Fake It Til You Make It!

I’ve written recently about rider position, where and how your body should be on a horse. Today I’d like to talk about why our body language is so important both on and off the horse when we’re feeling nervous.

I work with many nervous riders each week and the number one thing I work to achieve for them is to be able to adjust their position. My aim is to move them out of ‘crash position’ into ‘Grand Prix’ position. Let’s take this off and away from the horse for a moment and have a think about our general body language. Do you walk around at work or down the street looking at your own feet, hoping no-one bumps into you? Or do you have your eyes and chin up, looking out at the world around you interested in where you’re going?

Let’s take it a step further….what sort of person are you? Do you tackle issues at work or home head-on in a straightforward manner or do you hope someone else will sort it out so you don’t have to confront the issue at hand? You may be wondering what this has to do with your horse but it’s really worth thinking about. If you’ve a horse which is extroverted, sensitive and perhaps very busy in his head, is he the best match for you if you’re shy and prefer to be the follower rather than the leader? I wrote about this a little in my article on Purchasing a Horse. I’m not saying this combination can never work, I am saying you’re probably up for a bit of a challenge as your natural behaviour is going have to be adjusted so you can work as a combination. Especially if you find being assertive confronting and a little bit scary. At worst that particular combination can be dangerous and end up with you being even more nervous, or injured. At best it’s an incredibly rewarding journey which will give you confidence and a huge sense of achievement. If you feel you’re at the wrong end of the scale please get help from an instructor.

Your personality is not a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or the difference between ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ in the greater scheme of life. It certainly tells you a little about yourself if you take the time to have a think about it. The reason I’ve written this is that your body language and personality are important to your horse. Your horse needs you to be the confident leader around him for him to feel safe, even if it’s a case of ‘faking it until you make it’. Who hasn’t felt their confidence soar sky high when you have a little win or things go right? If you approach riding with a ‘I hope I don’t stack today’ mentality or ‘I just know he’ll be naughty’ you’re going to have a very different experience to getting on with a ‘I’m going to have a lovely ride today and I can’t wait’ attitude.

Have you ever watched a horse jumping and come into a jump the rider’s not so keen on? They canter up to it and horse goes from happily bowling along to ‘you know what? If you’re not convinced it’s OK I’m not doing it’ and hangs out the anchors in a stop. Jumping riders are coached to be looking out and over to the next fence, never looking down at the fence they’re riding into. In a similar vein if you get on your horse and are feeling less than confident at the prospect and let that govern your position, he knows.

I often see people get on and the horse could be a little bouncy or looky. The rider starts to shut down. They start to curl up over their hands, they take their legs off in case they cause a reaction, or clamp their legs on for grim death. They look down at their hands or the horses ears and they wait. They stop breathing. At around this time the horse goes ‘wow! There really IS something to be worried about today. She’s telling me so! Best be on the lookout for the ‘scary thing’!!’. It’s very easy for me to sit here and type about lifting your chin and eyes, putting your leg on, breathing or singing a song and relaxing in your body. It may even be easy for you to read. It’s often the hardest thing in the world to do. I truly do understand that. Which brings me to ‘faking it until you make it’. Let me precede this with ensuring your horse is basically safe and you’re in a safe riding area.

The first thing I want you to do is breathe. Three big breaths in and out. As full as your lungs can go and as empty as your lungs can go. This sends the message to your brain that you’re ok, and stops that pesky adrenaline sending the panic message through your body. Keep breathing, talk or sing to your horse. You can’t talk or sing without continuing to breathe and your horse isn’t going to care how you sound. Next, I want you to uncurl your body. Lift your eyes up. Remember where you’re looking is where your energy is going. Do you really want to be looking at the ground directly underneath you? Next, soften your body, check in with various muscle groups which may be tight, release them. Remember you have control over where those front legs go. Turn your horse, a couple of steps straight and turn again, remember to turn your shoulders also, gradually increase the steps on the straight and make your turns larger. Now hopefully you’re starting to feel like you’re having an effect on your horse and in some control.

I’ll talk more about confidence in future articles. It’s a huge issue for many riders but one that with assistance and time is able to be conquered. Remember these things take time, it can seem terribly overwhelming when you’re in the grip of it. A very wise friend of mine often comments to me ‘how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time’. Take that one bite at a time. If getting on and riding makes you quake in your boots just go out, put a halter on and give him a brush. Practice being more of the leader than the follower. It’s not all about riding. You may need to start with something very basic. It doesn’t matter, you’re out there and giving it a go!

The other thing I often recommend to my nervous students is to keep a diary on their work with the horse. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair, just some notes on what you’ve done each day. It’s great to be able to look back on a bad day and see just how far you’ve come or see how you worked through a similar roadblock.

Good luck and remember, the journey with horses is always a marathon and never a sprint!

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