Confidence is a firm trust that you place in yourself as a rider and in your horse as your partner. If you don’t trust your horse or trust yourself in the saddle of that horse, it’s hard to feel confident. When I want to assess a rider’s confidence, I use three main tests or tasks. These tests aren’t hard, and they’re useful at all levels of riding and for all riders. They’re also easy for you to do at home to check your own confidence.
The Suitability Test
Becoming a confident rider begins with setting yourself up for success with the right horse for you and your level of ability. The only way you can be truly confident in the saddle is if your horse is suited to you. To find out whether your horse is suitable, ask yourself these two questions: Am I safe with my horse on the ground and in the saddle? Am I having fun on my horse?
If you can’t answer both questions with a big capital letter Y for “Yes!” then it’s going to be hard for you to feel confident. Checking the suitability of your horse should happen before you purchase your horse, but it should also be an ongoing assessment throughout your relationship. If you ever don’t feel safe, that’s a big red flag. In that case, you’re also not likely to have fun. This test is probably one of the hardest things about horse ownership because it’s easy to get emotionally involved with a horse and want to make it work no matter what. But you’ve got to be realistic and think about what’s best for you and what’s best for your horse.
Sometimes, a horse that you love may be a better fit for someone else, or for another discipline, situation, or environment. If your horse isn’t suitable for you, you can’t progress in your chosen sport because the horse is the tool. You can’t build your abilities as a rider without the right horse to help you.
The Eye Contact Test
The next task is what I refer to as “eye contact.” A good rider can comfortably and easily control their vision, focusing it ahead of the horse and where they’re heading. When you’re looking ahead of your horse, you’re thinking ahead, too: What’s the next step in our pattern? What’s ahead on the trail that might cause my horse to spook? When and where do I want to speed up or slow down? Smart riding means always looking and planning ahead.
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That’s part of why I appreciate Western dressage as a discipline, because the letters that are placed around the dressage ring teach the rider to look ahead; plan where they’re going with their horse; ride in balance with their horse; develop great coordination of their hands and legs, and ride with accuracy and precision. You can’t do any of these things well, if at all, by looking down at your horse. It’s a natural impulse to look down at our horse, but we’ve got to train ourselves to look ahead instead. Think about when you’re driving a car. You don’t look at the dashboard. You’re looking down the road. The same principle applies to riding a horse in any discipline.
One of my favorite exercises for helping riders control their eye contact—or practice the path their eyes should follow while they’re riding—is to make a circle with four sets of cones at each quarter of the circle. As you ride the circle, you want to maintain the middle path through the cones in each quarter of the circle. To maintain your path, you have to look ahead to the next quarter of the circle. By looking ahead, you’re planning and thinking and riding ahead of your horse, and you’re using your legs and hands to maintain the correct bend, straightness, and balance of your horse, as well as your own balance. Practicing eye contact develops new skills to feel what you’re doing with your position, balance, and coordination of your legs and hands.
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As you advance in this exercise, start removing one set of cones at a time. Continue to look ahead and visualize each quarter of the circle as you ride. Eventually, you should be able to remove all the cones and continue riding perfectly round circles by looking ahead and planning ahead for the next quarter of the circle.
The Balance and Position Test
A confident rider is balanced and maintains the correct position in the saddle. If you can’t stay balanced, you’re going to feel unsafe and you’re going to struggle to maintain your position while your horse is in motion, especially at the jog or lope.
Here’s an easy exercise to realize how your position affects your balance in the saddle. Ask a friend to hold your horse’s reins for you. At a standstill, while mounted, take your feet out of the stirrups. If you are comfortable, close your eyes so that you can concentrate on what you feel during this exercise. Now, use your upper body to move through three different positions: Move your upper body forward so that you’re sitting on your crotch in the saddle. Move your upper body vertical, so that it’s aligned with your hips, and you’re sitting on your seat bones, which form the bottom of your pelvis. Finally, move your upper body back so that you’re sitting on your tail bone.
As you move through these three different positions, assess the different ways you’re placing your weight in the saddle. While riding, your seat must be your main source of balance. If you start to lose your balance in the saddle, you can adjust your upper body by bringing your shoulders back slightly. This enables you to put more weight down into your seat and in your hips, and stop yourself from bouncing around.
Learn to think with your seat first and learn to adjust your balance by adjusting your seat, rather than by grabbing the reins, pushing in the stirrups, or gripping with your knees. Now take this concept and apply it at the different gaits.
This exercise also helps you realize that your balance affects your horse’s balance. The second you lose control of your balance, you’ll start losing control of your horse. But when you can control your balance, you can control your horse’s body position for balance.
Then you can learn to work with your partner in balance and harmony, and that’s the fundamental of confident riding.