Your horse wants to look to you as his leader. But when your own confidence wavers, it can cause him to feel uneasy, too. This rattles your nerves even more, creating a vicious circle. Horses are incredibly intuitive, and they feed off our energy, for good or bad. They also don’t want to follow a leader they think is unsure, anxious, or scared.
The solution? I tell my students to fake it ’til you make it, something I learned from a Zig Ziglar book years ago. In other words, actively control your thoughts and behavior in a way that helps you feel more calm and relaxed in the moment, and eventually this more confident state will become your reality.
I’ll give you several strategies for doing this. Try them all, focusing most on the ones that work best for you.
First, breathe. Whenever you’re feeling nervous, breathe deeply, drawing air down into your abdomen and making the exhale a bit longer than the inhale. Nervousness can cause you to hold your breath or breathe shallowly; this intensifies tension—and your horse can sense it. As you focus on your breathing, do a quick mental check to identify and relax any areas of tension in your body. Ahhhh—that’s better!
Simply smile. Anxiety or unease can freeze your face into a mask that perpetuates bad feelings. Break the mask by smiling, which brings momentary relief, enabling you to reprogram your mindset. Science tells us our physiological aspects affect our psychological ones. Yes, we tend to frown when we’re feeling bad, but it’s also true that forcing a smile can help us begin to feel more positive—the physical affects the psychological. So go ahead and grin as you take several deep breaths, and see how it refreshes your attitude toward your horse.
Sing a song. This one’s really fun. If my students can’t come up with a ditty of their own, I loan them mine—“My baloney has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R….” They love it! Try it and you’ll see what I mean. (Your horse may even enjoy it. And you won’t have to worry about your breathing on this one, as there’s no way to hold your breath while you’re singing.)
Call up a memory. Think of whatever makes you feel completely happy and content. If you have children, maybe it’s that last super-duper surprise party, or the A your son brought home on his report card, or that sweet thing your granddaughter whispered in your ear. Then hold the resulting good feelings for a moment, observing how they brighten your mood and calm your nerves.
Control what you can. If an exercise you’re attempting gets you rattled, drop back for a moment to something you and your horse do well. Maybe flex and bend, or ride a perfect circle. Get both of you thinking, “Yes! We can do this!” Then ease back into the more challenging work with a more positive outlook.
Practice these methods whenever your nerve falters, and you’ll develop the habit of confidence over time. Think of everything as a learning experience, and don’t beat yourself up over inevitable bumps in the road. Stay positive!
Van Hargis has trained and competed in events ranging from reining to calf roping. That background plus extensive ranch experience inform the basics-founded horsemanship program he presents at clinics and horse expos and from his home base in Victoria, Texas (vanhargis.com).