall, a renowned Dressage trainer and Clinician where I met her gorgeous Lusitanos. While I didn’t have a lesson, I loved Suzanne’s positive, calm demeanor and helpful suggestions on my form while mounted on her Que di Mas. I think dressage more than any other discipline really thrives on the connection of horse and rider and encourages subtlety in the aids, which is a long-standing goal of mine.

  • Remove limitations.

This is perhaps my hardest hurdle to overcome. There is something in my brain that tells me, “I have to ride like this” or “look like that [person]”. When in reality, I have no desire to be like anyone else. When I dance I celebrate my individuality. It is the little imperfections or flair that make me unique and I don’t care how I look. What matters is how my horse moves correctly and how we move together. If I can remove this inner voice telling me to put my hip there, or my hands there, then perhaps I can find what works best for us.

  • Meditate.

I really need to do this before a ride and perhaps even during my riding to help me to relax, visualize the positive, and breathe. Find my Zen in the saddle. I’ve been riding horses half my life and yet I consistently second guess myself. Yes, when I relax and just feel my horse I am happiest. I need to stop getting in my own way. Meditation will hopefully help me to be more mindful and present in the moment, not second guessing myself.

  • Dance more.

Dancing helps me to relax and break down my barriers unlike anything else in my life. I need to take more opportunities to join dance classes, go to dance venues, or simply dance in the comfort of my own home. I need to spend more time letting go and less in my head.

If these don’t work, there is always hynopsis! I know that I have work to do to get out of my own way. The good news is I am trying and I’m not afraid to work hard.

Is there anything you can think of that would help me relax in the saddle and stop overthinking?


  • Liz Goldsmith

    Go foxhunting. Seriously. You can ride in a slower field, you don’t have to gallop and jump, but the environment is geared toward fun and you are always focused on moving forward, watching the hounds, and enjoying the scenery. Foxhunting is exhilarating and freeing. Not a lot of time to ruminate :).

    • Heather Wallace

      I’ve always wanted to try! There is a local hunt club that I’ve been meaning to observe. I know several members and there are rumors that it is full throttle and a bit manic so they’ve been warning me away. That being said, maybe a local hunter pace would be a good start?

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