Heidi McLaughlin is conquering fear, one rider at a time.
By Johi Kokjohn-Wagner
“I struggled in fear for eight years,” said Heidi McLaughlin of Fallbrook, California, an author, clinician and former fearful rider. “That made me become such a better teacher. I don’t think you can fully understand fear until you have lived it.”
With a deep-seeded fear since age 8 and an underlying dread surrounding her personal horses for almost a decade, Heidi comprehends fear from its roots. Anxiety limited her progress in riding, yet she persisted. With assistance from a good trainer, her own gritty determination and the love of a black-and-white tobiano, Heidi developed a step-by-step method that helped her conquer her fear. Armed with confidence, hard-earned knowledge and empathy for others—the kind that can only come from sharing a similar personal experience—Heidi has set out to share her fear-abolishing program with riders around the country through her Fearless Rider seminars and books.
“The majority of people out there have fear issues; riding horses is a lot more skill-based than they think. When you are stuck in fear, you are in self-preservation mode,” Heidi explained. “Everything people try to tell you bounces off because you are just trying to survive. People just want to be safe, but there’s no such thing as being safe without the knowledge of how to get there.”
Based on her own journey, Heidi has helped countless others kick their fear of horses and embark on their own journeys to improved, blissful horsemanship. Her book, K.I.C.K. Your Fear of Horses, shares Heidi’s personal story and methods of empowering equestrians with self-assurance while erasing fear, and she’s currently working on a second book, Saddled with Courage. To beat fear, Heidi says, you’ve got to K.I.C.K.: keep at it, invest in the right horse and tack, have courage to gain confidence, and expand your knowledge. That’s her message to fearful riders in her clinics and demonstrations, and she takes them through a personalized, step-by-step program designed to boost horsemanship while breaking through each individual’s fear.
FEAR: Face Everything And Rise
“I came out of the womb crazy about horses,” Heidi joked.
Heidi’s love of horses started at an early age. As a child, she would watch Bonanza and dream of owning a horse like Little Joe’s black-and-white Paint. Her reality of horses on her grandparents’ farm, however, did not match the perfect, cinematic vision in her head. Heidi’s grandmother was terrified of her small herd, all of which were barn sour and spoiled. Unconsciously, Heidi adopted this fearful behavior. It was later solidified by a runaway horse at age 8: one of her grandparents’ horses hightailed it back home and Heidi, lacking the basic knowledge to stopping the runaway, was helpless and out of control. When he finally stopped at the barn, Grandma pulled Heidi off and yelled, “RUN”—a panicked reaction that scared Heidi as much as the galloping horse.
Nevertheless, Heidi couldn’t shake her undeniable passion for horses, though it was undoubtedly constrained by Heidi’s unacknowledged fear. After raising three sons, Heidi turned 39 and finally set out to purchase a horse of her own; she bought and sold seven, searching for a perfect match. Each horse was dismissed for various reasons, which Heidi attributed at the time to the horses’ mishandling by previous owners. When she found the black tobiano Spectacular Cheifton as a yearling, Heidi thought she had solved all her horse woes. Rather than having to undo previously learned bad behaviors, Heidi decided she would train the untarnished horse to become exactly what she desired. Instead, she unearthed a truth.
“A novice rider should never purchase a novice horse,” Heidi said. “I hadn’t realized how well-trained my other horses were until I started riding a baby—that’s a whole different ballgame. He really brought out my fear. I just couldn’t hide it anymore. People were telling me to sell him, but there was just something about that horse where I thought, ‘I’ve got to stick it out.’ ”
By age 2, Chief was already 16-hands tall with a big engine. Heidi knew she needed help with the towering Paint, and after trying several different trainers throughout the next three years, she finally found one who clicked. Carolyn Trammell of Temecula, California, was not only an excellent rider, but also possessed something Heidi’s previous trainers had lacked—she was a great teacher.
“Under her tutelage and for the first time, all of the pieces to the puzzle began to come together for me,” Heidi said. “She made it all finally have meaning.”
For Heidi, Carolyn clarified the “why’s” of horsemanship: Why you want to collect your horse; why you need a good seat; and why hand and body position is important.
“She was a better teacher than my previous trainers, who were great with the horse but couldn’t teach me,” Heidi said. “With horsemanship, so much important training is glossed over or missing with so many people. The only skill I had was kick to go or pull back to stop. When I would express my fear, trainers would back off. Carolyn pushed just enough, but not too much. “
Chief, now 5, entered Carolyn’s program too: the trainer rode Chief three days a week and gave Heidi twice-weekly lessons.
New knowledge gleaned from lessons helped Heidi recognize her issues in the saddle stemmed from her own fear. She set out to conquer her fear one step at a time; instead of trying to fix every problem at once, leaving her feeling overwhelmed and anxious, Heidi instead broke her riding down, correcting one minute detail at a time. What she found was success: concentrating on individual details, like keeping her heels down at the walk and trot, helped shift her thoughts from fear to intentional focus.
“Once I started breaking bad habits and replacing them with proper skills, I started to progress,” she said. “I remember my ‘aha’ moment so vividly. It was the first time I was asked to canter outside the comfort of an arena in a wide-open area with a loose rein. I was uneasy as I asked the horse to canter, and once I did, he took off fast. I stopped him, and Carolyn coached me how to correctly school him so to convey that this behavior was not going to be tolerated. It was hard being assertive with my horse, but when I asked him again for the canter, he loped off slow and kept an even pace. He never tried that again after that day.”
Finally, Heidi found her much craved success in horsemanship.
“Chief helped me find the confidence in life that I never knew I had lost,” Heidi said. “Chief was a nervous horse while I was in fear, but now he is so calm and sweet. I don’t worry about all the small things that used to scare me, like getting kicked, stepped on, bitten or run into. My knowledge has removed all my fears and made my interaction with all horses so enjoyable. There is no more hesitation or wariness with any horse.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2016 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.