Who’s Confidence?

Riders often worry about why they are not confident in their riding. Sometimes confidence can be traced to a bad experience -falling off the horse, being kicked or bitten, having a horse rear up or behave in a frightening way.Other times, it’s not so specific, but may come from events elsewhere in their life becoming unstable, an awareness of the size and power of the horse, or even a sense that the person is just not fully in control – perhaps the end result of many little events rather than something large.

It’s natural to look to ourselves for the problem and the cure in this situation, but one perfectly valid cause lies in the horse itself.

Many of the horses I’ve had to train only poorly carry a single speed, or offer odd little behaviors to normal requests, such as a crow hop when asked to trot or canter. Others find a straight line – either a real one or a crisply executed circle – to be a big challenge. And there are innumerable horses who walk off upon being mounted, who stop reluctantly, who don’t want to turn or who turn the wrong direction.

Sometimes this is from the horse’s background – poor or incomplete training, an OTTB not transitioned to being a recreational horse, a green rider with a green horse, or even a boarding situation that generates tension and anxiety through poor ground handling, irregular or insufficient feedings / watering, or lack of social contact or turnout.

Less confident riders often do not directly confront this. They love their horse and they don’t want to look for faults or failures in their companion. But failing to see the horse for what it is in this situation leads to a spiral of increased lack of control, increased anxiety, and a further deterioration of the horse’s training.

I love my horses. They changed my life and I now have a ranch where I board horses, train horses and instruct students. But I also very carefully shape and keep my horses sharp. I don’t hesitate to correct my horses when they aren’t living up to their best behavior. This means I can put riders who are not confident on these horses and they can help that rider become more confident because the horse will be quiet, predictable, obedient, rhythmic and straight, These are the characteristics every rider should insist on from their horse, and that are especially critical for the less confident rider.

Making your horse into a companion who can give confidence rather than take it away starts from the moment you pick them up in the paddock or stall and doesn’t end until they are fully released back to horsey business. There’s no room for “just chatting” or or other distractions until and unless your horse is very well behaved and self-carries all those good behaviors with only the most minor of corrections; and even then, making any distraction a high priority in the aisle or on horseback is not a good idea.

So, to be a more confident rider, you need to start to take charge of your experience and your horse from the moment you get out of your car, putting yourself in the mindset of what behavior you expect, what you will reward and what you will correct. If you don’t know these things, it will be harder for you when you reach your horse, because there will be so much to think about and react to.

When you pick up your horse, assess its mental state. Is it relaxed, head low, walking rhythmically and easily, or is it tense, head held high, eyes a bit wide – or somewhere in between? If your horse is relaxed, your focus will be on sustaining that state throughout the session (and if your horse is relaxed in your session, you’ll be relaxed, too).If your horse is tense, your focus will be on relaxing the horse. This doesn’t mean treats. It means a gentle stroking touch, staying away from the horse’s face with your hands, brushing their coat more softly, maybe even working on cueing the horse to lower its head (a position that generates its own relaxation for the horse).

Do not tolerate the horse barging past you in or out of the stall or paddock. Don’t slap him or get angry, just make him do it again, step by step, stopping him frequently.  If you don’t feel you have that level of control, work on this with your horse every day until you do. You can even do this instead of riding. It’s that important. Few things are more damaging to your confidence than nearly being run over by your horse before you even start riding.

When you walk with your horse, expect the horse to walk to one side of you, at your pace and no faster – and consciously make your own pace slower than your normal “out in the world” pace. If the horse speeds up or slows down, correct with pressure from the lead rope.

Don’t give in to the belief that nose chains or mouth chains are going to solve problems with this behavior. Additional pain NEVER makes a horse more relaxed and comfortable, which means that, at best, it just stores up tension for a later release. The horse needs to want to walk with you and to match your pace, and it will if you correct it gently and whenever it’s not with your speed and direction. If the horse rushes, stop and back it up with your body language. If it doesn’t back up from that, gradually increase pressure on the lead rope. NEVER release pressure once you start to use it until the horse does what you want or you will teach it to ignore your pressures. This means being ready to stand there exerting pressure forever if you need to (it’s never forever, though it can be a long time).

If the horse balks and won’t lead forward, increase the tension on the lead rope. Hold the tension until the horse takes one step forward. If the horse is balking and you are holding the pressure, there will be a moment just before they give in where they feel like they are pulling back harder and harder – don’t be deceived, the horse is about to give in. Release pressure as soon as they do. In the worst case, pull the tension to one side and as soon as you get one step (this unbalances the horse and they almost always step forward from it), release the pressure for a moment and then walk forward again.

Don’t be distracted in the aisle. I’ve seen people with a horse beside them, having a conversation with someone and the horse is pushing or pulling at them, and they are not noticing or correcting this disorganized and uncontrolled behavior. I’ve even asked them about this and they are often surprised, taking this poorly trained behavior for granted as normal.

As you tack up your horse, relaxed or tense, consciously slow your movements. Not only is this good for you, but it is less worrisome for the horse. Brush softly, pick up feet slowly and lightly. If the horse wanders forward, backward or to the side, correct this with lead rope or hand pressures.

Also, please don’t “reward” your horse by slapping on its neck. Lots of people do this, and I’ve never understood it. No human takes it as affection to be slapped on the neck and horses don’t either. Stroke them softly or scratch their shoulder where the shoulder and neck join (shown by experiment to actually reduce horse heart rates) and you will keep your horse relaxed.

The reason I harp on all this is that everything in your session is driven by how well this goes. If your horse is relaxed and obedient here, it will be more relaxed and obedient in the arena. If your horse is tense and disorganized here, that will not likely improve later.

As you tack up, look to see if your tack or the tacking up process makes the horse more tense. Does cinching make your horse grind its teeth? Does it avoid taking the bit with a high head? Go slower, go evenly, don’t pull hard, pull softly, ask the horse to take the bit. If the horse pulls its head up, work with halter and lead rope to get him to put his head down. Think about your bit. Even a snaffle is a hard bit. A tom thumb is potentially very painful. Twisted wire, gag, correction, spoon and double bits are just torture devices and never help a horse relax and enjoy their work, nor does the pain and discomfort they create make the horse behave better. Nosebands, chains, headbands, jaw straps, tie downs and martingales are all just uncomfortable, tension producing devices and actually do nothing to improve the horse’s performance that you can’t get from a better training approach. Get simple. For direct reined / English horses, a mullen mouth bit is the softest and most stable bit., I have eliminated head tossing and anxious behavior in several horses by transitioning them to this bit, because it just sits there and doesn’t move unless I move it. For Western horses, a mild ported grazing bit with a fairly thick mouthpiece, shanks no longer than three inches and a leather curb strap on its loosest setting is the best. And a single strap bridle with an ear loop is easy and fast to get on, facilitating the process of bridling and helping the horse want to take the bit.

All tacked up? Walking into the arena is just like walking anywhere else, so don’t let the horse do anything you wouldn’t let them do in the aisle.

Many less confident riders believe that they need to lunge their horse before riding to “blow off steam”. This is a sign that this horse is not disciplined, but it does not ever make the horse more disciplined. Avoid doing this. You can’t reinforce control or correct poor behavior from fifteen feet away. You need to be next to or on the horse. And teaching the horse to gallop around on the lunge line like a crazy thing just degrades its training and self-control, which will make you less confident. Work on the lead rope with go forward, back up, move hips, move shoulders and sidepass in preference to lunging.

When you mount up, you need to expect that the horse is not going anywhere. Misbehavior here does more than anything else to damage your confidence. But if you’ve been letting this happen, you will have to reinforce the horse not moving again and again by using the reins to stop the horse the moment it tries to move. It will probably push this way or that rather than stop at first. Just hold your ground, increase the pressure and then release the moment the horse stops moving. Be ready to reinforce the stop again because horses with this habit are sure (because you’ve told them so) that you want them to just walk off. Get obedience on this as quickly as possible, even if it means mounting, getting the horse to stop, dismounting and starting over again.

Faults on your part that contribute to the horse walking off include too much leg pressure and leaning forward. You want the horse to stand even when you fidget or adjust position, but it won’t at first. At first, you have to just sit still and try to lengthen the time after mounting where the horse stands. Target at least 30 seconds.

This is good for you also, because it gives you a chance to organize body, reins and thoughts.

Don’t warm up by mindlessly walking the rail. You and your horse need to be active and use this period to actively build your confidence that your horse is responsive and will do as you ask when you ask for it.

As soon as you start to ride, you need to work on obedience. Stop, start, turn – NOW, not later. One stride after asking, the horse should be doing what you want. Think of “ask”, “tell” and “command” (thanks, Julie Goodnight) as levels of pressure you use for each request. At each level, if the horse does not obey, go to the next level and increase (and hold) the pressure until the horse complies. Releasing the pressure without obedience teaches the horse to ignore your “ask”. Using “tell” pressures when “ask” doesn’t work helps the horse understand that obeying at “ask” is a good idea, and increases its confidence in your consistency.

Next is rhythm, which is to say that the horse maintains a consistent speed in each gait. You need to be sensitive to speeding up and slowing down. If you pay close attention, you can sense when the horse is about  to speed up or slow down and have extra rein or leg pressure ready to correct. To do this right you have to pick a “default speed” you want for each gait and correct the horse when it violates that rule by using the lightest pressure that works. The instability of speed does a lot to decrease a rider’s confidence at a subliminal level. The horse just feels unreliable, somehow. Fix this and you fix a lot of what worries you. Work at the walk and get this right before going to the trot, and get it right at the trot before going to the canter.

Most important in your session is straightness. It’s a good idea to make straightness the core of your warm up because it lets you reinforce obedience and rhythm as well as the straightness itself.

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A horse who is straight will have full control over its legs and will self-carry a straight line or an even circle without correction and with very light aids. Pick a beam in your arena and ride a straight line from that beam to its counterpart at the other side of the arena. When the horse starts to swerve or bulge or otherwise deviate from the line, correct course, ideally with seat or legs, but with reins if needed. Serpentines are another great exercise, because the horse has to come back to the straight line after a nice, even half circle. And of course, a horse can be “straight” on a circle by simply doing an even circle in response to even pressure.

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Straightness is based on training and many horses are not straight. I have spent entire sessions on straight lines and serpentines just to build straightness and left feeling happy with the improvement. What this does is to give you confidence in your horse and in your control over your horse.

When a horse does what you ask within one stride of the request, maintains an even speed at every gait, and does nice straight lines and clean even curves, this is a horse that will inspire confidence in the arena. Even more, the horse itself will have more self-confidence and self-control and this will make the horse more relaxed – which will make you more relaxed and confident.

Master each of these things at each gait before going to the next higher gait, because each gait builds on the success of the gait below it. During your sessions, stop frequently and stop long – in fact, stop like this after every major maneuver – a straight line, a set of serpentines, a few circles. Stroke and pet your horse as a reward, don’t slap him.

There are many more things you can do to build on this foundation, but whether your horse is a trail horse, a reiner, a jumper or dressage horse, your horse cannot help you be comfortable or confident if this foundation is cracked.

Being done with riding is when you consolidate all these gains by creating a comfortable, attentive closure for the horse and its work. A horse who had a good session and is in a good frame of mind will often yawn as you untack it, stand with its head relaxed, and have a soft eye. Gently removing the tack, moving slowly, grooming with a soft brush and paying the most slow and careful attention when working near the horse’s head is how both of you can unwind together.Then, walk back with the same requirements you had walking in – slow pace, no rushing or slowing (e.g. good rhythm) and a willingness to go where you lead. Don’t just take the halter off. Walk the horse into the stall or paddock, position them, wait a moment, ask them to bring down their head with lead rope pressure and then slowly remove the halter. If you haven’t been doing this, you may find they rip their head out of the halter without waiting or “go giraffe” on you. Try to stop removing the halter when they start that motion and bring their head down and wait for them to stabilize before trying again.

Then walk away slowly, thinking about your session and all the things you did to help your horse be better and how well you did and what you want to improve next time.

If you want more information on how to be a more confident rider, visit http://confidentrider.com.au/

3 thoughts on “Who’s Confidence?

  1. Jade says:

    Mark, thank you so much for writing this and for allowing me to share it with the Confident Rider readers. If you have the time and inclination to write some more, I have a reader question that I think you’d be perfect at answering. Get in touch if it appeals. 🙂

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