Matt Mills’ Key Tips for Confidence

This Confidence Building article is brought to you by SmartPak.

Confidence in the show pen starts before you even load your horse in the trailer to head to the horse show. Confidence comes from preparation, pattern placement, and hours of practice in the saddle. If you don’t put effort into practicing at home, you can’t expect to have the results you want in the show pen. An easy way you can improve your score, is by practicing your pattern elements at home. Not only does this help you better learn what your horse’s strengths and weaknesses are for each maneuver or obstacle, it’ll also help you have a game plan going into the show pen.

Read on to learn some of the pattern-prep drills I do at home to prepare for horse shows so that I’m feeling confident in the saddle when it matters.


Gain confidence in the saddle by practicing elements of your pattern at home.
Confidence in the show pen starts at home. To feel your best when it matters, you need to spend hours in the saddle at home to prepare.
Photo Courtesy of Matt Mills

The Importance of Pattern Work

One of the biggest mistakes I come across when working with riders, is their fear of practicing patterns at home. We’ve been told for years that if you practice the pattern too often, your horse is going to anticipate it. But I disagree with that logic. I think a horse is more likely to anticipate something because a rider’s cues change when they show. This is also where people lose confidence in the show pen. They start to worry about their horse anticipating a cue, get even more nervous, and start sending mixed signals to their horse.

You walk into an arena where it’s you and a group of judges. And you know the pressure is on to perform a flawless pattern. If the only time you’re doing your reining pattern is when you’re in the show pen, chances are you’re going to get nervous, and lose confidence, when it comes time to step in the show pen.

It’s hard to be good at something if you don’t practice. Which is why I’m a big believer in practicing your reining patterns before you go show. You can’t expect your horse to understand what you’re asking of him if you always ride two-handed at home, but then have to go to one hand in the show pen. By practicing all elements of your pattern (including how you hold your reins) before you show, you’re giving yourself time to come up with a game plan. This also helps you learn your horse’s tendencies. So you know which maneuvers you can push a little more, and which ones you need to stay safe on. With more practice, you’re going to find yourself feeling more confident in the saddle.

If your horse drops his shoulder when he runs at a certain speed, you’ll know to keep him away from that speed in the show pen. Knowing his strengths and weaknesses helps build confidence, because you’ll know what to expect during each maneuver.

By working on your pattern at home, you can also figure out which maneuvers need more work. If he does drop his shoulder when he goes into that large, fast circle, you might want to spend more time on that maneuver when you’re at home so that you can improve on it before you show again.

Get Creative

Once you practice your pattern enough, you’ll start to learn what pieces of the pattern require more attention. This is where you can get creative. Try creating your own pattern based on what you need to do with your horse. You can also do pieces of a pattern at one time. If you find yourself needing to spend more time on your circles and lead changes, you can walk to the center of the arena, pick up your lope, and practice your large, fast, and small, slow circle before breaking back down to the walk.

The first couple of times you try to do this, it might not be as easy as you expected. And that’s OK. You just need to keep working at it. You and your horse will eventually gain confidence and it’ll get better the more time you put into practicing.

Have a Game Plan

When you load up to go to a horse show and you know that you’ve practiced, you know what your horse is going to do and how he’s going to react. Which means your anxiety levels are going to drop. It’s normal to fear the unknown. Especially when you’re working with an animal because you don’t always know what he’s going to do all the time. But if you practice enough, you’re going to be better prepared, and better understand your horse. Therefore have the confidence you need when it comes time to show.


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