When Should You Lean Into Your Fear?

The wind is blowing in unpredictable gusts. A car might drive up at any moment. Your heart feels skittish in your chest as you lead your horse up to the mounting block.

The ring steward hollers your number across the crowded warm up ring. You’re on deck! You feel dizzy with dread and wonder how you are possibly going to get through this ride.

You’re trotting around in the indoor and everything is going beautifully until the other horses start being taken for turnout and your horse loses it. Suddenly you feel like you’re sitting on a keg of dynamite. You feel sheer panic. Later, you feel angry with yourself and demoralized for having gotten off.

Your trainer tells you you’re ready to sign up for the next show. You feel excited and happy but a voice in your head tells you you’re not ready. You might make a fool of yourself. It’s hard to believe that the butterflies and nausea you feel in your stomach don’t mean you should wait until you’re REALLY ready.

You’re on a different horse now, in a different situation. You know you can do this and your trainer is telling you there’s nothing to worry about. But you can’t keep your mind from going over and over the fall you had last year. You feel stuck in a box of fear. You’re exhausted from trying to fight your way out of it.

We are, in essence, tiny, little fight or flight animals sitting on top of 1200 pound fight or flight animals. It doesn’t matter whether you are a life-long rider, a beginner, a pro, an amateur, a competitive rider or a recreational rider. You deal with fear. If you didn’t, there would be something wrong with you.

Fear is GOOD. It’s your body’s natural response to danger. But there are different kinds of fear and, as riders, we have to learn to distinguish between them so we can make smart decisions.

Fear can be an invitation.

In Hebrew, there are two different words used to describe two kinds of fear that we really don’t make a distinction between in our culture.

1. “Pachad” is the fear of something bad happening. It’s the fear of crashing, falling, or being hurt. It’s the fear of the boogie man under the bed. Pachad is like a red light, telling you to WHOA. I call this “red light fear”. Its purpose is to keep you safe from harm.

2. “Yirah” is the fear of getting closer to who you’re meant to be. It’s the fear of inhabiting more space or possessing more power than you’re accustomed to. Its purpose is to keep you from taking risks and keep you safe from change. If you recognize it though, you learn that Yirah is really like a green light. Telling you to GO.

When I initially read about this, I was schooling passage for the first time on my young gelding. During the first few steps, I noticed some fear would come up. My heart would race and there was something in me that wanted to hold back. I wasn’t afraid of him. I didn’t think something bad was going to happen. But there was still a little fear mixed in with the exhilaration of feeling that power and energy I wasn’t used to. This was Yirah. I was experiencing green light fear.

Because we experience red light and green light fear similarly, we tend not to recognize the difference. We put on the brakes in the face of Yirah (green light fear) because we think those butterflies and that nervousness mean “whoa”. Once I identified the feeling I was having in the passage as greenlight fear, I was able to embrace the power and lean into it rather than let my body hold back. It was so fun!

Where red light fear is a warning, green light fear is an invitation. You can think of it as the difference between fear and excitement but it really goes a little deeper than that.

Red light fear serves an important purpose. It keeps you alive. Until, that is, you collect some in your nervous system. Then it starts to keep you from living. When red light fear becomes habitual or it’s based on stories in your mind, rather than actual threats- it can really mess with your mojo.

Green light fear doesn’t usually have to do with taking physical risks but with emotional ones.

Green light fear or Yirah, shows up as butterflies, nervousness, maybe even dread. But it is a calling. There is some risk or challenge in front of you and something great on the other side.

Green light fear might make it seem too risky to sign up for a show, ride with a new clinician, apply for a new job or have a tough conversation. It might give you pause as your heart is racing in the start box or as you’re turning down centerline.

You’ve learned throughout your life to listen to fear, to let it guide you. But if you misinterpret green light fear… if you don’t recognize that it’s actually an invitation forward, you could miss out on some of the juiciest experiences that life has to offer.

Learn to take a breath, smile and GO in the face of green light fear.

Both green light fear and red light fear inspire butterflies, make your hands sweat, make you heart beat faster and cause you to want to turn and run in the other direction. So, how do you tell the difference?

For us, as riders, this is a particular challenge because we are involved in an activity that has inherent risk. We deal with a combination of green light and red light fear every day and sometimes it can feel like a jumbled mess.

Red light fear shows up in the form of “what if” thoughts, post traumatic fear after a bad experience, a feeling of physical vulnerability, anxiety about getting hurt or worry about your horse getting injured. Red light fear can be real. It can be telling you there is honest to goodness danger. Or it can be left over from trauma, from bad experiences or simply from feeling the weight of increased responsibilities.

If you’re grappling with red light fear, identify whether there is anything in your situation that warrants real fear. If there is, shine a light on it. Dig deep and be honest with yourself. If you need to, seek additional resources, sell an inappropriate horse, or address health concerns. Make it a priority to figure out how to do this for yourself with integrity and compassion. Get help if you need it! Fear should only be overcome when it is not warranted.

It’s important that you be able to determine whether your red light fear is real or not. Is it actually warning you of danger or is it kicking in despite the fact that there is not a real threat?

The first thing I would have you do is get down and dirty with the truth.

Is there anything about what you’re doing or about your riding that someone who loves you and is knowledgeable would say is unsafe?

I would encourage you to let go of any old beliefs that may be keeping you boxed in. These might sound like, “I should be able to do this on my own.” or “I have to prove that I can do this.” or “I don’t give up on things.” There’s also “I owe it to my horse.” And “I’m not a quitter.”  Even, “I’m a professional, I shouldn’t have fear.” Quite often, these thoughts can keep you stuck. And keep you from changing your circumstances to get past the fear and stay safe.

When you’re experiencing red light fear, ask yourself questions like, “What are all my options here?” “What decision will protect my confidence and build my horse’s trust?” “In the big picture, what matters most right now?” “What small step can I take that will be safe but still accomplish what I want in this moment?” These questions can help you navigate fear strategically rather than bullying your way through it.

We cannot and should not pretend that there aren’t obvious risks involved in riding. But we can take care of any real dangers and then move through any unreasonable fears that are left over.

So, why do we persist in riding through fear instead of just taking up another sport? Because, as a past Performance Project participant put it, the joy outweighs the fear.

The joy outweighs the fear.

 When “Pachad” shows up, meet it strategically. Decide what to heed and what to overcome. Protect your confidence and build your horse’s trust.

When Yirah shows up, lean into it- leap, jump, passage, gallop- take whatever emotional risks are between you and your dreams.


(Thank you to Cadence Client, Monika Schnacke for this joyful photo!)

Make a sea change in how you navigate all kinds of fear and let me help you take your riding to the next level! Sign up for The Performance Project before midnight on December 31st and use the code TPPGRAD to get the rock bottom price of $179. See you on the inside. XOXO