Great horsemen through the ages are admired for their ability to ride spirited horses at speed, over fences and through difficult terrain. Even today we love our Olympians and their equine partners, and admire their ability to take calculated risks, brimming with confidence to make it all look so easy!
Many people ask me about confidence, how to gain it back after a bad experience, a long period out of the saddle or even how to gain confidence initially. It takes persistence but if it makes you feel any better, even Olympians had to learn the basics. Despite the saying ‘they were born in the saddle’, every-one needs to learn how to rise to the trot, have their first canter and go over their first jump.
These five tips (plus a bonus) below talk about the main situations where people need more confidence in the equine world, some insights about why they would lack confidence and how they can gain confidence with horses.
Riding and Handling Confidence
First and foremost, if you lack confidence riding and handling horses then you must make sure you have the right horse to learn to have confidence around horses. The horse you learn on must be quiet, experienced, have the right temperament and be an easy size for you to manage. A pony is usually easier to gain confidence with that a horse, simply because you will be less intimidated by the size.
You should also have an experienced person to help you. There are times when you need that extra support.
If you have had a bad experience with a particular horse, then this is usually a sign that your current experience is not a good match for that horse at their current level of education. Instead of reading about how to gain confidence riding and handling this horse, your best option is to find an experience horse riding instructor in your area who can help you.
It can be a challenge for a competent horse person to teach a horse and train a rider at the same time and it could be a long-term task. They may even recommend that you improve your skills on another horse while they work your horse until you are ready to ride it. It may be a difficult decision but the best option may be to sell, give away or swap your horse for one who is more suitable.
The main tip here is to gain confidence riding and handling horses by choosing a suitable horse who is quiet, experienced, with the right temperament and an easy size for you to manage.
Confidence in Canter
Before a rider canters, they need to have an independent balanced seat and be able to control the horse at speed. When a rider starts to canter too early, or after a long break then they are not balanced and their muscles are not strong enough to keep them secure in the saddle.
A good guide to this is to make sure you are able to guide and control the horse with one hand through witches hats on a circle, diamond and square with your other hand on your hip. Then change reins and go the other way.
Your transitions on the lunge should show you have the ability to go between halt and trot (and trot to halt) using direct and indirect transitions with the ability to keep your hands on your hips through all transitions (proving an independent seat). If you use the second method then include two-point seat in these transitions.
There are two schools of thought on teaching riders to canter, and I really believe it can depend on the situation and the horse. I use both ways, preferably on the lunge.
The first one is to have the rider bringing the shoulders behind the vertical as they go into canter (often with the outside hand on the pommel and the inside hand on the cantle) so they allow the hips to follow the movement of the canter.
The second is for the rider to remain in two-point seat and to hold the mane or the neck strap with both hands as an extra balance point.
It is a good idea for an experienced instructor to lunge you on a suitable horse when you are ready to canter.
If you are happy and confident riding on the flat, but not confident to jump it is often a problemof previously being over-faced for the amount of balance and muscle tone you have.
To improve your muscle tone, shorten your stirrups and ride in two point seat for a few minutes each time your ride, in trot and canter paying particular attention to maintaining two point seat in the trot-canter and canter-trot transitions.
By the time you are riding about 20 minutes of two point seat, start with a pole on the ground and progress to some raised trot poles, progressing to a canter bounce from a trot approach.
(You may need assistance setting up the correct distances that your horse is comfortable with here but do not be talked into making them higher than what you are comfortable with.)
Each time you ride, practice at least ten of these canter bounces (with trot approach), the main goal is for continual practice and to increase the number of times you practice rather than the height.
If necessary, continue this exercise for months or years. The main thing is that you progress when you are comfortable, not when some-one else tells you that you are ready.
When you are confident, increase to canter approaches over a single raised pole. Only when you are happy (no outside assistance here) you should increase the height.
Riding outside in a big, wide, open area can be exciting for a horse and can also cause a rider to lose confidence riding outside. Sometimes people are surprised that they have problems stopping their seemingly lazy horse when they ride outside.
Imagine you are the horse. There is no use running away when they are in the arena. Every few strides there is another fence, another corner, another barrier. When they are outside, there are no barriers, no corners and no-one to stop them.
If the rider is nervous or insecure, the horse is not encouraged to slow down and they have the opportunity to gain a faster and faster pace. If there are other horses around and the horse can hear them going at a faster pace, their pulse increases and their excitability levels increase.
If you ride your horse ‘as if’ they are in an enclosed arena in the corner of the open area there is less of a huge leap into the great outdoors. Ride circles, figures of eight and serpentines until they are happy and comfortable.
Then make your circles bigger of serpentine into a larger area. Every time they become a bit excitable or nervous, simply return to circles, figures of eight and serpentines.
Of course, ideally you would have a more experienced rider do these exercises on your horse before you attempt them.
Teaching and Speaking Confidence
I have taught many successful competitive riders who would love to become instructors but lack the confidence to teach. Then there are also professional experienced, instructors who lack the confidence to speak to large groups.
When students commence teaching training, it can be done in a small group of other beginner instructors under the guidance of a Coach Educator. These ‘Train to Teach’ sessions can be fun with lots of demonstrations, discussions to give the trainees confidence.
When they teach ‘real’ lessons, I like to give them students who have far less knowledge than they do. That way the students who are being taught gain knowledge and the instructors gain confidence.
If you plan to lecture to groups, start the size of the group smaller and increase as you confidence grows. By using the power of visualization (more details below), you will be able to easily speak to very large groups extremely confidently and professionally
The Power of Visualization
This technique is used by most (if not all) elite level sporting competitors. It is a great tool and I will write about it in further depth in a future article.
Bonus – Teaching Your Students How To Gain Confidence Around Horses
There is a video on teaching confidence on the link above.