*Needs a confident rider*. If you see those words while paging though horse ads, what do you think? Used car salesmen don’t have a thing on horse traders. Would you climb in the saddle? Is it the punchline for a joke?

Maybe the real question is what horse doesn’t need a confident rider? It’s kind of a no-brainer when you look at it from that direction.

Where do you rank on the confidence scale?

I’m about to make an unpopular statement: I think a rider can have too much confidence. When an overly-confident rider gets into a rough spot, they ride through it. It’s a good idea but not in the extreme. Just because you are tough enough to ride through it, it doesn’t mean that was the best choice for the horse. Horses don’t learn when they are frightened. If the answer is always forward-forward-forward, without understanding, then a certain percentage of horses don’t get over it, but instead learn to be more fearful. Ignoring the horse isn’t the same as helping him. I wonder how many horses described as *hot* are actually habitually frightened.

On the other hand, I don’t think there are many horses who prefer a timid rider with a body language that’s a bit like stalking, or walking on egg shells. It’s an overall feeling of reluctance or even resistance. Each time the environment changes and the rider flinches, she slows down the horse, often pulling on the bit with each stride or micro-managing or just moving too slow. The result is to unbalance the horse. For them it’s like having a coyote in the saddle. One aspect of being a prey animal is the need to move forward freely, it is intrinsically necessary to their well-being and a horse that is always held back starts to act spooky or erratic.

Ironically, these two riding styles might produce a horse that acts pretty similarly.

Most horses fall into one of two categories in these situations: they either shut down or over-react. When things get too overwhelming, the horses prone to shutting down get quiet and almost bored looking. We call them lazy or stupid, our cues get louder and the louder the cues get, the more deaf the horse appears. Sometimes in nature an animal’s best defense is to play dead. He may be stoic in his actions but this horse is still sensitive. He is just not being honest about it.

The horse we are likely to call over-sensitive is prancing or tossing his head or wild-eyed and tense. He over-reacts to every cue and spooks often. His feet barely reach the ground. He is so overwhelmed that he is kind of hysterical. He is feeling all the same confusion that the shut down horse feels, he is just being more honest.

There is a middle place for the horse between these extremes. In Dressage we use the word losgelassenheit. There is some debate about literal translation but the concept is a balance of relaxation, combined with rhythmic, ground covering strides. Relaxed and forward is the goal, and each behavior is important and shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other.

There is a middle place for the rider, too. It isn’t quite as easy as telling a over-confident rider to slow down and the timid rider to speed up. It’s the quality of connection between the horse and rider that should change.

There are technical skills to improve: Breathe deeply and go slow. Keep elastic elbows. Ride transitions softly and clearly. Give all cues in rhythm with the horse’s movement. Reward your horse frequently.

And then there is a mental quick fix. It’s almost like cheating, but it works…

A couple years ago, Edgar Rice Burro had an acting gig. (See post here) The script called for Edgar and one of the actors to greet everyone at the door. The sun was setting altering the visibility and there were lots of spontaneous people and unpredictable behaviors. Edgar hasn’t done a lot of stage work. The actor with him had not been around donkeys; no experience with horses either. If something went wrong and Edgar got frightened, she might not be able to help him. She might even get hurt.

I watched from a short distance. The actor played a Calamity Jane sort of character; loud, ‘drunk-ish’, and a little too comfortable in her skin, if you know what I mean. She called to every attendee, “Would you like to pet my ass?” and cackled.  Edgar had the time of his life, not because the actor knew donkeys, but because she stayed in character. Again and again, I saw things that might challenge him, but Calamity Jane was also acting the part of a good leader, so it was all right. She acted relaxed and didn’t ignore Edgar; she included him in the conversation, like her character would have, and he felt supported. It was a bizarre experience to get a riding lesson from an actor who doesn’t ride.

“Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” -Shakespeare.

Do you have to be confident, or is it enough to act that way? If you play the part long enough, does it leak over into real life and become habit? I confess, there are times around horses, while riding or giving a lesson, where things start to come apart, but acting like everything is good, gives that exact result.

Try this experiment: Pick your best version of confident and ride that way. Let me know what your horse thinks of your performance.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.


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Comment by Anna Blake on September 4, 2014 at 12:03am

Well, Marlene, I agree, that is the question!

Comment by Marlene Thoms on September 3, 2014 at 11:47pm

When I got my current horse, his owner said he needed an experienced rider. The question I forgot to ask was "Experienced with what?". I've learned a lot from this horse about myself. Don't think I've learned all there is to learn about him though. I have to fake confidence on him, or we wouldn't be riding.

Comment by Anna Blake on September 3, 2014 at 1:03pm

Horses will thank you. Probably more then the people...

Comment by Mandy on September 3, 2014 at 1:01pm

I feel like I am always telling people that just because a horse isn't reacting (spooking, snorting, etc.) doesn't mean they aren't feeling as nervous or stressed as the horse that is. I'm going to borrow your honesty line - I love that!

Comment by Anna Blake on August 29, 2014 at 8:28pm

Your description sounds like you are not pushing to over confident, and admitting shortcomings is different than timid. Being honest isn't faking it... and affirming the best, acting as if... well, that is how we improve ourselves. Horses love honesty, which is another way of saying they have BS detectors.... Thanks, great comment.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on August 29, 2014 at 1:53pm

As handicapped as I am from my MS I should never feel confident on a horse (bad balance, in-coordinated, weak, etc..)

BUT I ride the horses like they are like my greatly missed angel from heaven first horse.  I admit to the horse up front ALL my physical problems, my fears, and I promise to do everything I can so I don't hurt them, and I keep within my physical limitations.  I time my aids to their leg movements, I use my aids politely, and I reward the horses frequently for doing what I ask.

Am I faking my confidence?  Partly, because I KNOW that there is no way I can "control" a horse who decides not to cooperate with me.  If the horse wants me off their back there isn't much I could do about it.  Every time I get up on a strange horse I feel fear, what if this is the horse that refuses to work with me?

But since I already knew how to ride before my MS became apparent and since I never stopped learning how to ride better, I have not had many problems with the horses I ride (balking is irritating but not very scary and I did not cause the balking habit.)  The horses seem to appreciate my honesty, put up with my many imperfections as a rider, and they REALLY appreciate it when I keep my promises not to hurt them needlessly.  Considering that I often start riding these horses in saddles that don't fit properly, and the bits are not ones they like, I appreciate that the horses are willing to put up with my not so great riding.  When I get their tack comfortable we start progressing within my limitations and the horses do not seem to mind me riding them.

Yes, I fake it.  I think the key is me doing everything I can not to hurt the horse in spite of my handicaps.  I meet the horse half way and the horse meets me half way and we muddle through. 

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