When I present at horse expos, the topic of confidence comes up a lot. People will ask me how they can deal with their fear and anxiety, and they’ll ask for help with training their horses. But the reality is that we don’t train horses when we’re trying to make confident riders. We train people to become more confident riders.
Building confidence is a matter of training yourself to feel more confident. Like with any other kind of training, being confident is about practicing your confidence. We can practice confidence in the way we breathe, the way we handle negative emotions and negative thoughts, the way we manifest our confidence, and of course, the way we ride.
Establish Your Rhythm
When I’m working with an anxious rider, the first thing I do is ask the horse and rider to start walking. Then I start talking or singing to them, because I want them to get into a rhythm. Why is rhythm so important? Think about it. The world exists in rhythms. Everything we do happens in a rhythm or in a routine. Rhythms and routines create predictability. Predictability gives confidence to people and horses.
You don’t get into rhythm with your horse. You establish the rhythm and hold your horse accountable to your rhythm. That’s because you’re the leader. Horses need confident leaders so that they too can feel confident. If you can confidently ask your horse to walk forward into a four-beat walk rhythm, then you’re already well on your way to becoming a confident leader in the saddle.
The easy thing about experiencing rhythms on horseback is that your horse moves in rhythms, so it’s easy to establish a starting rhythm in the saddle. Ask your horse to walk and feel that easy four-beat rhythm. Start swaying to that rhythm and thinking about it as you ride. It’s easier to relax, isn’t it? You’re no longer thinking about what might happen or whether your horse might spook. You’re in rhythm together and you’re in the moment together. You’re training your brain to be present and to operate within a rhythm, and now you can predict what’s going to happen next. And when things are predictable, your confidence increases.
Focus on finding and riding the rhythms at every gait. Purposefully set each rhythm and focus on it. As you become more confident at each gait, you’ll start to recognize when the rhythm falters or changes unexpectedly, and that change can become an early warning sign that your horse is about to spook or perform a behavior you didn’t ask for. You’ll find yourself becoming more proactive, rather than reactive, to your horse’s movements. That’s the mark of a confident rider.
Keep It Simple—And Breathe!
Gaining confidence is not a linear process. In the process of gaining and practicing your confidence, there will be moments where you falter and need to slow things back down. That’s okay. We all have to do that. When you find yourself in those valleys, here are two things to remember.
First, keep it simple. Riders who struggle with their confidence need to keep it simple. Keep anything that you’re doing so simple that you’ve got all the confidence in the world that you can do it. Once you’re doing a simple exercise in a good rhythm, and you’re doing it well and confidently, then you can push the envelope. Advance from the walk to the trot, or from the trot to the lope. But don’t expect that anything you’re struggling with at a slower gait is magically going to be easier at a faster gait. I was doing a clinic once with Bob Avila, and he said, “Every time we gain speed, we lose about 35% of the control that we thought we had.” Why would you keep going faster if you don’t feel in control? If you don’t feel in control, you aren’t going to feel confident. Slow it down. Go back and regain your confidence. And once your confidence is back, don’t just sit there. Push the envelope again. And before you know it, you’re changing the rhythm again. And this time, you might be ready.
Second, breathe. When you get nervous, you start taking shallow, nervous breaths. Then you tense up—and if you’re horseback, your horse feels that. You develop tunnel vision, and you lose track of what’s around you. Suddenly, there’s no rhythm anymore. If that happens and you’re having trouble, stop your horse and focus on your breathing. I like to ask nervous riders to pick their favorite song and start singing. I’ll usually start them off with the one about how my bologna has a first name. I do that one for a reason. It makes everybody laugh, and it’s hard to be scared and anxious when you’re laughing. Laughing and singing make you breathe. When you breathe, you’re back in rhythm. Your body relaxes. Your vision returns. Your horse can feel all of that. And then you can start establishing control again.
Manifest the Confidence You Want to Feel
I think it’s important to think about positive things. Just like feeling confident, this requires practice. Whatever you focus on the most in life is what you tend to get—so if you focus on what you don’t want, guess what you’re going to get. That’s the hardest part about being an adult rider who lacks confidence, because we tend to think a lot about what we don’t want to happen, and those are usually negative things.
Think about this. If you’re on horseback and you’re scared, you’re probably scared because you think your horse is going to run away with you. If you keep focusing on that, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to stop breathing, tense up, and get scared, and your horse is going to feel that, tense up, and get scared, too. What do horses do when they feel scared? They run away.
Instead, if you’re on horseback and you’re scared, decide on a simple course of action. Ask your horse to walk. Walk where? Left. You’ve established the rhythm and the direction. Now, keep going. Give your horse and yourself more and more positive things to think about by practicing the things you both already know how to do. And now, you’re not scared anymore. You’re calling the shots. You’re being proactive. You’re confident.