So. My logical next step here is to explain why I consider myself to be so qualified in talking about, deconstructing and helping people to overcome their fears. Well, here goes...
I suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of working in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Weird, right? That I've been writing for about two years now and never though to mention that fact before? Well, honestly, it's because the event may have changed me and informed a lot of my actions since, but I don't want it to define who I am. I don't really want to be known as that rider/blogger who was there on September 11th. I mention it only insofar as it explains why I feel so strongly about this subject.
Anyway, let's not pretend that I was a perfect human being prior to this date, which spontaneously triggered shock, depression and high-level daily anxiety totally from out of the blue. That's silly talk. I was always wound a bit tightly. A bit nervous by nature, but nothing that interfered with normal daily activities. After September 11th though, it was a completely different story. It was as if everything posed an equally lethal threat to me. There was no differentiation between, for example, my worry about tripping on the sidewalk in heels and the potential for being trapped on subway car with a suicide bomber. Both prospects held an absolutely equal amount of terror for me. Every day that I managed to survive seemed like a complete miracle to me.
In the midst of this, I had to essentially re-learn how to do virtually everything. From learning to walk down the street again, to entering public spaces, to listening to loud music. Obviously I 'knew' how to do all of these things. Everyone does, right? But suddenly I had to learn to do them whilst attempting to block out the alarms in my head that screamed: "THIS IS A BAD IDEA! DON'T DO THIS! YOU'RE TOTALLY GOING TO DIE! SHIT, WHAT WAS THAT?!!" And somehow I managed to do this, but even I recognize that I am not the same person I was before that day. I have think about everything just a bit differently; I move just a tad more cautiously...
So, what does this have to do with riding, you ask? Well, good question. My PTSD caused me also to ride differently. I was suddenly anxious and tense on horseback. With a flight response that probably rivaled that of my horse. I felt myself looking at everything suspiciously, considering its ability to scare myself or my horse. My years of riding knowledge were desperately trying to tell me brain how silly I was being, but my body just would not respond.
At first, like any normal, passionate, ambitious equestrian I was devastated. I convinced myself that I was damaged and stupid. I convinced myself that I HAD to give up riding, as what I was doing was dangerous and distracting. I told myself that I would never overcome this overwhelming fear.
Oddly enough, it was then that I re-discovered my strengths through teaching. My experience has given me an empathy for timid, fearful riders that I'm sure that I would have otherwise developed, and these riders flourished under my eye. And honestly, all it comes down to is this basic point -- when fear kicks in, there is no differentiation between small fears and big fears. Essentially this means that you lose all perspective. Most riding instructors don't seem to grasp this simple, but important concept. Once I have been struck by those panic pangs, I can no longer differentiate between what would normally be a generally anxiety about my foot slipping out of the stirrup or a complete terror at having a horse bolt full-speed across the arena. In those moments, the level of danger posed to you is THE SAME.
This is of the ultimate importance for a teacher to understand -- when your student is gripped in the throes of a fear, you could be dealing with someone who may not be completely rational at that moment; they may have lost their perspective. Therefore, you cannot disregard a student's fear. You cannot place a hierarchy on it. There are no small fears. Your job, in this moment, is to validate their fear first and foremost. Unless you can do that, you aren't ever going to fix the problem, simply cover up the outward symptoms.
I say that sometimes you have to stand on the edge of insanity to really understand it. Okay, maybe it doesn't need to go that far, but using that standard, please just call me the fear expert. :) If I can claw my way back from a person who couldn't get out of bed in the morning and face all of the terrors of the day to who I am now, then I believe anyone can. And those are not hollow words.