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Facing down your fears

As anyone who’s had a bad fall will tell you, the damage is as likely to be mental as it is physical. So how are you to get over the fear that you might fall again? AMANDA MAC looks at a unique program designed specifically for nervous riders.

Admitting your fears, whatever they are, is never easy, and overcoming them is usually even harder. But if it’s true that anxiety is just a state of mind, how do you flip that mental switch and regain your confidence?

If any rider ever had good reason to fear getting on a horse again, Alexandria Cragg, more usually known as Alex, is a perfect example. Half a dozen or so years ago she was riding a mean-spirited horse that bolted and pitched her off his back. Landing with arms outstretched, both wrists were broken in the fall. Alex, who at the time had six Standardbreds in work, suddenly found herself incapacitated. However, it was just before the accident that she’d met her now husband Leigh Cragg, who willingly assisted with the Standardbreds. He also helped Alex overcome her understandable nervousness around horses, using a series of methodical techniques and carefully detailed exercises, firstly while on the ground and then while mounted.

In 2015, Leigh and Alex moved west of the Blue Mountains in Oberon NSW, and together established their dream property, Burilda Park Equine, settling down to a life in which they were able to indulge their mutual passion for breeding and training horses. But in 2019, the unthinkable happened. Out on a ride to celebrate her birthday, Alex was thrown and dragged through the bush in a freak accident, breaking her right arm in five places. It was horrific, Alex recalls, as well as being horribly painful. I was sitting in the bush for about 40 minutes waiting for the SES and ambulance. There were about 20 of us on that ride and I think everyone was traumatised by the accident.

With her arm refusing to heal properly, it took an operation to piece the breaks back together. But unfortunately, damage to Alex’s radial nerve during the surgery left her arm paralysed. My hand, my fingers, my wrist were all paralysed. I couldn’t lift anything and I couldn’t feel my arm at all. I was told that there was a possibility feeling and movement would never come back, but also a possibility that the nerve might regenerate. It really was touch and go.

Alex shares that the months after the operation were very challenging both emotionally and physically. I couldn’t drive and for seven months Leigh had to brush my hair, dress me, and often shower me. I was in constant pain. Then we got married and I couldn’t even hold my own bouquet. I was quite embarrassed by the whole thing, but it was an amazingly bonding experience for us.

After such a terrible ordeal, it’s hardly surprising that Alex’s anxiety around horses was back with a vengeance. I didn’t want to brush them. I didn’t want to lead them. I didn’t want to tie them up. I would feed them but that was it and I certainly didn’t think that I’d ever ride again. But in reality, it wasn’t so much the fear of horses, as the fear of having another accident.

As a way of dealing with the trauma, Alex, an ex-journalist, began writing about her experience on the Burilda Park Equine Facebook page. Typing was slow and one handed, she laughs, but a lot of people, mainly women, felt the same and began to post about similar fears.

If it hadn’t been for the techniques Leigh had used to help her regain her confidence after her first accident, plus the Burilda horses that were part of her daily life, Alex admits that she may well have given up. Added to that, there were numerous people writing to her about their own experiences: I realised I couldn’t let them down and I couldn’t let myself down, so I just kept documenting it all, she says.

Alex was receiving between thirty and fifty messages a day (she still does) and in the process built what she calls her tribe ™, people who are prepared to talk openly and honestly about their anxieties and lack of confidence in the saddle.

Thankfully, over the next 12 months the nerves in Alex’s arm regenerated, and Leigh’s program proved pivotal in getting her not only back on a horse, but doing so with confidence and joy. What Leigh had discovered was a way to make Alex feel secure again. I knew that she needed everything to be broken down to the tiniest of details. Then she felt in control. And when she felt in control, she felt secure and wasn’t scared to try anything. So, I made every step easy to understand and gave her the reason behind it to keep her mind busy, limiting the opportunity for it to run free and catastrophise everything! he explains.

Leigh’s methodical and considered approach had brought Alex’s riding back to life – but if it had worked for her, why not for others? Through their Facebook page the couple had become aware of the very real need to make Leigh’s techniques more widely available. As Alex points out: It’s all very well and good to have a chat to people about their fears, but that doesn’t offer the solution that’s going to get them over the line. So we started to organise everything Leigh had been teaching me the ground leadership and the psychology he uses, basically just teaching me how to be safe into a program we could share with others. We call it Mindful Horsemanship.

The program, which has proved hugely popular, focuses on safety and caters for nervous riders. Alex and Leigh believe that safety essentially comes from a black and white approach. This is what to do, and this is what not to do. Leigh often says that you don’t need to know everything, you just need to know what to do next and that’s what the program teaches, both while you’re on the ground with your horse and in the saddle. The whole program is broken down to such specific elements and exercises that no matter how nervous you are, you ™ll get a lot out of it. It also takes you through all of the stages you need to train your horse to competition level, says Alex.

Driven by their shared belief in the program’s effectiveness, the couple organised a state-wide tour, purchased a gooseneck trailer, loaded up their horses and travelled around New South Wales, delivering their confidence-building holistic approach to horsemanship at booked out clinics. The response was very humbling, says Alex.

During the clinics Leigh also devoted time to problem solving, one of his specialities, including how to deal with horses that are hard to float, or are belligerent or pushy, or those that have become dangerous because they haven’t had the clear and unambiguous guidance from their rider that they needed.

It wasn’t long before the excellence of Leigh and Alex’s program was recognised by mindset coach and counselor Amy Watson. Amy joined them on the tour, expanding the scope of the training by coaching riders in her own sessions during each clinic. But in early 2020, the popular clinics came to a close when Alex fell pregnant (it’s a boy, he’s due in November, and no, his parents won’t divulge his name!).

So, using their Facebook page as a platform the couple took their program online in the form of a six week boot camp. With hundreds of riders from all over Australia and New Zealand joining the program, the Facebook offering has been extended until the end of the year when it will be re-launched from the Burilda Park Equine website. The same methodical breakdown of horsemanship that guided Alex back on the path to confidence will then be available through a monthly subscription.

To accompany the Mindful Horsemanship program, the couple have designed a colour coded lead rope with strategically placed markers to aid with the hand placements required during each of the program’s exercises. These are available for purchase through their website.

And if you’d like to attend a face-to-face clinic, you ™ll be happy to know that Alex and Leigh are hoping to offer them once again in 2021, but this time with the addition of a very small cowboy to the team!

To learn more about the Mindful Horsemanship program, contact Alex and Leigh through their Burilda Park Equine Facebook page, or visit their website at www.burildapark.com.au 

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