If you’re part of the equestrian world, you will likely defend the statement that horseback riding is an extreme sport that requires ample amounts of bravery. We all know that riding horses is not a matter of “if you will fall/have an accident”, but “when”. Riding can be scary at times, from starting a new colt, to hitting the trails, to working with a spooky horse, but having a healthy level of confidence helps us get through trying times on horseback. We, as horsemen, have to work on building confidence on horseback at some point in our riding journey.
My Personal Story
Personally, I have always struggled with finding my bravery on horseback, and with my summer job as a wrangler at a dude ranch, I was faced with this struggle on a daily basis. The trail was full of things that horses spook at – deer, snakes, scary rocks, but for the most part, the horses were all used to these things and were unfazed.
However, my first day of work, my horse spooked, started bucking, and I flew off and landed on a rock, in-front of a whole family of guests. After that, I had to work through my wariness when riding her. At one point, I had to have a co-worker ride up the mountain and trade horses with me because my mount was so spooky. I watched as she galloped my horse back down the hill, with no sign of fear. This got me thinking, why couldn’t I handle this spooky horse with the level of confidence that she had? Am I a bad rider? After all my years of riding, am I just not that good?
What are the 5 Horsemanship Habits you should develop? Get your FREE Checklist to help you develop good horsemanship habits.
Riding is a Journey
With the help of some contributors, I have pieced together a toolbox of how riders have worked through their own struggles to become more confident and braver in the saddle, and around horses in general. Through the journey of this story, I have learned so many lessons that I hope to share so that you too can become the best, most confident rider you can be. Riding is not a linear process, but a journey full of both setbacks and triumphs.
I sent out a survey to the herd, containing various questions regarding scary moments on horseback and how to gain back confidence. Here are the lessons I learned regarding building confidence on horseback:
Toolbox for Building Confidence on Horseback
#1 Building Confidence on Horseback: Dealing with a Spooky Horse
Horses are prey animals, and by nature, they live by the fight or flight response. When we ride horses, we are already testing those responses – the mere act of sitting on their backs mimics a predator. As such, horses can easily respond to sudden or scary stimuli by spooking – especially when out on the trail. While spooking can be a nuisance for some, for others it can be a really scary situation to deal with.
The best way to deal with a spooky horse is up to interpretation, but there are some basic guidelines that generally can help.
One of our survey respondents contributed by saying “I let my horse have a good look and then start moving her feet the way I want them to go. We might do small circles, we might walk/trot, but I work on having her focus on what I am asking. Gradually, I circle or walk closer to the object, back and forth to desensitize her”.
Another contributor said, “Build confidence in your leadership with your horse before going out on the trail. Educate yourself on ways to do this by attending clinics, seminars, and reading training material. A more confident you will help build a more confident horse.”
#2 Building Confidence on Horseback: Scenarios
Sometimes we can gain confidence from hearing about how others regained their confidence after a scary situation.
After a scary fall, being thrown from a bolting, out of control thoroughbred and splitting her helmet in two, one respondent said about her current horse, “I remind myself that I have always been able to ride what she gives me…then I take deep breaths or even sing out loud, which seems to calm us both. I think the more often you can ride helps. When I have time to ride more frequently, I feel more confident just because of the extra saddle time”.
Another respondent told us, “I once had a horse bolt and then rear on me while on a group trail ride. After that incident I had friends help me build confidence and learn how to cope with my horse. We also attended a natural horsemanship clinic to teach us both how to handle these things better. I am blessed to be surrounded by many wonderful and gifted horse people to ask questions and help when I am in unknown territory”.
#3 Building Confidence on Horseback: Suggestions
After a scary situation with horses, getting our confidence back can be a struggle, both mentally and physically. Some of our respondents had suggestions on how to do this. One respondent said, “Don’t listen to your head, listen to your heart. Those of us who have horse running through our veins understand that…we may be the only ones who do. When the love of riding can override the fear, that’s when the heart wins and the head loses.”
Gaining confidence in any sport or any part of our lives can be challenge of mastering our minds. I can wholeheartedly relate to this. When I first got my horse, Thunder, when I was ten, I took him to our first schooling show. Long story short, he bolted in the warm-up ring, my face was torn up, and I was knocked unconscious for a short time. It took me over a year to regain my confidence to ride him again. I learned how to say positive affirmations before every ride… to visualize a safe and successful time with my horse. I even went to therapy, because it meant that much to me to conquer my fears and get back to the horse I loved. Mastering my mind and following my heart was what made me ride him again, uninhibited by fear.
Following closely to my story, one respondent said, “My love to ride overrides the trauma and fear, so I just do it, regardless of the racing heart rate and the sweaty hands.”
“You have to realize that it is not your horse’s responsibility to keep you safe,” suggested another.
Once we take charge of our minds and commit to regaining our confidence, we can ride our horses with confidence.
Building Confidence on Horseback: In Conclusion
One of the lessons that I have learned through all my years riding, and something that was reiterated in my summer job, is that you have to convince the horse that they can trust you. Once you adopt this mindset, both you and your horse can become more confident.
Building confidence on horseback is, as we have seen from these responses, all about mastering your mind. We have to learn not only how to get our horses through a scary situation, but how to do that while keeping our cool. So, no, I am not a bad rider for calling my coworker to switch out horses with me. I just needed to accept that my bravery faltered at that moment, and be aware of it next time. I learned so many lessons in bravery from my job this summer, and I have also learned a lot through the process of writing this story.
Photo Credit: Chanel Jensen
Need a reminder of the horsemanship habits you should develop? Here’s a hotsheet with each one listed. Download this hotsheet to your device and click the story link at the bottom to have all this information at your fingertips. You will become a member of our SLO Horse News herd where we’ll continue to add horsemanship stories and more to our website. Don’t worry if you are already a member, you won’t get duplicate mailings. Get your 5 Horsemanship Habits Hot Sheet here >.