A confident rider understands his or her horse intimately, right down to knowing what makes that horse tick. When you know what creates emotion in your horse, you can learn what those emotions mean, and more importantly, you can learn how he reacts to a particular emotion and then decide what your response should be.
Here’s a pop quiz. Let’s say you’re riding along the trail on your horse, and a deer startles in the brush ahead of you. What is your horse feeling in that moment, and how is he reacting? Imagine if you could predict how he might respond in that situation, and in that split-second between the startle of the deer and his reaction, your mind, your body, and your cues are already moving one step ahead of him. If you could do that, wouldn’t you feel confident? When you always know what’s about to happen next, and how you’ll respond to it, you can feel self-assured in any situation, whether you’re holding the lead rope or the reins.
Spend Your Time Intentionally
Understanding your horse takes time, and there’s no substitute for that. But just putting in the time is not necessarily enough. People can spend years and years with their horses and never improve their abilities or confidence at all. It’s how we spend that time, rather than how much time we spend, that makes the difference.
Spend time with your horse intentionally. Study your horse and what makes him tick. Then think about how you’d respond to those reactions. I encourage horse owners to lean on the paddock fence in the evenings and watch their horses at rest and at play. You can tell a lot about how a horse thinks and how he might react in a situation by watching how he reacts to stimuli in his environment.
Immerse Yourself in Your Horse
I ride an imaginary horse any time that I’m traveling. If I’m in the car, or on a plane, I spend a great deal of time riding an imaginary horse through various scenarios. When I do that, I’m preparing myself mentally for the next time I’m in the saddle and that scenario occurs. That kind of mental preparation—and immersing your brain in “horse”—is key to building confidence.
Here’s an example. You’re driving down the road in heavy traffic. Five cars ahead of you, brake lights flash red. What do you do? You take your foot off the gas and move it to the brake. Do you think about it first? Absolutely not. That’s a conditioned response. You saw a brake light and you knew if you didn’t slow down, you’d be in a wreck. If you had to think about that, it’d be too late. That’s how we should ride. We need to train our minds and our muscles. We need to study riding so much that when the deer spooks, we don’t even think about it. We’ve practiced our reaction to the point that we respond instinctively however our horse needs us to respond. And that builds confidence, because we know what we’re going to do even when the unexpected occurs.
An important thing to remember about this type of mental training is that you should always practice with a successful outcome in mind. Do not practice anything with a failure outcome. Ride through the scenario in your brain and visualize a successful outcome. When you practice success, you can experience success.
Develop Your Signature Drill
I encourage everyone to have a signature drill that they perform during every ride. This drill should be one that works for you and your horse, and that fits your discipline. When you’re at home in a controlled environment, practice that signature drill often. That way, when you get out into the world and your horse starts to come apart, you can use that drill to bring you both back onto familiar ground and remind him that you’re the leader.
My signature drill is a simple exercise of moving my horse’s feet in small, 6-to-8-foot circles and figure-eights. Nervous horses need to move their feet. My intention is to move those feet, and while I’m doing that, I want to soften my horse’s mouth and set his head. And here’s why: If you want to get inside your horse’s head, you have to soften his body. To soften his body, you have to soften his mental capacity. It all connects. Move the feet to soften the body to soften the brain. So when I’m asking that horse to move in circles, I’m reminding him to come off the bit; to stand up straight; to soften his nose; and to flex in his poll. And when I start asking those questions over and over, at first, my horse may ignore me. But as soon as he begins to respond, I start releasing the pressure. I start changing directions. I do that over and over until he’s answering, “Yes,” every single time I touch the reins or give a leg cue. And if your horse is giving you that “yes” every time you ask him a question, you can have confidence that you’re back in control.
Stay Confident and Stay in Control
There are two more things that I think are critically important for the confident rider. The first is that you should always act with supreme confidence around your horse. I have zero tolerance for arrogance, but your confidence communicates your leadership to your horse. When your horse feels led, he feels safe.
The other thing you need to do is to control your emotions. There’s no room for emotions in the horse industry. We’re all human, and it’s normal to acknowledge that we have emotions that will inevitably come up. But it’s our job as leaders to learn how to avoid letting those emotions take the driver’s seat and lead us to do something that will have a negative impact. The more we learn to be comfortable, confident leaders for our horses, the more they learn to react confidently themselves. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that the attitude with which you perform your signature drill matters even more than the signature drill itself. Your horse does not understand the difference between your frustration and your aggression. To him, when you give up your emotional control and exude frustration or aggression, you’re a meat eater, and he is meat. So while you are performing your signature drill, control your emotions. Know what you’re going to do and do it. And that’s how you can ride your horse with confidence, no matter what.