You're a Timid Rider?

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What if it isn’t a bad thing?

I have a “big picture” thing I want to say and it’s going to take some explaining. Just food for thought, really, but there’s some defining of terms that has to happen first. Just for the purposes of this article, and with full knowledge that making generalizations is always a bad idea. Here goes.

Some riders fall into the category of timid. Or cautious. They may compete or trail ride or whatever, but they are always aware of a certain voice in their heads that’s a bit reluctant, concerned about possible injury, or just not having control. And they ride anyway. My thesaurus adds these synonyms for timid: apprehensive, demure, modest, nervous, browbeaten, yellow, milquetoast, mousy, fainthearted. Is it just me or do the words run to name-calling near the end?

There is a level of fear that runs deeper than timid. It’s a rider who is truly unable to breathe or smile. They are almost pathologically tense and then when something happens, like a horse looking to the side, they react more than respond. They might jerk the reins or grab in some other way. It’s a level of fear that is nearly disabling. The thesaurus seems to respect fear more with these synonyms: angst, despair, dread, horror, panic, terror, abhorrence, phobia.

Then there are riders who demand obedience from their horses; riders who are boss. Domineering riders who appear fearless and strong. They’ll make their horse do anything and many times, crowds cheer them on. Again, interesting words from the thesaurus: arrogant, autocratic, dictatorial, tyrannical, coercive, insolent, iron-handed. (I have to say, seeing that last term made me blink hard; its second meaning, particular to riding, hurts my ears as much as the visual on a horse hurts my eyes.)

So again, these are horrid generalizations and people are individuals. Putting riders into piles is a bad thing and most of us are in the middle of change every day.

In my tiny corner of the horse world, most of the riders I work with would refer to themselves as timid. They apologize for it like it’s a bad thing. They tell me it’s hard to remember to breathe and that they don’t ride like the did when there were younger. They see being timid as a flaw.

I have a confession; I like timid riders.

There’s probably at least one time that every rider has fit into each of these categories. Whatever kind of rider you think you are doesn’t matter anyway. The only thing that matters is what kind of rider your horse thinks you are. They’re truth tellers. A horse will tell you that a domineering rider is afraid or that a fearful rider can get through it. A horse will say, “Enough already!” putting an end to saddle time, or show patience and tolerance to a rider with good intention, or just shut down to a rider’s rude barrage of noise and cues.

True, I’m no fan of domineering riders. I won’t work with them. I consider respect for horses fundamental. Still, these riders do have a certain success because horses will succumb to intimidation. For a while. But their horses rat them out, from their sad eyes and tense poll, all the way to the tip of their clamped tail.

Dang. There I go again, talking about compassion and understanding for horses. It’s the sort of approach that attracts titles like “tree-hugger” and sissy. *Smiles and waves.*

What I love about timid riders is that their willingness to go slow. They’re sensitive and they want to really listen to their horse. Half of the time, I think the anxiety that they feel was a message from their horse in the first place, and they are the kind of partner who will take the blame for a friend. They have the honesty to admit how they feel and it makes their judgment of how their horses feel just a bit more compassionate.

*Disclaimer: now is when I have to say that not everyone who claims to listen to horses actually does. In fact, it’s a pretty rare occurrence when any of us truly put horses first. Once you do that you’re insuring yourself a life of change and learning. You’ll have to give up your ego, but then that never works with horses anyway. Or would it be smarter to give up people? Hard to say.

Finally, the most illusive group of riders… a few who aspire to redefine leadership in a more nuanced way. They’re kind leaders who are irresistible to horses who crave safety over fear. And all horses do. Even sour horses become calm partners. Insecure horses start blowing and never stop, as if they’ve been holding their breath forever. A kind leader doesn’t stand out in a crowd, unless it’s a crowd of horses. I suppose they do something like whisper, but it’s not a joke or a movie title to them.

Maybe the big picture looks like this: There is a long continuum and at one end is violent dominance and the other end is total submission. We all start with horses someplace on this continuum. Some of us started hard-hearted and horses taught us that fighting doesn’t work. Some of us started soft and lost patience and got callus. Some of us look like deer in headlights, confused by the opinions of people clashing with our horses.

And there’s a tiny place on the continuum, a sweep spot, that has balance and respect and safety. If it was easy to find, everyone would be there.

Dear Timid Rider, please don’t apologize for being sensitive. It’s the language of compassion and honesty. It’s an under-rated strength to be proud of. 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro




Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “You're a Timid Rider?”

  1. as a timid rider myself – THANKS!!! I will say that it is at times debilitating and confusing to my horses. There are times that they need a leader and I am quaking in the tack. Its a balance that I work on EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

  2. At last I feel that I’m not alone …..or wrong! I’ve had to leave the place where I was riding an ex-race TB for 4years (who I miss dreadfully EVERY day!) because I was called a coward and constantly being told I wasn’t assertive enough!! The mare I rode was sensitive like me and we made a great team, we liked to take our time to ‘suss out’ scary horse-eating plastic bags in hedges and other ‘monsters’ on our rides out. She never bucked, reared or took off (when we were out together) and funnily enough only got really scared when the other ‘shouty’ lady raised her voice for us to hurry up and was forever bellowing “for gods sake just kick her on!” I will always be a timid rider but I won’t let it put me off riding different horses (I have to because I don’t have my own and many friends are kind enough to offer me rides) now I feel that I can hold my head high and feel proud to be so. Thank you so much Anna I just needed to hear this today!! (Followed by a huge sigh!!) x

  3. No more apologies for being timid, just continue to work on the leadership and maintain kind hands. Also, to continue to give the respect to my partners that I ask for in return… slow and steady.

  4. Thanks for this! I just started riding again after about a 2 year break (all told about 8 years of on and off riding after selling my POA), and I was feeling a little embarrassed for not having the same seat and the same confidence I used to have when I was younger. How silly, I’m literally 2 rides in and fortunate to be riding a horse who is well educated, kind, and responsive. But I’ve always been a timid rider. I’m a timid person. The traumas of childhood can be hard to shake once they seep into all areas of life. But, God help me, I can’t go any longer without horses, so I need to just be comfortable being what and who I am as a rider (and a person) so I can achieve my dreams.

    • Thank you for this great comment. Yes, we have to accept the horse where he is and our own selves right where we are. Then it helps to stay positive. Good for you, Rebecca. Good to have you back in the saddle.

  5. Beautifully written! I’d love to know the secret in replacing the sudden bouts of nervousness that come out of the blue with timidity, with a whole lot more confidence to express my compassion!

  6. Thank you so much. I needed to hear this today. My newest horse has had some back issues so I have really taken it easy with him. I am bit timid and very sensitive to them but it’s a balancing act. This horse in particular needs a stronger leader so after babying him along today and getting his quiet resistance, I got off lunged him a bit more got back on a said OK now lets do this thing. Got a little more assertive and the improvement was drastic. Think I will put a posty note on his saddle….”I Need A Strong Leader”.

  7. I’m not a timid rider, but I’d like to think I’m … careful. I grew up in the “beat ’em with a 2 x 4” era (or region, if there actually is one), and while it repulsed me, there is some truth that a child can learn bad habits through example. I’m not proud of that, but at least I had a gut awareness that something was wrong. It took me well into my thirties before I found my inner voice and started to rebel against a tainted mindset and refused to ride with anyone who behaved in such a manner. The price was high and friendships were lost. But now I try to take the careful path. I try to listen and not demand. I try to keep the conversation flowing and stay open to other possibilities. But I still need teachers like you Anna, to remind me that the only thing that separates me from the rider I was then and the rider I am now, are the choices I make every day. Thanks for that lesson.

      • I think you might have misunderstood. I take the careful path with my horse, NOT the bullies. I try to keep the conversation flowing between horse and rider, try to listen to the horse’s side of the conversation, try to remember there are other ways of doing things with him/her than I was taught. I have zero tolerance for the misuse of power with ANY animal. I make no apologies for that. 🙂

        • I stated my response poorly. I think we agree. Sometimes I see riding groups, who share great comradery with each other, and under the guise of encouraging each other, frequently exhibit bad horsemanship. It’s like the riders support each other in bullying their horses. I think we both share that zero tolerance stand. (Let them be might be too mild!)

  8. That is a fascinating way to investigate this …….the way you have used thesaurus. I wonder if that approach by yourself to this subject is unique ? Regardless, it makes me think a lot.
    Timid…? Yes that would be me…….the result of 76 years on the planet and the memory of some physically painful mistakes from time to time with my horses.
    But I have long thought that fear is a valuable commodity… me and to my horses…….almost essential to our survival. I would understand timid as ‘reasoned fear’. I know it, think I probably like it . Horses at the very least do not seem to mind.

  9. I guess it was just fortunate that I had a great teacher when I started riding. He was of the opinion that it was up to the horse, not the rider, about most of the potential interactions between them. If a horse would not come to you, you didn’t ride. There was no chasing or bribing a horse in his corral. You stood there and the horse made the choice. It didn’t take long to see the sense of that. He would routinely ask people to not come back to his place, especially the ones that would ignore his instructions in the corral. I’ve never had my own horse and haven’t ridden since a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park back in 2001 where they thought I was nuts insisting on being introduced to the horse they had chosen for me, checking the cinch myself (Rudd insisted it was an absolute necessity if someone else saddled up), and speaking quietly to the gelding before climbing aboard. But I’ve never forgotten Rudd’s lessons. There are times you’ve said almost the same things he did so long ago. He aimed for a thoughtful, somewhat confident yet sensitive rider. His horses were nothing special, grade horses mostly, but the were each allowed to choose who they would interact with. It was a good approach. It benefited both horse and rider.

    • Oh, you flatter me. As I was reading along, I hoped I had trained with someone like him. It’s a rare way he taught, in the world of “beasts of burden.” What a wonderful memory. Thanks for sharing it.

      • Rudd was a very interesting person. His father was Norwegian and his mother a Menominee from Northern Wisconsin. He married a woman who was Sioux and they adopted a raft of Native American kids. You just became one of the gang when you were there and it was marvelous. Rudd and Dot were the most loving and accepting people. You would be dropped off at about 8:00 am and by the end of the day you could ride, saddle, bridle and groom a horse – if one of the horses decided they would work with you, if not you sat and watched. I was there every summer for at least ten years. He told me I should get myself a horse, it wasn’t something I was ever able to do for one reason or another. He was a true blessing.

  10. I have tears in my eye reading these responses from people who are being needled, even bullied by others for being respectful of their horse. What a cockeyed world! It takes amazing strength of character to be kind and mild in that rush of force that we sometimes face when we’re in the company of other horse people, although there should be a different term for them. I’m often puzzled as to what a leader looks like to my Peachie-pie, she confuses me with her sense of timing and humor but I have faith that she understands me. And I believe that the way to leadership is to give my up my opinion and replace it with what I believe she is perceiving our communication, without a watch or even a calendar.

    • Joan, I agree. I’m surprised at the number of comments from people bullied for some version of positive training. I shouldn’t be, other trainers let me know that I “coddle” horses. I prefer the opinion of horses. Congrats on being lost in time with your Peachie. Thanks, Joan.

  11. Thank you so much for this post. You are such an inspiration to me. A friend returned Relaxed and Forward to me yesterday, and said she loved it, and we cried over a paragraph about breath that touched her. My greatest challenge in being a timid rider is learning to not grab and grip and get tight when things get a bit scary! And I have one horse who really needs a confident handler when he has panic attacks….. am inching my way there for him and in the meantime, no harm being done, and I’m proud of that at least !

  12. Another wonderful post. I am a proud timid rider now. Would much rather take the time and go slow. And keep breathing. Disappointed in myself if I let that nervousness creep into my head. That’s when I breathe-in for 3 steps, hold for 1 step, and exhale for 3 steps. Great advice from you. Feeling like I can do this-slow and steady will get me to be the rider I envision myself to be. I find that utilizing groundwork sessions is so helping my little paint horse to learn. Keep writing Anna-your posts are great inspiration!

  13. Here in Germany, they refer to the different qualities as “strong” and “weak” riders. And guess whose riding is more acclaimed? I can get quite angry about this because the “strong” rider usually has a tendency to override the horse’s skepticism. And not in a way that gives the horse safety but rather in a “come on, don’t be such a pussy” sort of a way. And the one who takes time, who listens to the horse pretty quickly earns the reputation of being a wimp who fails to assert oneself. Sometimes, it feels as if we’re still living in the middle ages of horse training over here.

    • I’m sad to say it isnt’ much different here. More than once a cowboy, or even another woman dressage trainer has judged me similarly. Us humans just love to dominate. But the truth stands: horses can’t learn when they are afraid. Period. So it ends up that the rider who can dominate their horses fear best wins. It’s bad horsemanship. And some riders get shamed for doing better work….. Thanks, Nadja. Keep working them right. It matters to horses if not people.

  14. Good Morning, Thanks great read.. I am older … did not start sorta riding until I was older. I consider myself very timid, non confrontational, I want a partner.. I want to relax ride…. I so enjoy your articles…..

  15. Great comments here! Especially Aquila’s “let the horse pick the rider” comment, and Rontuaru who finally listened to her gut!

  16. Another timid (respectful?!) horsewoman here.

    Just yesterday afternoon my cowboy farrier (whom I am very fond of) chose to give me a lecture about treats and mouthiness.

    For the record – my horse came to me very orally curious. The former owners warned me, and I have established boundaries re body parts. ;D Val has always taken the bit himself, followed by a rein if I’m not vigilant. It’s a playful, engaging behavior, and other than wear on my reins, I’m not bothered by it. I feel he is expressing eagerness about working together.

    What cowboy farrier forgets, is that through the judicious use of treats, my horse – who five years ago was unable / unwilling to hold his left hind up due to arthritis, now complies without snatching or me even having to hold him during the session. This allows me to get my trimming lesson in and doesn’t try the patience of cowboy farrier.

    But what do I know lol…

  17. I remember seeing a dressage trainer who had to be “in charge” big time. Which worked for her with certain horses – but I also remember a 17 hand young warmblood who said NO! She wasn’t able to force her way with him as she could several others. It was pretty obvious that she had become afraid of him & he knew it! Fortunately for her & the horse – she sold him to someone who did not try to bully him and from what I remember – he was a very nice horse with this new owner!
    I agree, Anna – being large & in charge is not such a good thing – around many animals!

  18. My goal, to listen and respond. My constant struggle, witnessing and reacting. I came to horses late in life and I lack the confidence that experience brings. My horse is willing, intelligent, and an enthusiastic student ( who could ask for more), but he too lacks experience. Are we the blind leading the blind? We have been SLOWLY making progress over our 7 year association and have far to go…. But I see it as a work in progress and enjoy every small challenge we master. My only guilt is that I think a less timid rider could have brought him so much further by now.

    • Or a less timid rider would have fried his brain. If you want more progress, working with a good trainer is a smart choice… or if you are just feeling random guilt, well, the whole reason I write is guilt I feel for learning slowing with my Grandfather Horse. Keep listening… thanks, Laurie.

  19. Love this article. It’s hard to find the right balance, especially as (from the rider’s perspective) you get older and more fearful of getting injured). I always consider riding to be a pact with my horses: I won’t ask them to do anything dangerous and they will take care of me. I try to listen to my horses and understand when they become resistant because of a good reason — they’re tired, they hurt, they are confused. And know when it’s a good time to press them (you WILL get on that trailer!). I hate to see horses learn that they are “in charge” and become dangerous but equally I hate to see horses intimidated into doing something that is painful or dangerous because their rider wants to.

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