Building confidence for you and your horse. It's a two-way street.
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
Many times I’m told by my clients when we first have contact that they have lost confidence riding. Sometimes they’ve also become uncomfortable or fearful around their horse even on the ground. This can be because they’ve taken time off from being in the saddle or being around horses in general (due to raising a family, building a career, or other reasons) … or sometimes they’ve just encountered a more challenging horse.
Recognizing that you don’t feel confident in one way or another is the first step. It means that you are self-aware which is critical to having a solid partnership with a horse. Being aware of one’s emotions and thinking … helps us figure out how to help ourselves and our horses.
When fear happens between rider and horse, it’s usually hard to tell who got scared first: the horse or the rider. We all probably know this but, if the horse gets spooked by something, the (less than self-assured) rider gets fearful. And, if the rider is apprehensive, the horse is always wary and worried and could spook more readily.
Building confidence is three-fold. First, it means that you not only have to build your own confidence, but you need to build confidence in your horse and you need to help your horse to have confidence in you or essentially to trust you. If all three things don’t happen, the relationship breaks down and the confidence problems happen all over again. The whole scenario can become basically cyclical if all three components aren’t addressed.
To re-state, I believe three processes need to be explored and improved to solve confidence issues:
· the human needs to help their horse become more confident in him/herself
· the human need to build their own confidence
· the human has to help the horse trust that he/she can keep the horse safe
Helping the horse become more confident can involve teaching your horse new tasks both with you on-the-ground and ultimately with you in-the-saddle like; backing through gates, doorways, up trailer ramps (the last two only from on-the-ground); sending your horse to touch things with his/her nose; walking and then trotting over tarps; setting up an obstacle course for your horse to navigate through; introducing potentially “scary objects” high to low all around the horse; etc. All of these tasks and challenges need to be performed very carefully to keep yourself safe and to not overwhelm your horse. Always introduce slowly; use an approach and retreat method; and always stop, release, and dwell when your horse becomes comfortable and relaxed. Remember relaxation for your horse is key. So, when your horse offers you the smallest try, give her/him a big release and tons of dwell time. Being respectful of your horse’s fears and concerns as well as recognizing and rewarding their effort will also help him/her become more confident in YOU.
When you’ve accomplished relaxation with your horse during shared dwell and non-demanding times, try to lock-on to that relaxation time and develop a verbal or touch cue. You want to try and connect that cue with a really “good feeling” in your horse’s brain. Later when your horse is stressed, you can use that cue to help him/her come back to relaxation.
For YOU to become more confident, you’ll need to take baby steps so you don’t frighten yourself or your horse. Only step a teeny, weeny, tiny, bit outside of your comfort zone. Be aware of how you’re feeling: Are you breathing regularly? Is your stomach tight? Are you staring at your horse? Are you thinking about other things while you’re with your horse? If you’re feeling these things, it’s important to walk away and reevaluate. Maybe you could just spend some totally non-demanding time with your horse? No pressure on you and no pressure on your horse. It’s really hard to get over fear and become confident again; you should take it slowly.
To work on yourself, it’s important to be mindful of how you feel and be totally “in the moment”. Don’t think about what you’re going to do next, or later, or next week, etc. In fact, thinking too much in general raises our energy which can cause anxiety and it certainly causes anxiety in our horses.
To help you find relaxation and a lower energy for yourself, practice yawning and being aware of the feeling at the end of a really big yawn. Additionally, make the noise by pushing air through your lips that a horse does when they’re relieved and are moving into a calmer state; you know the sound … like a whole bunch of p’s. Both of those techniques will help you identify what it feels like in your body … to be in a low or calm energy.
Use visualizations rather than words in your head. This will help you relax and an additional bonus is you’re likely to have clearer communications with your horse. At night in bed before you go to sleep, consider creating some nice, calm, positive, confident-self, visualizations representing you and your horse together. This is a good time to practice this technique and it has a beneficial side effect: you get relaxed and ultimately fall asleep :-)
Mutual respect is a key element in helping your horse trust that he/she will be safe with you. It’s important to be respectful of your horse’s fears and concerns. In the beginning, you should constantly honor their fear thresholds and boundaries. Only then can your horse feel that you “get” him or her. What does this mean? In your mind let them know you understand. Use approach and retreat a lot. Don’t keep pushing when your horse is telling you “they’re NOT ok”. As mentioned above in helping your horse’s confidence: introduce new things slowly and when your horse offers you the littlest try, give her/him a big release and tons of dwell time. Again don’t push beyond your horse’s comfort level. As you move on in your partnership and your horse trusts you, occasionally you can ask your horse to move forward through concerns with the mindset: “I understand you’re concerned, but I know we’re ok”.
I know the above paragraph sounds crazy. You’ve probably always heard that you need to be a leader. Yes, that’s totally true…BUT it’s important to be a benevolent leader. I like to say that being a leader does not mean being a dictator like Hitler or Mussolini; it means being a compassionate and sympathetic leader … essentially like being a really good parent. There are still rules, but the rules and requests are handled fairly and compassionately.
All three of these processes are difficult to accomplish on your own when you’re struggling with fear. Without experience and help you might find yourself feeling even more fearful; you might get injured; or you could be unsuccessful due to lack of solid skills. In my opinion, if you don’t have some solid natural horsemanship experience yourself, the most prudent thing to do would be to get help from a trainer…ideally a natural horsemanship trainer. Try to find someone who has personal experience managing fear in the equine world and understands how to build the horse/human relationship.
If you’d like to contact me for help, you can reach me HERE
Kyle Van Splinter