Stage 1: Complete reliance on your horse's relaxation to determine whether or not it's safe to ride.
Stages 2: Strong belief in your ability to perform practiced safety maneuvers despite emotional distress in your horse.
Stage 3: Complete trust in your body's ability to bounce, to recover from any injury or avoid it.
Most unconfident riders live in stage one, complete reliance on their horse's relaxation to feel safe. In other words, if the horse starts feeling anxious, the rider starts falling to pieces.
The goal of every rider should be to reach the second stage of confidence because, in this stage, you trust you can ride an anxious or nervous horse by controlling specific movements to keep the horse grounded.
I can ride a hot horse, if... that horse follows direction from my hands and legs. Maybe he won't stand still but I can keep him from exploding and simply manage his movement when the planets aren't aligned for a perfect ride. I trust I can do this because we have practiced those movements more than once with that same horse. In fact, more than a few hundred times.
Reaching the third stage of confidence is unrealistic and dare I say... foolish, by most standards. Ironically, it's where most people start before, they get hurt and realize you can't always rely on your ability to bounce to protect you. We all age. We all slow down. Why beat ourselves up for not being young again, or ignorant again. That kind of confidence is only lived by the rough stock, the recreational bronc riders and the like. It's inspiring to watch dare devils get on a green horse and fun to imaging feeling that way, but it's not in the cards for most of us. We have to learn and "earn" our confidence in a different way.
And that way... is through practicing specific maneuver, so in the event of an emergency, we don't have to think, we just do those things automatically.
I'm talking about practicing the emergency stop signal, both on two reins and on one rein. Sometimes we must suddenly stop a horse by pulling back on two reins. It should be practiced from every gait. Sometimes we need to pull on one rein and spin our horse in a circle to keep his feet on the ground. It should be practiced. We should practice kicking our feet lose and jumping or sliding off the horse quickly. Almost all injuries with horses occur because the rider exits the vehicle poorly or too slowly. With practice, this becomes easier and faster.
We also need to practice sharp turns, where we first lean to guide the hind quarters and second, gain a firm control over the horse's shoulder movements. I'm often shocked with how little shoulder control riders have when they decide it's time to head out riding. The ability to guide and slide the shoulders left and right can keep a rider out of trouble in so many scary situations, let alone help them progress to advanced levels of riding.
Transitions up and down the gaits should also be a regular practice or warm up item. I see too many riders walking or trotting to warm up their horse but failing to repeat the transition but once or twice. It's repetition of walk, trot, walk, trot, walk, etc. That increases the sensitivity and control you need to survive heightened emotional experiences.
In my professional opinion, if you're not practicing transitions, sudden stopping cues, hind quarter and shoulder control, if you're just walking around with little to no input to your horse to avoid upsetting your horse, you're just hoping it works out and you're not qualified to ride without the safety net of a good trainer at your side. Someone who can read the horse for you and keep the environment free of any triggers.
If you need that, there is no judgment from me. Handicap riders needs that, kids and first time riders need that. I needed that after falling and starting over. It's a great starting point. But remember, the goal is stage two, reliance on your ability to control the movements of the horse.
The goal is not to be bulletproof like when you were 18 years old. That's a fairytale, let it go. The real goal is to enhance your skills and grow independence. Unless of course, you can't, or... you prefer not to ride at all. I have many clients who never ride and grow their horsemanship through ground skills. It's a beautiful, artistic journey I encourage everyone to take, even if you do ride.
One last note... you won't grow your confidence to ride by having someone lead you around or manage your every step for you. You can spend some time in that world, especially in the beginning, or while you recover, but don't be fooled. You'll always be limited to what you can ride and when you can ride, until you develop your skills all by yourself. You have to own it! It's smart to have someone there with you, watching you, helping you, coaching you. But you have to master the skill of leadership through the practice of those maneuvers without a trainer telling you every step to make or transition or try another turn or leg yield.
To be clear, I'm not saying ride alone. I'm saying, consciously apply yourself to the goal of the second stage. Don't rely on your instructor to get you there.
Confidence doesn't grow organically without ignorance. But it does grow with practice. Consciously taking time at the beginning of every ride to sharpen the horse's senses to your aids. Sitting up there and waiting to feel good or asking the horse how he feels to determine how you're going to feel, will never get you past stage one.
Now you know the stages and the goals. Take inventory of yourself now. There are tasks in psychology that improve your awareness and diminish post traumatic stresses or triggers. We will walk through some of those in the next article, but never forget. To get to stage two, the only thing you can do, is practice. So, lace up your boots and saddle your horse. If he passes the ground skill tests and looks rideable, it's time to start working on those riding tests. Start small, go slow, but do it over and over and over until it's muscle memory for you and your horse.
The magnificent world of progressive horsemanship awaits for those who challenge themselves to master the basic things.
PS. all of the tasks listed above, including ground skills tasks, are part of our confidence course. Check it out. Don
With Mastery Horsemanship
I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.
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