Help Kids Overcome Fear With Understanding

Leslie Desmond Style
Published in the April 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled
7faec3582cSmall as this pony is, he intimidates children by charging off. Taj gets her confidence up by sending him around on the halter rope, with backup from Will.

Kids and colts naturally explore their worlds with a timid posture and tentative trust. When faced with the unknown, they search curiously, fueled by a little kernel of inborn confidence, but can, if need be, lose that confidence the next instant with a full-on panic. The form it might take may vary with the circumstances and the individual, but alive inside is the most basic instinct that Mother Nature gives us all-the will to live. When we face a threat to life, or sense an unknown danger, it helps us to choose whether to fight or flee. The instinct to survive may ultimately be the perfect function of shyness, but it is a sad irony that timid children suffer socially from an inevitable lack of confidence and the low self-esteem that rides along with it.

Feelings can be so easily hurt when shy children really try. Harsh or misplaced criticism, or failure to praise at the right moment can blow the whole thing. Few instructors are prepared to deal with the feelings of a timid student, quiet often making a bad situation worse.

Parents and instructors who joke and tease in an effort to “loosen the kid up” when they compare the fearful to brave riders, in reality, just thrash the child for trying in the only way they know how. What the timid student brings home from this type of riding lesson has nothing to do with horses, and a lot to do with closing the door on learning-long after the riding ring and its early appeal fades from memory.

Effective, tuned-in teachers customize the lessons of the day to fit the student. They employ the right mix of skill, experience, intuition and probably some plain old luck. It means paying attention to the moment and the moods of each child for the duration of the lesson. It means having eyes in the back of your head. It means learning to trust the inner voice when it warns you that “things are not as they appear,” when it tells you “there are too many in the class,” when it tells you “this child isn’t ready to get on.” That voice is there for a reason. Believe it.

I remind my young students who have timid students of their own, that timid beings are likely to open the doors as wide as they can for new information in the beginning. But, it is impossible for a fearful or shy student to exist in an open and vulnerable state for long if they’d don’t receive direction and support. It’s no different, I remind them, than working with a green horse. I consider a student’s vulnerability as their gift to me. If it isn’t trashed out, it’s the very thing that enables me to teach better.

1eb5787428Directing with her left hand and sending with her right, Sarah, age 9, loads Old Paddy Boy into the two-horse trailer.         
38028a7571Taj practices stepping Cookie over on the halter rope. Angela, age 11, stands by for support.

The Food and Favors Approach Is Out

All too often, timid kids are taught to survive difficult moments on a ration of what I call “food and favors”. These are bribes. Offer enough of them, and that’s all the child comes to expect from a lesson because that is the lesson. Pavlov had a dog that understood it, too. But we aren’t teaching dogs to drool here, we’re trying to teach children how to operate safely and independently with and around horses.

Here are some examples of food and favors teaching:

  • Just one more time around the course, and if you don’t knock a pole down, we’ll quit and order a pizza.
  • If you ride Blaze today, you won’t have to ride him tomorrow.
  • If you tack up Sugar without making a mistake, I’ll pick her feet for you, because I know that’s scary for you.
  • If you stop crying, you can get off.
  • If you get it right this time, we can stop.

Consider the pitiful reward in each of these situations: quitting, getting out of work and eating. When bribes are exchanged for a show of courage or endurance during the lesson, it actually makes the so-called “timid problem” a lot worse. This is just one of many destructive, albeit common, approaches to teaching timid children.

What do you do about a timid student? As little as possible. Accept it. Be creative and patient. As the head coach for many younger coaches, I place the highest emphasis on their patience with new riders. Acceptance of their student’s emotions and abilities, however trying or lacking they might be, is a pre-requisite. They get the best results when they begin working with the horse and their beginning students right where they are in the course of their development. I remind them that’s how I approached them in the beginning.

Redirect Their Attention

Even children as young as four can understand when I explain to them that the dangerous part of being fearful is the “ful” part; when anything is full, there isn’t much room for else! So we chat until I can figure out an angle or the fearful child gives me his or her own prescription for becoming fearless. Here is an example:

An 8-year-old girl arrives in tears for her first one-hour private lesson. Other kids are busy with their horse and barn chores. She’s so choked up that she can’t speak. I ask an older girl to inquire about the problem. The girl was bitten by a dog last week, and she is positive the horse will bite her the first chance it gets. So, her first lesson is out the window before it starts. Finito.

I revise the lesson into a short course in the anatomy of the equine oral cavity. I don’t tell her this, we just keep moving through the trouble. I get help from other kids to see her through it. I assign the title of “supervisor” to the scared girl. This gives her immediate emotional relief and a sense of pride; she’s been asked to do something that she can do without having to confront her fear too closely. She learns at the same time that she doesn’t have to perform or to fail because she either can’t or won’t perform. She and her tremendous anxiety can be at home, and have the space she needs to sort things out. In other words, she wins.

When it’s scary, remember to keep it simple. Her only job that day is to yell for me when the horse bites the kid I’ve asked her to supervise. By doing so, I validate her fear so it becomes her clear choice to abandon it. She and I agree: Yes, it’s not a matter of if, but when the horse will bite the other child. And when he does, let me know. Of course, the understanding we’ve reached without expressing it, is that we’ll just go and straighten that big, awful horse out. In her mind, it will also take care of that darn dog. She’s game.

A more experienced child will then ask the horse to lower his head and tip the bridge of the nose toward her. As the top lip is lifted, those incredible huge yellow teeth with the horrid brown stripes are unveiled, and so begins the counting of the teeth.

With the supervisor busy at a safe distance, the counter suddenly wonders aloud, whether one or more of the horse’s teeth might be missing!! It appears that there is a big space on either side of the jaw where some teeth are missing. By this time, the supervisor has forgotten completely about the dog. She has simply got to know where in the world that poor horse’s teeth went, and is there such a thing as a horse dentist, and can we call him right away? Which leads to a discussion about how they chew their food, how we take the tongue aside and feel back there to see if the molars are sharp. Before you know it she’s got her little face half-poked into that old horse’s mouth counting teeth and being grossed out by all that green half slime-chewed alfalfa, but laughing anyway. From there, it’s easy!