When it comes to horse riding, sometimes a lack of confidence in ourselves can be harder to overcome than our fear of falling. Gaining back this confidence can take time and patience, but when you think of the exhilaration and sense of freedom riding gives us, it is well worth the effort.
Why do we lose confidence? Most will answer “it hurts to fall”, or “I don’t bounce like I used to”. Dig a little deeper, and the real answer begins to surface. “I don’t feel I have control.”
What really scares us, is not having the ability to handle what our horse may do. Whether we have lost our confidence after a fall, having a horse bolt, being bitten or kicked by a horse, or are just starting out in our riding career, the steps to gaining confidence are the same.
1. Don’t beat yourself up. Negative thoughts about your abilities will only keep you where you are, disheartened, feeling like a failure, and most likely as far away from your horse as possible, even though you wish you were out enjoying his company.
Most times, it only takes one bad experience for our confidence to shatter. Out of the possible hundreds of times we have ridden, that one bad fall, one fright, is all it takes to make us ask ourselves, “Have I lost the ability to ride? Can I really control my horse?” In most cases, the answer is, “no and yes.”
The first step to getting back in the saddle is to believe you can do it. Every time that negative voice whispers in your ear, tell it to stop. Better yet, tell it exactly why it is wrong. Focus on all the times you’ve ridden and had a wonderful time.
2. Go back to the start with your horse. Whether it’s a new horse, or the one you’ve had the negative experience with, taking a big step back will do you both good. Spend some ‘chill time’ with him. Go out and just be with him, give him scratches, make it enjoyable for you both just being together. Sounds simple, but it does make a huge difference.
3. Once you both feel good about spending time together, start going for walks. This is a great opportunity for your horse to see things he might not normally see. Do you live near a football oval where local teams practice, or a swimming pool where kids splash and yell? Getting him used to these things, initially from a distance, before you get back in the saddle will help.
Other things, like garbage bins, flapping plastic bags, balls rolled along the ground can be quite confronting to a horse. Desensitizing him to these things while you lead him will not only give him confidence in you and himself, but will squash that negative voice still trying to whisper in your ear. As your confidence in your ability returns, you will find more objects to test yourselves.
4. Now you have done all your ground work; it’s time to saddle up. Don’t worry if the nerves kick in, and that voice pipes up again. Go through your paces from the ground first, get back into your positive state of mind. Even if your first ride only consists of you getting on and sitting there for a few minutes, it’s a good start.
Why do we think we have to rush, that we should just get on and do it, that we are weak if we don’t conquer our fears on the first go?
We think this; because we let other people tell us this. Don’t listen to them, go your own pace, do what you are confident and comfortable doing.
5. By this time, you should be looking forward to spending time with your horse, and may even be getting excited by the prospect of riding again. If you have access to an arena, round yard or stockyards, use them. Smaller spaces may make you feel more in control. Start at the walk, and just let your horse move around. Don’t be worried about your horse’s frame, having a short rein, or anything, other than sitting up tall, chin up, and breathing.
It’s amazing how much we hold our breath when nervous. When we hold our breath, so do our horses, which in turn, creates tension. Once you are comfortable at the walk, try a trot. In no time, you will find the nerves you get just before getting on will disappear. In its place will come the excitement of riding.
If you have a friend who is sympathetic to your needs, ask them to come along with a quiet horse for the next step.
6. Now you have gained confidence in yourself, and your horse, and you’ve done all your ground work, all the walking and exploring new things, it’s time to ride out and explore. Pick a nice quiet trail, or paddock, wherever you feel comfortable. Concentrate on enjoying the ride, letting your horse relax, and having a good gossip with your friend.
If your horse does happen to shy at something, you’ll find instinct will kick in, and you’ll sit to the movement easily, then laugh about it afterwards. You may even be surprised, and pleased with yourself, realising that your initial fears of “have I lost the ability to ride? Can I control my horse?” are unfounded.
You haven’t lost the ability, it just became stifled, hobbled, under all the negativity. As for controlling your horse, some people see control as having a tight rein, not letting the horse see anything that may scare it, or controlling absolutely every move the horse makes. The control you now have is a trust that your horse will do as you ask, will stop and look at things rather than shy or bolt. It’s the freedom you are giving your horse, and yourself, that will make you pause and wonder at the fact that you are in control, without having to actually control your horse.
Always remember, if at any time you or your horse become frustrated, agitated, or upset, take a step back to where things were feeling good. Never be afraid to slow things down. Above all, enjoy your horse, enjoy the journey, and have fun.