We all know that we should be riding horses with confidence.
We know that horses can literally sense our state of mind - not through some heebie-jeebie magical mythical powers, but quite simply because they feel us through the saddle. They feel our aids, our balance... and our hesitance.
But we can do something about that.
It's possible that some riders have more intrinsic confidence than others. But confidence is the by-product of the skills we learn. Here are five ways you can learn to improve your confidence while in the saddle.
1. Let the horse move.
It takes a certain amount of courage to let the horse really move underneath you. Many of us tend to hold back the horse and ourselves using the reins - to slow down, contain, "collect" (probably not really but that's what we're thinking we're doing), and even hang on. Sometimes, we also hold back physically, getting behind in the horse's movement.
I don't mean that the horse should run off and we should do nothing. We should always strive for connection, balance and straightness. We should always be watching to maintain correct rhythm and a good tempo for our horse.
But it's more about letting the horse find his balance, energize enough to be able to use his hind end, and flow in the gait. If you can allow the movement, you might be surprised at first about how much ground a horse can cover in relatively few strides. It might feel powerful and strong.
Your body has to get used to the movement. Sometimes, you might have to consciously work to stay with the horse, especially in the upper body.
2. Never mind the bobbles.
A confident rider lets the bobbles roll off her back. In other words, if the horse takes a misstep, or goes for a little romp, the confident rider has enough skill to roll with the flow, as it were, and still be there at the end to ride on. She goes through all that with little stress and maybe a giggle. The horse feels her confidence and settles.
Now I'm not saying that the confident rider aspires to be a bronc rider. But the bobbles will invariably happen, and the cooler you can be, the quicker you can get back to your rhythm and tempo, the better you and your horse will be in the long run.
Which begs the question: how can you learn to ride the bounce?
Well, you do have to earn the skill to stay on when a horse takes a step sideways or upwards. It helps if you have a great horse (and instructor) to let you develop your seat early in your riding career. Lunging lessons are hard to find but indispensable and the quickest path to a great seat. Otherwise, there is no answer other than ride, ride and ride (many horses if possible). It's about practice, time and experience.
3. Ride with patience and influence.
I've written about patience and how it relates to riding in The #1 Rider Problem of 2016: Patience. Essentially, I feel that riding with patience is a key component of confidence. Riders who can be patient about skill acquisition, practice and self-development invariably become composed, confident riders.
What does patience look like?
- the rider who looks to herself to improve the horse's movement.
- the willingness to wait a little longer for the horse's response.
- knowing that finishing on a good note is more than enough from a day's ride - even if the desired movement was not perfectly achieved.
When a rider has influence over the horse, she can be effective. Influence is evident by the rider's ability to get the horse's calm, relaxed response. She makes immediate corrections (or anticipates problems so that they don't appear in the first place). She uses small aids that "go through." She maintains her balance while she improves her horse's balance. She sets her horse up for success.
4. Stay open in your torso.
You can probably spot a defensive or fearful rider by their posture. And so it is the same with the confident rider.
If you can maintain tone and strength in your upper body, you can stay "open" in your torso. This means that your upper body is tall and stays tall through movement. Your shoulder blades are dropped down and together enough that your shoulders are even and square. Your hips are open enough to allow your core to move freely with the horse's back. Your chin is parallel to the ground and your eyes are looking between your horse's ears.
The opposite is the ever-common fetal position (when the rider hunches over and falls toward the horse's neck), rounded shoulders, looking down and carrying tension in the body.
You can fake this till you make it.
Finally, a confident rider breathes. In every gait. Through all the figures.
Because lack of breath pretty much ensures tension, tightness, and being forced to have to stop before you're done with the movement.
If you have to collapse at the end of a canter set (or similar), you know that you're probably not breathing. If you find yourself huffing and puffing, see if you can make it a point to breathe in and out in rhythm with your horse's strides.
If you want, you can try counting out loud, or do what I make my students do - sing along in tempo with your horse's movement. The singing takes you out of your left brain and into your right, makes you breathe and acts as a calming influence for you and your horse.
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