Have you ever had the misfortune of a plan going awry when in the saddle? Perhaps something small such as a refusal or run out, or maybe something a little 'bigger' such as a fall or stumble? Either way, since it happened, you find that whenever you are in a similar situation or are reminded of it... Things are just, well, different.
Losing your confidence when riding is one of those things that no matter how small or insignificant the initial incident, has all the potential to grow into something that literally robs your enjoyment when riding your horse. If this is not bad enough, what frustrates so many riders is that while losing it can be so simple - regaining it is a process that takes time, effort and patients from all parties involved.
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However, regaining your confidence can be done and I believe approaching it with a plan of action which is tailor-made to each rider is the way forward. Very often riders tend to become frustrated with how long it is taking to build their confidence again. However, confidence is a little like plastic; if you force it, very often the result will be breaking it permanently.
I think it is really important to recognise that a loss of confidence is very often focused on not believing you are able to do something. With anything we believe or want to believe, we will look for proof of this being true. Maybe your horse acting a particular way, or a similar thing happening every time you try a specific movement.
However, rather than becoming stuck in the 'Yes, when I try this, the result is that' mentality, rather begin looking for the reason it is happening. Only when you discover the reason, can you then begin to dismantle the fear. Breaking the fear or the lack of confidence down into smaller parts is necessary to begin building it back up again.
Think of it like a puzzle that has been put together incorrectly. There are probably some parts that are correct, however there is also many parts that are incorrect, leaving the puzzle unfinished and wrong! Like remaking the puzzle, breaking all the pieces up - separating them in your head - so you can then see each piece clearly on its own, is the easiest and most effective way of then putting them together correctly to achieve the correct result.
Separating your fears up into smaller parts is, in my opinion, important for two reasons. Firstly; understanding something well and knowing the whys and hows of something helps to dispel a lot of the fear associated with it. Secondly; very often the thing causing the 'lack of confidence' is a symptom of something else.
The longer you continue to try treat the symptom, rather than remedy the cause, the more your confidence will continue to erode. Not unmasking the underlying cause is like trying to patch a dam with a band-aid
So taking all this into account I suggest starting off, regardless of your particular situation, in a smaller space than you would normally ride in. Here on the farm, we will start nervous beginners in the round pen which we use to lunge the horses. I then allow the riders as much time as they need to feel confident and 'in control' in that smaller space, before we move into a larger area.
Very often an empty arena can look massive to a rider who is feeling a lack of confidence in their abilities. Because of this, we will then divide the normal arena with poles and uprights, so there is 1 third on one side of the poles and 2 thirds on the other side of the poles. The riders will then move from the lunging arena into the smaller of the two sides of the main arena and remain there until, again, they feel a level of ease and confidence riding there. Finally, after sometimes months and after 'graduating' into the bigger side of the arena, they can ride around the whole arena.
The thing to remember is that most riders are capable from the beginning of riding in the 'bigger' arena, however it is their lack of confidence or belief in themselves that holds them back. Those beliefs need to be changed over time, by consistently proving to the rider that they can indeed handle themselves in the situations they find themselves in.
On top of riding in a smaller, more comfortable space, I strongly suggest taking everything back to basics. Very often a lack of confidence is a lack of knowledge about what to do in a particular situation. For example, the horse becomes faster through the corner. Or, the basic seat is wrong, causing the upper body to be in front of the vertical when riding.
Unmasking those fundamental flaws in the riders technique and then working on replacing them with correct techniques is key to a solid, secure seat. Going back to basics also confirms to both horse and rider the way to apply the aids correctly and respond to each other
Another suggestion I have is to build your actual physical strength in the saddle. The stronger and more supple you become, the easier you will find it is to firstly move with your horse in a way that feels 'natural', which will in turn help you feel more comfortable. But it will also allow you to react better to any situations that may crop up when you are in the saddle; such as your horse spooking, or your horse bucking, or even your horse just leaning and becoming heavy on your contact.
Once you can take things back to basics in a space that you are comfortable with, you will slowly begin building your confidence, ride by ride, day by day, week by week. Will it happen overnight? Most certainly not, however it is one of those things that, unbeknownst to yourself one day you will realise that you are feeling confident in the saddle where before you were nervous or anxious.