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Who’s Spooking Who? An Interview with Alicia Dickinson

Updated: May 3

Dressage rider and trainer, Alicia Dickinson and her horse

Photo courtesy of Danielle Culik, Dressage Institute

We’ve all been there – a horse sees something invisible to the human eye and goes into turbo flight response or warp speed canter pirouette and you’re out of the side door, back door or, God forbid, the front door.

Little wonder then that horse riding is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous sports you can do. And yet we do it, or at least we try to do it until there comes a point when we simply grow too frightened to do it, which brings all manner of other hang ups bubbling to the surface.

For today’s riders, fear is often a two-pronged attack; there’s the fear of physical injury and a more emotional fear – a fear of failure, humiliation, and disappointment.

In other words, if our horses aren’t beating us up, we’re doing the job for them. But according to Alicia Dickinson, a diminutive powerhouse of positivity who fronts the incredibly successful online academy, Your Riding Success, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can unknot that stomach and free yourself from the cold grip of fear that has felled many a good rider.

“Let’s look at spooking,” says Alicia. “Spooking is something that’s very difficult for lots of people and it really gets in the way of their riding, it might even stop them from riding, which can create a negative relationship with their horse and, sometimes, even their coach.”

For Alicia, the first step in overcoming a fear of spooking is to understand why horses spook.

“Horses are pack animals that are led by a leader,” she says. “You can never get rid of a simple jump, but you can get rid of the ‘I will not walk past this ever’ level of spooking in which the horse has seen something that has made them scared and now that fear has turned into long-term anxiety that can ruin the whole ride. But we can change this.

“From a horse psychology perspective, if your horse spooks, you have to be your horse’s leader; you have to show them that you’re brave, that you’re in charge, that you know exactly what’s going on and, actually, there’s nothing to worry about.”

To illustrate her point, Alicia draws on the example of a mother taking her young child to the dentist for the first time. While the mum may know that dental visits can be a pretty unpleasant experience, and she might even harbour a fear of the dentist herself, she doesn’t transfer that knowledge to her child.

“You don’t say, ‘Yes little Bobby, you’re right, this is terrifying so let me walk you into the room and hold your hand and show you this and show you that.’ No, you tell little Bobby, ‘Hey, you are going to be fine and this is the reason why,’ and this is a little like how you have to treat horses that spook.

“If the horse looks at something that’s scary, even if it is scary, you have to say, ‘Come on, mate, no it’s not, it’s fine, let’s go.’ If your horse spooks, don’t show it to them, don’t tell them that there’s anything wrong, don’t reaffirm that. Understand that horses spook for a million different reasons, and if the leader of the pack says to the horse 'everything is OK,' the horse will say it’s OK too. A horse will walk over fire with the right leader.”

While spooks can be frustrating as well as frightening, especially in a school environment, Alicia says there’s no sense in blaming the horse for a natural reaction and, in some cases, the focus needs to turn on the rider.

“I don’t think horses are malicious and say to themselves, “I am being naughty now.” They don’t have the brain capacity for that, they’re just running off the emotion they have at the moment. Ultimately, if your horse is continually spooking, it should tell you that he is not going to you for safety. You are not his leader.

“When it comes to behavioural issues there are usually genuine reasons. I had a horse, many years ago, with a brain tumour. I had another that ended up with significant kissing spine.”

Dressage rider and trainer Alicia Dickinson enjoying time with her horse and dog

It’s OK to Say ‘It’s Not Working’

Riders who struggle to cope with their fear, either physical or psychological, are often told that they are ‘over-horsed,’ which can imply, rightly or wrongly, that they are not good enough for that horse. However, in many cases it’s not about being good enough, but rather being a good match.

“Sometimes, the horse and rider are not the right combination,” says Alicia. “People really underestimate that, and they need to take a chill pill. Remember, you are the only part of this equation that is evolved and intelligent and equipped to do something. Horses are led by you so have confidence, and if the horse’s energy levels and sharpness levels are higher than yours, that’s when you have to ask whether it’s the right combination for you. That’s a conversation we don’t have enough of in sport.

“If your horse spooks and it scares you, you need to look at doing some sport psychology and take positive action. However, if in two or three months you are still in the same place it could mean that your horse might just be sharper and more responsive than your natural state, and potentially it’s not the right horse for you.

“If I had been given that advice earlier in my career, to get out quicker or change quicker, I would have got a lot further a lot quicker and a lot happier. Now, if I’m scared, I get off the horse. It’s as simple as that.

“People seem to think that there’s some kind of rite of passage in which you have to ride dangerous horses to be good at riding, and if one person thinks a buck across the arena is funny, so should you, and if you don’t, you’re less of a rider. Well, that’s not the case at all. That’s unintelligent thinking.

“We should be protecting ourselves and you should do only what’s in your safety zone. Even I have a line where something can be too much. Just because you’re a good rider, it doesn’t mean that every horse is the right horse for you.”

Even though Your Riding Success is an online academy, Alicia takes a very hands-on approach in the mentoring of students, it’s not simply a pay-your-money and watch videos type of enterprise.

One of the ways that Alicia does this is by sponsoring certain students.

Recently, Alicia took one of her sponsors to the international horse show in Aachen to find a dream horse after years of fighting her fears with horses that simply didn’t suit her.

Armed with a wish list of desirable traits, Alicia found the perfect horse, but her student was lukewarm about the mare, describing her as “boring.” Alicia convinced her to give the horse a trial.

“When she got home, she texted me to say that she had just ridden the horse. This is what she wrote, ‘she looked after me so well. She just gets on with the job, and it was so nice not to feel for once in my life that I was going to die any second. I had this weird notion that I had to ride the types of horses that I used to and if I didn’t, I’d be a lesser rider and perceived as a lesser rider if I didn’t’,” Alicia pauses to shake her head. “Honestly, this industry makes you insecure. It makes you feel like you have to ride these crazy horses otherwise you’re not a good rider, and that is simply not true.”

Dressage rider Alicia Dickinson fastens her riding hat ready for another training session

So, what to do?

“If your horse is spooking, one of the worst things you can do is change your path,” warns Alicia. “When a spook comes on, some people stop and show the horse the thing they are afraid of, other people kick them, others grumble at them, and some may get a friend to follow them with a stick. I say, keep things simple; just continue on your line.

“If you get stuck, you need to start the momentum of movement, something I teach using my Training Scale Motion and Gravity (TSMG) method. You must keep the horse moving by moving their shoulders, not by kicking them. You are trying to give them the confidence that you know where you’re going, and the confidence that everything will be OK.

“Whatever you do, don’t avoid the spooks. The key to dealing with them is not to get angry, not to get upset, but to keep moving forward, and if you’re lucky enough to be a dressage rider, you’ve got the TSMG skills to do that and the connection to keep the horse together in a positive way.”

Alicia Dickinson is a Grand Prix dressage rider

Of course, keeping your horse moving in a quiet, positive way to instil confidence sounds easy enough … on paper. But when you see the scythe of Death waiting for you at the upended chair in the corner of the arena, or a paper bag caught on the fence that you need to leg yield towards or the white rock innocuously glinting in the sun, then rationale often goes bolting out of the stable door.

“That's when you need to stop spending money on horse riding lessons and spend money on sports psychology instead,” says Alicia, who is herself a trained sports psychologist. “I run a very successful fear course at Your Riding Success, which is an entire six-month course based solely around fear. It’s that big a deal for riders, so you are not alone. The course is also exquisitely successful because people need that help.

“If you’re afraid, it spirals. The actions you take because of your fear will be different from the way you normally act with your horse so the horse then reacts differently, which is how it can spiral out of control very quickly.

“However, by getting your mindset right and by being aware of the emotions that might surface, it allows you to find ways to resolve these feelings and, all of a sudden, all those issues can disappear and you’re back riding again.

“In this sport, we have a very unintellectual way of dealing with things; I’ve got a problem so I’m going to go to a horse person who is better than me, and that’s basically our only go-to. But how does that help you? The other person obviously has a higher fear level, a safer seat, or an ability to either consciously or subconsciously control their brain to do the right thing at the right time under pressure. Great! But is that something that they can teach you?”

“In other sports, say motorbike racing, should the athlete have an accident and they get fearful, they have to overcome that fear in order to continue racing, so they will employ a sports psychologist or a psychotherapist to sort out the issues they are now facing. Yet when it happens to us, as horse riders, what do we do? We go to another race car driver that isn’t afraid and say, ‘Please help me’. But does it?

“Spooky horses can be a psychological nightmare for a rider, and though skills like TSMG and understanding connection, which you can learn at Your Riding Success, are all well and good, if you don’t have the clarity to apply them in the moment, then they’re next to useless.

“So, fear courses save riders because it’s your mental capacity to take on what’s happening and to be able to create ways to react consciously versus subconsciously to what’s happening which gets you out of these issues.

“It’s not a moment in time, it’s not a fix it right now; if you’re afraid we need to solve that behind closed doors and then get you back on the horse.”

"At Your Riding Success we focus on providing competency based education to empower riders to reach their goals and take charge of their own education by providing courses that target both physical and mental skills. Riders can learn how to conquer their fears and take control of their subconscious thoughts through FearLESS Mastery and Mental Clarity programmes and also how to improve their position and dressage skills at our Position Institute and Dressage Institute."

If you need help with your confidence or simply want to achieve your dressage goals, click the links below to find out why Alicia is the real deal when it comes to taking you and your riding to the next level. MumsHaynet has secured some fantastic and exclusive discounts for our subscribers, so do check them out. Click on the links below to find out more.

Alicia Dickinson founded the Dressage Institute to help other riders struggling with movements or access to top-level training


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