The Cambridge Dictionary defines confidence as: “The quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans or the future”. This applies directly to our riding - confidence is being certain of our riding and training abilities, having trust in our horse, in what we’re doing with our horse at the time and what we plan to do with our horse in the future.
Riding confidence is all about knowing what might happen next. When we lack riding confidence, it really means we don’t know what might happen at any time during our ride. The horse might spook or shy, spin around, not slow when cued, refuse a jump, not load onto the trailer or any other myriad of possibilities.
What you might not have considered is the confident rider’s horse could also do any of these things, so what’s the difference between them and you?
It’s easy to assume that one rider is simply better or more experienced than the other. Perhaps he or she is better at riding ‘through’ problems, is younger or hasn’t suffered a bad fall/nasty accident… You can insert any of your own reasons here. But, is that really the case? I don’t think so.
I believe confidence is something that must be learned and earned through working with your horse. It’s something you give each other when you train your own horse.
Through the training process, you develop a confident rider and a confident horse. You can’t develop confidence reading a book, or watching someone else either ride or train your horse. You can’t develop confidence by sending your horse out to a trainer or (unfortunately) by increasing your alcohol intake!
In this article, I’m going to discuss why such things don’t lead to lasting improvements in your riding confidence and then talk about how you can skyrocket your confidence in a simple, step-by-step way.
Why do we lose riding confidence?
There often seems to be a trigger or event that leads to a loss of confidence. It might be a bad fall, a frightening ride or an untrained horse, but is it really the event that robbed us of our confidence?
Might it be more to do with the way we think about our horse, riding and training? If that’s the case, this is actually something we can change - good news if you want to re-gain your confidence.
Deciding you lost your confidence because of an event, such as a bad fall or a bolting horse, immediately places you in a victim role - this terrible thing happened to you, there was nothing you could have done about it and now you’re stuck with it.
Really, when you look at it like that, it’s not terribly helpful, is it?
The same applies when we blame other circumstances, rather than events. These might include your age or the fact you are now a parent - neither of which you can change - so you are left to try to re-gain your confidence, even though the reason you lost it in the first place is never going away…. Umm, this isn’t sounding like it will work, right?
Often, to add insult to injury, the very forums that are supposed to help riders build confidence have a habit of achieving just the opposite by focusing on the unchangeable - be it circumstances or history.
I recall, a few years ago, sitting in on a Riding Confidence Clinic where the first two hours were spent with attendees telling the group why the lost their confidence. There was every circumstance - from broken backs in falls to rearing horses on the lead. Honestly, by the end of the session you wouldn’t have got me near a horse, let alone on one. Having begun the day brimming with riding confidence, by lunch time I was questioning my sanity for being around horses at all.
Sadly, this is an all-to-common approach to teaching riding confidence and usually has the opposite effect.
What needs to change?
The first thing that needs to change to re-gain your riding confidence is your understanding of how you can anticipate and change your horse’s behaviour.
We know confidence is all about trusting our horse and knowing what our horse might do next but, if you don’t know how to change your horse’s behaviour, then you can’t possibly feel this trust.
Imagine the riding school situation. Here the rider has no knowledge of the horse, so it’s impossible to guess how the horse might react to anything (other than trusting the school’s proprietor only to supply quiet horses). In this situation, the rider isn’t in a position to ‘train’ the horse, because they don’t have the necessary skill or knowledge to do so.
Many riding school horses are very quiet (many are probably also in learned helplessness, but that’s a different article). However, it’s still not a good place to re-gain riding confidence, because you aren’t in a position to trust (know) or educate the horse you are riding.
Riding schools are, of course, great places for other things, such as practicing riding, learning new cues, developing an independent seat and so on - they are just not places for improving your riding confidence in a way that will be transferrable to other situations.
Step-by-step: the road to confidence
The first thing to do is to take responsibility for your horse’s behaviour.
I don’t mean beat yourself up if your horse is less than perfect, just understand your horse is learning all the time, with each and every interaction, and these patterns you set up by repeating certain things over time result in today’s behaviour - be it good, bad or indifferent.
Make the decision to become a proactive rider/trainer and not be a reactive victim any longer. This means you are going to go out and actively teach your horse all the useful, safe and fun things that you want them to know, rather than hoping for the best each time you ride.
Learn how to break a lesson down and teach your horse anything you want them to know. It’s not difficult, and you can look back over this series for a few simple and very useful examples.
Remember, your horse is a pattern learning machine! If you want exemplary behaviour, set up great patterns.
Here’s an example of how to do this: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/day-38-breaking-it-down (check out days 38-42).
Raise your expectations. We rarely get more than we expect, so if you expect your horse to take ten minutes to load onto the trailer, they probably will. If, on the other hand, you expect him to walk straight on and he doesn’t, you know something is wrong and you also know how to address that problem (see the May 2017 issue of Horses and People).
Having low expectations or not even considering how your horse is going to behave before asking them to do something is akin to setting off on holiday without a destination in mind. It might be fun, but you’ll never know what the full potential might have been had you done some research and made a detailed plan.
Never do something under saddle that you aren’t completely comfortable with from the ground and you don’t feel desperate to try.
I teach people how to start their own horses under saddle and this is my top rule. If you’ve ever had a riding or handling accident when you thought “I knew that would happen”, then you’re not alone. Accidents happen when we skip training steps or go too far too fast for the horse. I always tell people to wait until they are desperate to do the thing - whether it’s canter, jump or simply get on the horse for the first time - before they actually give it a go. That feeling is confidence itself.
We can never fully predict what might happen, we can never know every possibility but, if you are at all worried about doing something, I suggest you stay with the preparation work until you are desperate to do it. I have found this to be the best indicator both you and your horse are ready.
How do I stop myself from losing my confidence again?
Many factors can influence your confidence. It may take a dive if you’ve had a break from riding, got a new horse, received a mountain of unsolicited advice or even attended one of those clinics I described above. The best thing to do is to follow the steps outlined above to get you back on track.
Perhaps your horse has been out of work for a while. Horses that have been out of work because of injury or because our lives have been too busy to ride, need safe and simple exercises to introduce them back into work.
They also often require exercises that will build their topline muscles and general fitness. Groundwork exercises are wonderful for this and your riding confidence. I’d start with Give to the Bit (see July and August 2017 issues of Horses and People) where you can get your horse working in a nice, soft outline and in the Engagement Zone (see March 2017 issue of Horses and People).
Then, you can move on to Long-Reining (see October and November 2017 issues of Horses and People). This is a great exercise for building fitness, as well as practicing transitions and improving your riding confidence - well before you actually get on the horse.
I use long-reining to ‘check’ whether the horse is ready to ride. If the horse is relaxed, attentive, travelling in a soft frame and obedient to voice cues, then I feel confident they will behave in the same way when I ride as they do on the long reins - giving me the riding confidence I need to jump on.
If you’d like to get inspired and increase your riding confidence, sign up for Kandoo Equine’s 100 Days email series at https://www.kandooequine.com/p/100-days - it’s 100% free!