Trainer’s Tip: Riding with confidence

by Brent Winston, head trainer, Harmony Equine Center

Well, it’s that time of year again! Mother Nature starts to tease us with some very tempting weather, telling us to start getting ready for the summer riding season. We also just wrapped up a great weekend at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo. It was a blast participating in the Equine Comeback Challenge, giving training demonstrations and meeting everyone at our booth. Our training demonstration, Gaining Confidence in Horse and Rider, was well received and worth sharing in this segment.

At Harmony, there are two things that build confidence: knowledge and success. The more you know about something, the more confident you feel. Also, the more successes you have, the more confident you become. There is a never-ending supply of knowledge out there, and we are constantly seeking out learning opportunities. I have noticed, however, that when a person gets in an uncomfortable situation with their horse, they forget everything they have been working on and check out. That’s when things can go from bad to worse very quickly. I have also noticed that when our horses get nervous or excited, we pull back on the reins and try to stop them from doing anything. Following this is approach is tough because all that nervous energy needs to go somewhere. When nervous energy is stopped, it becomes bottled up, and horses may rear, buck or bolt, which are all things that can make riders feel less confident. Instead of holding a horse back, I like to give them something to do, such as trotting circles, disengaging the hindquarters, moving the shoulders, doing figure eights, basically, anything I can do to regain control of my horse’s feet and mind. Once a rider does that, they have achieved success and will feel more confident the next time something happens. However, success doesn’t magically happen out on the trail. If you haven’t done your preparation work at home, it will be tough to regain control in any location. A big part of success is preparation.

In previous training tips, we have gone over moving the hindquarters (polishing off the winter rust) and being centered when riding your horse (staying balanced). When our horses start to get nervous or excited, it is important that we regain control of the feet. Sometimes we need to compromise. If we want our horse to stand still and it wants to go, instead of making the horse stay, remember to redirect the energy as mentioned above. However, many times I have seen people use this method as a punishment when it is simply redirecting their focus. Once our horse comes back to us and starts to settle down, we can release the pressure. By releasing the pressure when our horse does something right, even if it is only a small try, they feel successful and will, in many cases, come back to us quicker the next time and try harder. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to stay as calm as possible and remain centered and balanced on the horse. We are assuming the role of a leader to our horse and trying to help them through the situation, not scare them by punishing them or by leaving them hanging on their own.

It is important to “ride every stride”. Most of the time our horses tell us in advance that something is bothering them. Many times we either ignore or are unaware of our horses signals. It is difficult to get our horses to come back to us after the wreck starts, but keep trying. It is much easier to get our horses feet and mind redirected before the total meltdown occurs. The better we can do this, the more it helps us feel successful and confident and lets our horse know we can help them through situations where they may lack confidence. The key to rebuilding confidence in our horses or in ourselves is to create situations that allow for small successes. If we go for the big successful end goal all at once, we might be setting ourselves up for disappointment.  When rebuilding confidence, if all you can do is go out and get your horse to bend its head softly and relaxed that was successful for both of you, and you can build on that achievement. One day you guys will be confidently riding around in your chosen discipline. Rebuilding confidence takes time for both the horse and rider.

Remember these tips to rebuild confidence:

  • Arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible with the realization that you can never know too much about how to control your horse.
  • Create situations for both you and your horse to be successful, remembering that several small successes will eventually lead to the big success you want.
  • Stay mentally present and centered on the horse as you are helping them to feel successful as well.
  • Set yourself up for success by being prepared before going out and being ready for it to be a process.

Rebuilding confidence doesn’t happen overnight, not for us not and not for our horses. Until next time, at the end of the day sit up, smile and ride.