Whatever the challenge is for you about riding, whatever you lack confidence in doing, be it cantering, jumping, trail riding, competitions or maybe even just mounting your horse, chances are you are experiencing some unpleasant feelings such as fear, anxiety, worry, terror or panic. You are probably experiencing an increase in your heart rate, your stomach churns, your mouth goes dry, maybe you hold your breath or start to sweat. Just think about whatever your challenge is and imagine you are going to do it right now, how are you feeling? Are you having an unpleasant response?
What is happening to you is the flight or fight response where your body goes into survival mode, instinctually you believe, albeit on a subconscious level, that this is a life or death situation and your body prepares to run. The thing is when you go into this mode the learning part of your brain shuts down as your brain and body are simply helping you survive the experience. When the learning part of your brain shuts down you cannot learn, you cannot increase your confidence, you can only get through your current experience. This is why you can be scared about going on, for instance, a trail ride, you ride it, nothing happens, it was ok but the next time you want to go you have the same fear response.
In the riding world we often set ourselves unrealistic expectations. What do I mean by this? Let’s take cantering as an example. We may be afraid of cantering, or even terrified because we believe that when we do canter it has to be for the entire circuit of the arena or all the way across a field. What we are asking is too much and it magnifies the fear. How about, when we canter, we aim for just one stride and then we come back to trot? Are we confident at walk and trot already? If not then why are we pushing ourselves up into canter?
If you want to start building your confidence then you have to start breaking what you want to achieve down into small, baby steps. Figure out what you are confident at and when your fear starts to rise; now how can you make the very next step you take easy for yourself? How can you set yourself up to succeed? Back to the cantering example if you set your next step as asking for one stride of canter and you achieve that successfully you feel fantastic and will probably want to do it again. If you set the step as a whole circuit of the arena and you freak out after getting only half way, you feel like a failure and beat yourself up and are far less likely to do it again. Make what you ask of yourself small in any one session and if you achieve more that’s a bonus, you will feel like a winner and like you are actually beginning to get somewhere.
If the step you set yourself causes you to go into survival mode then it is too big and you need to figure out how to make it smaller and more achievable. Back off from what you are doing and re-think. Always pay attention to how you are feeling and how your body is responding to what you are asking of it.
The other key thing is to stick at that next step until you feel comfortable, confident and calm. Then, and only then, do you move on up to the next step and you stick at that one until you feel confident and so on. This way you are slowly stretching your comfort zone like blowing up a balloon one breath at a time rather than blowing it up in one go to the point it bursts. The ideal learning zone is the ‘I’m not sure but I’ll give it a go’ feeling which is this side of the flight or fight response.
To sum up, think small and achievable, feel uncomfortable but stay this side of survival mode, repeat each step until you feel ok and then move on. Take the time it takes and most of all remember to smile, laugh and have fun!