Part 1 Ever Heard Of The Amygdala? (No it’s not a Star Wars Character)

Rational vs Irrational Fear

Everyone will experience fear in their lifetime. It is a normal human emotion, programmed into our brains that can protect us and help us sense danger in some situations. It’s so hardwired into us as a survival mechanism that the brain even has a structure devoted to it called the amygdala. When it detects a possible threat, it sounds an alarm to our bodies that is largely beyond our control. A pounding heart, rapid breathing and sweating are all symptoms that our brain is preparing our body to fight or flee.

For some, this response or milder versions, happens only occasionally, while for others it is an everyday occurrence. Some fear is legitimate and rational, like when we are actually facing great bodily harm, but sometimes our fears are irrational. When someone has a fear of public speaking, most recognize this is usually the fear embarrassment, so a strong reaction like a pounding heart and sweating is irrational. A very real reaction, because it is largely out of our control, but irrational because there is no real danger. In contrast, meeting a shark face to face while snorkeling on your Cancun vacation may warrant the pounding heart. Good call amygdala.

illustration of a Shark attacking a swimmer

But hyperventilating when handed the mic at a karaoke bar? Irrational.

Utter panic at the spider in the drain? In Norway, not entirely rational. In Australia, 100% rational.

Fear of lightning during a thunderstorm? If you’re in your house, somewhat irrational. If you’re standing in the middle of a fairway on a golf course in the rain, totally rational.

 illustration of man running away from rain


Fear & Riding

Fear is common when working with a 1000 lb animal that is hardwired for flight, but when is fear rational vs irrational?

Are you scared of a horse bolting? If you are on a fresh horse who has a history of it, it’s totally rational. But on a horse you’ve ridden for years and has never done it, it’s not entirely rational.

As a coach I see a wide range of personality types in my students. On one end are the very nervous, fearful riders who struggle with almost constant fear, on the other end are those who are brave to the point of crazy. And then there are a whole spectrum of riders in between. There can be very rational fears when riding and handling horses, and in some cases they protect us, while others are irrational and do nothing but get in the way of learning.

woman standing with the shadow of a fear monster behind her

I have learned however, that fear is fear. You will never convince a fearful person that there is nothing to be scared of. You can only give them the skills and techniques to cope. I’ve dealt with a lot of riders who experience fear and I’ve always tried to be pro-active in fixing it. I’m always looking for new ways to help riders understand and ultimately conquer or at least lessen their fear, because fear will always keep people from improving. And ultimately, it prevents us from reaching our goals, in riding and in the grander scheme of things beyond horses.

Great Things Never Came From Comfort Zones sign with a desert background

So how do you tell that pesky amygdala to just shut up and calm the eff down?

Stay tuned for Part 2 for some expert advice.



2 thoughts on “Part 1 Ever Heard Of The Amygdala? (No it’s not a Star Wars Character)”

  1. Equestrian Coaches have a problem no other sport coach has – they work with a triangular relationship – the student, the horse and the relationship between student and horse. A beginner is tough on a horse without intending to be. An y mistake even the most advanced rider makes impacts the horse negatively. In defense of the horse it is easy to become VERY critical of your student. Fortunately a lot of horses have the patience to absorb mistakes and not get defensive on their part.

    This aspect was taken into consideration when theoretical coaching evolved and the more advanced theory levels for equestrian coaches are now handled by equestrian experts.

    In addition to knowledge of children and their ability to learn at various age levels an equestrian coach has to be very knowledgeable about horses, their care, health, psyche and training and be able to teach it too. Try and do that in an hour’s lesson once a week ! Eve Mainwaring


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