Cultivating Confidence For Horseback Riding, Part 1

Find out how riders can find sureness and certainty in the saddle.

The key to confidence with horses is starting with a horse that suits the rider’s skill level.

All the time, people approach me and say, “Clinton, I’m scared when I ride. I have a lack of confidence.”

Sometimes, that’s because of an accident that damaged both their body and their confidence. Or sometimes, the people rode as children but then stepped away from horses to pursue careers and families. Now, when they returned to horses 30 years later, they aren’t as athletic and they know they’ll hit the ground a lot harder if they fall. The confidence they had as children has disappeared.

The first thing I tell these people is that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. That’s very normal and valid. When you tell people that, it takes the pressure off.

The next thing I like to do is get a rider to dissect the problem. I’ll ask her to imagine that she has a big red button - like the ones off “Family Feud” - on her saddle horn. If her horse does anything bad, she can push that button and the horse will freeze in midair. I’ll question her about how that would make her feel, and invariably, she’ll tell me that she’d feel safer because she knows she could get the horse stopped and back under control if something bad happened.

So I’ll say, “Let me see if I get this straight … you don’t really have a confidence problem. You have a lack of control problem. You feel like you don’t have complete control of your horse.”

Usually by now, the rider is nodding in agreement, and I’ll tell her, let’s not worry about your confidence issue. Let’s worry about your control issue. Let’s teach you how to do a one-rein stop, an emergency hand-brake stop, so that if your horse goes to buck or balk or rear, you can get him shut down, right now. And then we’re going to work on your steering wheel. And then we’re going to work on your gas pedal and your cruise-control button. We’re going to rebuild your car.

I don’t teach people how to gain confidence. I teach them how to get control of their horse.

Groundwork is where it all starts, and sometimes a rider will say, “I’m really scared, and I don’t want to ride.” That’s fine. There are plenty of things you can do on the ground to gain control first, and then later - whether it’s 30, 60 days or more - when you’re in the saddle, that control will carry over.

Are you a member yet? Join AQHA today and receive a subscription to the member-exclusive America’s Horse magazine and get great discounts on brands you trust!

Judgment plays into it, too. Don’t start with a horse that’s way above your ability. If you’re having confidence issues at the walk, don’t start with a horse off the track who only wants to gallop. Find a horse who makes your job a little bit easier.

As riders begin doing exercises in the saddle, they’ll never hear me coach them on seat position and balance. That’s because I find that the more you try to work on your balance, the worse it gets. If you were standing on a ledge, and I said, “OK, don’t fall off the ledge now,” you’d be really focused on your balance. But if I said, “Quickly walk from here to there,” you’d just go.

Same thing with riding. I keep riders busy turning left, turning right, stopping, backing, moving … so they can’t say “I’m a little bit scared.” They’re too busy doing these other things to be scared.

When a rider gets focused on these other tasks, two things happen. First, the horse focuses back on the rider. And then the rider quits being scared because she realizes she has control over her horse. Every minute of the ride, she’s getting more and more control.

Very often, people’s fear issues revolve around cantering. That might not seem like a big deal to people who have ridden all their lives, but for beginners, especially those who are coming to it later in life, it is a big deal.

First, you’ve got to make sure you have the right horse for you. Find a horse that has done a lot of loping, maybe a retired western pleasure show horse. He’ll be nice and quiet, and he’ll want to go slow so you can learn and become more comfortable.

Remember when you were a kid getting your first bicycle? It wasn’t a 10-speed racer. It was a tricycle or something with training wheels. Very slowly, as your skills and confidence grew, your bikes began getting taller and faster, until one day you were 16 and you could ride that 10-speed.

But you didn’t start on the 10-speed, and you shouldn’t start on a horse who wants to gallop.

If you don’t have that nice beginner horse, go lease that horse. Go borrow that horse. Or go take lessons at a local riding stable that has good lesson horses. Go make the effort to do this. It will be effort; you’ll have to travel a little bit, and you might have to pay to lease a horse, but it’s so much better to do that than to get bucked off trying to ride the wrong horse.

Whether you ride to compete or just for fun, an AQHA membership has lots to offer! As a member, you can join the Horseback Riding Program and earn prizes for logging hours in the saddle. Join AQHA today!

With the right horse underneath you, the best way to get good at cantering is to canter. Start small by practicing in a round pen or small arena, and just let the horse go wherever he wants. Don’t even worry about steering; learn to move in rhythm with the horse. If you need some security in the saddle, hold onto the horn or even the back of the saddle. Practice cantering every time you ride until you feel completely relaxed and confident and you can move all over the horse. Reach back and pat your horse on the butt, lean over and rub his neck, move all around on him. There is no substitute for putting your butt in the saddle and riding as often as you can for as long as you can to gain experience.

Going back to that bike analogy … how did you get good at riding a bike when you were a kid? You rode the wheels off it. Your parents practically had to force you off it.

It’s the same thing with cantering. Many people will canter three strides and say, “OK, I’m done.” Well, I’m glad they did three strides. But I’ll tell them, “Have a little break, and let’s do five next time. Then have another break, and let’s do 10 next time.”

Slowly, we’ll keep adding more “practice time,” and the riders will continue to improve the control they have over their horses.

Exercises to Create Confidence

One-rein stop - First, you practice this at the standstill. If you’re not safe at the standstill, you’re not going to be safe at the walk, trot, canter or gallop. So get your horse to flex his head from side to side while standing still. Then walk your horse off, slide your hand down one rein, pull it up to your hip and wait until he stops moving his feet and his nose touches one part of your leg (boot, stirrup, jeans or fender). Get really, really good at this exercise, until you can do it in your sleep.

Serpentines - Basically, you want to jog around like a big rubber snake. Alternate using your right rein and left rein, and just serpentine down the arena. The more you change direction with a horse and redirect his feet, the more he goes from the reactive side of his brain to the thinking side of his brain.

Transitions - Trot off, then bend your horse around in three or four circles until he comes down to the walk. Then canter off and bend him around in three or four circles until he walks. If you think of your horse like a car, practice going from second gear to first gear, then third gear to first gear, then fourth gear to first gear. The more you go up the scale and down the scale, your horse gets used to listening to you. All of these exercises will help you gain control of your horse’s feet, and that’s what will help you gain confidence.

When people get control of their horses, control equals confidence. Confidence and control equal fun. And that is what it is supposed to be all about.