*Needs Confident Rider*

WMNubeTackSky*Needs a confident rider*. If you see those words while paging though horse ads, what do you think? Used car salesmen don’t have a thing on horse traders. Would you climb in the saddle? Is it the punchline for a joke?

Maybe the real question is what horse doesn’t need a confident rider? It’s kind of a no-brainer when you look at it from that direction.

Where do you rank on the confidence scale?

I’m about to make an unpopular statement: I think a rider can have too much confidence. When an overly-confident rider gets into a rough spot, they ride through it. It’s a good idea but not in the extreme. Just because you are tough enough to ride through it, it doesn’t mean that was the best choice for the horse. Horses don’t learn when they are frightened. If the answer is always forward-forward-forward, without understanding, then a certain percentage of horses don’t get over it, but instead learn to be more fearful. Ignoring the horse isn’t the same as helping him. I wonder how many horses described as *hot* are actually habitually frightened.

On the other hand, I don’t think there are many horses who prefer a timid rider with a body language that’s a bit like stalking, or walking on egg shells. It’s an overall feeling of reluctance or even resistance. Each time the environment changes and the rider flinches, she slows down the horse, often pulling on the bit with each stride or micro-managing or just moving too slow. The result is to unbalance the horse. For them it’s like having a coyote in the saddle. One aspect of being a prey animal is the need to move forward freely, it is intrinsically necessary to their well-being and a horse that is always held back starts to act spooky or erratic.

Ironically, these two riding styles might produce a horse that acts pretty similarly.

Most horses fall into one of two categories in these situations: they either shut down or over-react. When things get too overwhelming, the horses prone to shutting down get quiet and almost bored looking. We call them lazy or stupid, our cues get louder and the louder the cues get, the more deaf the horse appears. Sometimes in nature an animal’s best defense is to play dead. He may be stoic in his actions but this horse is still sensitive. He is just being less honest about it.

The horse we are likely to call over-sensitive is prancing or tossing his head or wild-eyed and tense. He over-reacts to every cue and spooks often. His feet barely reach the ground. He is so overwhelmed that he is kind of hysterical. He is feeling all the same confusion that the shut down horse feels, he is just being more honest.

There is a middle place for the horse between these extremes. In Dressage we use the word losgelassenheit. There is some debate about literal translation but the concept is a balance of relaxation, combined with rhythmic, ground covering strides. Relaxed and forward is the goal, and each behavior is important and shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other.

There is a middle place for the rider, too. It isn’t quite as easy as telling a over-confident rider to slow down and the timid rider to speed up. It’s the quality of connection between the horse and rider that should change.

There are technical skills to improve: Breathe deeply and go slow. Keep elastic elbows. Ride transitions softly and clearly. Give all cues in rhythm with the horse’s movement. Reward your horse frequently.

And then there is a mental quick fix. It’s almost like cheating, but it works…

A couple years ago, Edgar Rice Burro had an acting gig. (See post here) The script called for Edgar and one of the actors to greet everyone at the door. The sun was setting altering the visibility and there were lots of spontaneous people and unpredictable behaviors. Edgar hasn’t done a lot of stage work. The actor with him had not been around donkeys; no experience with horses either. If something went wrong and Edgar got frightened, she might not be able to help him. She might even get hurt.

I watched from a short distance. The actor played a Calamity Jane sort of character; loud, ‘drunk-ish’, and a little too comfortable in her skin, if you know what I mean. She called to every attendee, “Would you like to pet my ass?” and cackled.  Edgar had the time of his life, not because the actor knew donkeys, but because she stayed in character. Again and again, I saw things that might challenge him, but Calamity Jane was also acting the part of a good leader, so it was all right. She acted relaxed and didn’t ignore Edgar; she included him in the conversation, like her character would have, and he felt supported. It was a bizarre experience to get a riding lesson from an actor who doesn’t ride.

“Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” -Shakespeare.

Do you have to be confident, or is it enough to act that way? If you play the part long enough, does it leak over into real life and become habit? I confess, there are times around horses, while riding or giving a lesson, where things start to come apart, but acting like everything is good, gives that exact result.

Try this experiment: Pick your best version of confident and ride that way. Let me know what your horse thinks of your performance.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

20 thoughts on “*Needs Confident Rider*

  1. Yep, I often fake it till I feel it! The best part is that if you fake it for long enough you eventually believe yourself, so it does work, sometimes.

  2. Sandra Murray

    Wonderful article, Anna! I would guess that there are lots of “hot” horses who live every day habitually frightened by humans. And those horses who “shut down” out of fear? When pushed too far by humans who don’t “read” the horse’s subtle signals, this seemingly “stubborn” horse will suddenly explode. He gave all kinds of cues as to his emotional state, but his rider missed every one and will swear that the explosion came out of nowhere! I guess it comes back to learning how to read and speak “horse”. Knowing that will go a long way toward creating confidence in a rider.

    1. terrybg

      That’s what people say about dogs that bite. “out of the blue!” and then you find out that the dog had been tied up outside and that a child was yanking his chain…

  3. Thanks for clarifying something. I have long been puzzled by two conflicting ideas related to confidence: You can’t fool a horse, they’re completely aware of your emotional state, and fake it ’til you make it.

    I think what you’re saying is, behaving like what you aspire to will achieve the same desired results as being naturally confident?!

    Love your blog Anna. I really wish I were closer and could ride with you. I live in a remote area and lost my trainer not long after I got my horse. She was only three hours away. ;D

    1. Sometimes over or under confident could be seen as faking it, meaning not authentic… but whatever. Whenever we change behavior, there is that time when we do that thing a different way. If affirming a better approach is ‘faking it’ then we are pretty cynical. I have been living by this Shakespeare quote since a therapist gave it to me 40 years ago, it works for me.

  4. Beth Weaver

    Reminds me of being an ER nurse. You’re scared to death, but you fake it, because if you don’t, the patient will be terrified. So you act like you are calm, in control, know exactly what to do. Even when you are feeling like, “holy smokes, it’s hitting the fan.” And then you keep doing what you are trained to do, and someday, even though you still feel that way, you do know exactly what to do. Like a confident rider does.
    Beth

    1. Great analogy, Beth. It’s the actual method we learn by… and the other occupation I think of this way: Moms. Thanks for the comment, that is exactly what I meant.

  5. Lately experienced at the trail ride games at our barn: Horse at our station jumping erratically, spooking, rearing, craziness showing in his eyes (this sort of craziness that comes from not being listened to, not seeing a way out if trouble). I asked the rider if I could help him. His answer: “He’s always like that”. Rider perfectly happy to sit his horse’s maneuvers. Guess what his bit was. Yep. Elevation bit combined with a tie down. Well done!

  6. It’s taken me a while to realise my horse may be faking his bravado, especially on rides out. He seldom spooks, has never reared and only once or twice attempted a buck, but he seems “hot” and I think he’s rushing to get back to home, his pal and safety, much as I feel calm and attempt to reassure him. But the more often we go out the calmer he is. I learned to fake confidence (with people) when I became, for a short time a (relatively elderly) air hostess, as I was desperate to travel. Once you put on the uniform and the regulation “slap” and have all the safety regs. drilled into you it’s easy to act the part. As you say, keep up the pretence for just a short while and a habit is formed! Mind you, I’m still afraid of flying.

    1. I don’t fly often, but I pretend too. In the end, I don’t know how change happens if we don’t try it on like an awkward hat, until we break it in and make it ours. Sounds like your gelding is getting there. One step at a time. Like the rest of us.

  7. Pingback: Welcome to the August 2014 Blog Carnival of Horses | EQUINE Ink

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  9. Yes! Completely agree with you Anna, particularly about “hot” horses actually being a bundle of misunderstood nerves. Nervous riders are often put down, but in reality, their sensitivity could be looked at as an asset when it comes to training horses. You don’t always have to “fake it until you make it”– I guarantee my horse can see through that anyway. I prefer to concentrate on raising my energy to the point where my horse and I can feel good in each others company. 🙂

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