Any instructor who has taught for a while has dealt with fear in a student. A horse is many times larger than a person and riders ask them to do risky things. And we all know of times the horse has chosen not to obey. Or they choose to do things that are outside a rider’s control.

We expect students to trust us to put them on a horse they can manage and then to trust us to know what they are capable of doing. The progression from lead-line to competitor is one of developing skill sets and knowledge while conditioning muscles and learning to solve problems. Confidence grows as a rider succeeds. Confidence also grows as a rider overcomes difficulties.

Types of Fear

In the  Psychology Today article The (Only) 5 Fears We All Share, by Karl Albrecht Ph. D discusses five categories of fear that are common to all people.  Dr. Albrecht lists these five fears:

  1. extinction
  2. mutilation
  3. Loss of autonomy
  4. Seperation
  5. Ego-death

How Do The 5 Fears Apply to Riding Students?

Before I begin my explanation, I want you to understand that I am not a psychologist and I have no training in mental health care. These are only my thoughts and observations garnered from teaching riding to all level of students over the past fifty years. There is nothing scientific on my part, so please do not consider this post to be anything more than just a conversation between us about fear. It’s meant only to stimulate thought. And by all means, disagree with me.


In it’s most pared down form this would be a fear of being ended or dead.  Without elaborating I suggest that if you suspect your student has this fear, and it’s governing his or her actions during riding, that you not teach them. The student has an issue that should be dealt with professionally outside of lessons before you continue your work.


This is an uncomfortable label, but in a simple form, this is the fear of injury. It’s probably one of the more common forms of fear in riding. Let’s face facts. Falling off a horse is a risk in riding and it can hurt.  Serious injury and even death can occur. Preventing falls or minimizing are some of the reasons we teach basics, don’t rush students, and put beginners on dependable school horses. Left in capable hands most students can progress through the stages of riding without developing an excessive fear of injury. However sometimes you will have a student who has fear from a previous accident with a horse. The progress to control this fear can be a bit slower and has to be handled more carefully.

Until I read Dr. Albrecht’s article I didn’t realize fear of mutilation was related to the fear of spiders or insects. Spiders and flies don’t worry me. They come with the territory in horse barns. One day, a lead-line student, who’d been progressing nicely for her age suddenly started screaming. The pony was walking, the child sat in the center of the saddle, and the handler was attempting to calm her.  When we finally got her quieted, my assistant told me an ordinary fly had landed in the pony’s mane causing the girl’s hysterics.

Loss of autonomy

To me this equates with the fear of loss of control. I remember this fear when as a  child my horse ran away with me. He galloped full speed through a field, tore down the paved road, and just before it reached the end of the road (the road ended at the canal), he turned, lost his footing and fell on me. Afterwards it took time and mental discipline to learn not to fear when I felt a horse get too strong. It was one of the experiences that gave me tools to help students later when I became an instructor.


I equate this to the fear of rejection. Students want to be accepted as part of the team. They want to be received into the barn setting, have barn friends, be one of an instructor’s favored students, have friends cheering on the rail when they are in the show ring. The fear of becoming isolated, or not belonging, or fitting in can spoil a person’s entry into riding.


The fear of failure. This is the student who doesn’t want to go first because they might make a mistake. Usually they don’t try to answer questions because they fear being wrong. They are not assertive in lessons. Or when they speak you can barely hear them across the arena. They won’t bellow out numbers or strides.

I see a combination of the fear of ego-death and of separation in many young people that come for lessons. This is the child that freezes when dad watches them ride. The student wants dad’s approval for a variety of reasons. She might want to prove to him taking lessons is a worthy pursuit.  Or the student may base their approval of themselves on having the approval of their parent. These are the kids whose low self esteem makes them afraid, not so much because of the fear of injury, but because they fear not being enough.

This fear of ego-death and separation combination also creates nerves before a horse show, as well as jealousy, cliques, the feeling that the instructor has favorites.

Students with the fear of separation and the fear of ego-death provide opportunity for instructors to invest in lives in ways that carry beyond just riding a horse. Drawing this student out, getting them to answer during lessons, watching them bond with kids and horses at the barn prove horses are good for kids.

Is All Fear Bad?

We all have fear. It’s built into our instinct for survival. Fear is also the basis for anger. The goal isn’t to eradicate all fear. It’s what we do with fear that matters most.

There’s a lot of fear in the world in general and it touches students during lessons. I encourage you to read Dr. Albrecht’s article. It may help you understand the root of a student’s fear. When we understand the root we can usually provide better help, perhaps even a solution.

I’d love to hear from you on fear. Do you have any examples of fear in students relating to these five categories? Any special tips on how you helped your student? Please share in the comment section. Your example could help another instructor and their student.

Yay! Spring is here! Here’s to giving great lessons.

Barbara Ellin Fox 


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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
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