How many of us have had a moment where we’re on our horse and having a lovely schooling session or a ride out and the horse does something… It may be a look, a little spook, even as simple as his ears disappearing and pointing onto something in the distance and you feel you ‘lose’ him a little. At this point depending on past experiences and confidence levels you’ll do one of two things…
The confident rider goes ‘get over yourself you fool’ closes her legs and trots on. The rider who may not be so confident or has had past experiences they can’t forget may go ‘OMG he’s going to insert bad thing here and then this chain of events will occur and it’s all going to end VERY unhappily’.
These two scenarios have very different outcomes for your horse also. Scenario one involves the horse going ‘oh well if she thinks it’s ok I’ll just get on with it’. Scenario two involves the horse realising you’re not his leader, right at the moment he really needs you to be his leader. In his mind if you’re not there as the leader then someone else needs to be. He thinks he has to step up to the plate and that’s a position he’s not really keen on. He realises you’re worried and this makes him become more worried. Of course, this doesn’t fill you with confidence either, and we’re off. Off on the vicious circle.
How do we steer clear of the vicious circle? It pretty much centres around your reaction to your horses initial reaction. It’s a cross-road where you need to train yourself to have the correct reaction as much as train your horse. If you’re a nervous rider have you seen and envied those who seem to stick to their horse like glue and remain relaxed throughout a ‘moment’? You can be like that too! The rider who stays with their horse is always relaxed, they don’t grip, lean forward, or panic. I’m well aware this is easy to write and hard to do but you can train your body to have a different reaction.
I’m guessing most of you who are nervous have had a bad experience which may be repeated as a ‘story’ which starts in your head when your horse does something unexpected. I’m also guessing your story doesn’t have a happy ending or may have grown in the retelling somewhat? We need firstly to change the story and, most importantly, it’s ending. I want you to create a new story, think through riding out and having your horse spook and then think of you sitting there like the riders who stick like glue. Think through you reassuring your horse and riding on positively. Then think through to the end of the ride, giving your horse a big pat and having the feeling of a great ride. Embellish your wonderful daydream as much as you like but it’s all got to be good ok? By thinking through your horse doing something unexpected and giving it a good ending you’re helping your body have a different reaction than that of panic. You’re also practicing the moment. I’m not saying it’s always going to work but it’s a good training tool to start with. If we can stop our mind from running away with us generally, the adrenaline fails to follow.
The second thing to practice to make the vicious circle disappear is to relax in your body. It’s been shown that taking deep breaths in and out gives our body the signal that we’re ok and helps to stop an adrenal reaction. Try it out the next time you feel a little anxious either around your horse or in any other situation. When we become a little stressed our breathing becomes shallower. To counteract this take some nice deep breaths, big breaths, fill your lungs completely. Now, breathe out, so there’s no air left in your lungs. Once you’ve fully exhaled, let your body go a little floppy, relax those muscles, swing your arms, then inhale again, feel your chest expand and lift to accommodate all the wonderful air you’re taking in. Even doing this at your computer desk can show you all the little spots your muscles may be holding tension, I know I just found a few!
By breathing deeply and relaxing muscles we not only trick our body into not releasing adrenaline but we also trick our horse into thinking we’re the relaxed and calm rider you’ve always wished you could be. He feels safe. He feels like you’re still in control, you’re the herd leader, and you’ll protect him from the leaf/rubbish bin/piece of paper which may have been planning a stealth attack on him.
These two tools do take time to put in place and when you’re facing a fear where the consequence of you not getting it right could result in you being injured it’s darned hard work! Take baby steps with it. Start with practicing the techniques in your ground work, then graduate to riding in a safe area, then tackle riding out or the thing you may find the most challenging. I’ve found the time to take the next step with riders I coach is when they’re starting to look a little bored with the work we’re doing. They look bored and I introduce the next challenge. It’s not always welcomed but assisting riders on their journey to being more confident and feeling safe and happy doing what they love is the most rewarding coaching work I do.
If this article has struck a chord with you have a look at the Confidence Coaching program I offer. I’m always happy to have a no obligation chat with you and this program doesn’t require face to face coaching so you can be anywhere in Australia or the rest of the world for that matter!