• Christa Dillon

Rider confidence – one size doesn't fit all!

Christa Dillon continues her look at our often irrational fears when riding


In the last article, we looked at how a real or perceived lack of control in any given scenario can have a detrimental effect on rider confidence. When confidence is low, fear fills the void and we can become entirely mentally and physically powerless to take any action that may be of benefit. In deciding to address and improve self belief and mindset in the saddle, it can be useful to employ a many-pronged approach. We must do what we can to understand our own psychology, but we must also extend that courtesy to our horses.


The horse as a species has evolved over 50,000,000 years. He is designed by nature to live in a herd, to move and to eat often, and to rely on his finely honed senses at all times. As with all mammals, the job of the brain is to preserve the life of its host – the more vulnerable the animal, the sharper his primal responses will be. Horses are large prey animals, and they remain all too acutely aware of their own vulnerabilities, despite thousands of years of domestication.


As herd animals, horses tend to thrive on consistent boundaries. The alpha mare in any herd runs a tight ship, and for the most part, herds in the wild operate peacefully with a respect and an understanding of the hierarchy. When we remove a horse from his natural environment, his requirements still remain the same. He still needs consistent boundaries, and he still needs someone to tell him kindly and firmly what those boundaries should be. If the human is not able to do this for the horse, then the horse as a prey animal will feel huge insecurity. If he feels unable to trust his human leader, then he will instead make choices for himself to ensure his own survival.


The relationship between human and horse is so special – but sometimes we lose our way

Image: Jack Brock courtesy of Alexandra Stearn


A human who is struggling with confidence and being choked by their own fear, will often understandably also struggle to comfortably and consistently provide an acceptable framework for the horse. The horse will in turn do what he needs to do, to survive any scenario that causes him to feel confusion or vulnerability. It can become a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, with predictable results. Oftentimes though, a descending situation can actually become a catalyst for positive change. Recognising the need for a different outcome can be pivotal. Thankfully, the options for both rider and horse to rewrite the script are many and plentiful.


Where to start?

Sometimes, finding what works best for a rider – or a horse, can be trial and error. Humans and horses are so uniquely individual, and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is counter-intuitive. For riders who have made the decision to work on their mindset, it can be useful to consider working with a coach who operates specifically in that area of practice. Thanks to entities such as Centre !0, there are a growing number of coaches in the industry who are trained in the use of applied psychology, and who can do much to assist and progress both riders and horses.


For others, it may be a better option to work with a sports psychologist. Whilst to some extent, mindset is mindset regardless of the sport, finding an equine-specific sports psychologist (or a sports/performance psychologist with experience of working with equestrians) can make life a little easier. Trying to explain horsey terminology to a ‘lay person’ is at worst confusing, and at best, hilarious…..


Sports psychology is the study of how psychological factors can positively or negatively influence athletic performance. A good sports psychologist will assist an athlete in learning how to utilise psychology to improve performance, and to grow confidence. Techniques such as thought stopping, positive reframing, identifying the undisputed strengths of the athlete, mantras etc. can completely transform an athlete’s ability to perform, and to achieve.


Neuro Linguistic Programming is another interesting branch on the tree of change. NLP practitioners work with people to help them to better understand the way the brain processes the words that we use, and how that can impact on our past, present and future. Furthermore, it provides strategies for observing and learning from human behaviour. Combined with the desire to change-and a willingness to learn new ways of ‘being’-NLP can be very beneficial indeed.


Sports hypnotherapy works on the principle of the mind-body connection. The theory is that the mind tells the body how to behave, and the body tells the mind how to feel, and how to behave. The objective of sports hypnosis is to bring the mind and the body into balance, and create a better connection between what we know and how we feel. The brain cannot tell the difference between a strong visualisation of an event, and an actual lived experience event-therefore, sports hypnotherapy can provide significant opportunities for growth and improvement in both mindset and performance.


There are many more avenues and options available to riders in search of support, guidance and education. The decision to seek and implement positive, lasting change is the first empowering step on a whole new and exciting journey.


What about the horse?

While there are many options available for a rider to work on improving their mindset, the horse rather unfortunately cannot read or talk. It is not always enough for a rider to address only their own requirements, as facing back into a difficult and unresolved situation with a horse can be overwhelming.


The rider must still always advocate for the horse, and a good place to start for that horse can be a thorough check over-and further diagnostics if required-from the relevant equine healthcare professionals. For some riders, it can be useful to have a more experienced rider work with the horse for a little while. This will allow the rider time and space to work solely on their own progress, whilst the horse is-to some extent-afforded the same courtesy. Bringing horse and rider back together at an appropriate later juncture, can dramatically change the capacity for a mutually enjoyable and fulfilling future together.


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