Confidence: Get it - Keep it!

horse rider psychology, confident horse rider, horse rider confidence

horse rider psychology, confident horse rider, horse rider confidence

By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist

Many riders seem to search in vain for confidence, or wish they had more. But confidence is not something you can find, or something that will one day be bestowed upon you from above.

These are not the only misconceptions about confidence that riders possess. Some people think they have to wait to win in the show ring before they can have confidence. If that were true, no one would ever win a class at their first try, and we all know this does happen.

Others believe confidence will guarantee success. Unfortunately, this is not true, either. Sure, if you expect a positive outcome from your ride, your chances will be better. But life, with all its uncontrollable variables, can interfere with the best of intentions. This means that riders all too often give up on their “confidence” with the first failure. They think, “Well, that didn’t work. Thinking positively just doesn’t work.” Sure it works, but it’s not magic.

horse rider psychology, confident horse rider, horse rider confidence

Winning should not be the factor that defines your confidence level, as there are too many variables involved in competition to make winning a guarantee. Build your confidence by aiming for excellence in your skills, learn to control the things within your influence, and trust your instincts. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography 

The good news? Confidence is yours to have and to keep if you develop it and take care of it properly.

Getting It

The business of changing how you feel about yourself as a rider entails action and experience. Think about it, if your horse suffered a lack of confidence over a spooky jump, you wouldn’t pat him on the neck and tell him to feel better and believe in himself. (Well, maybe you would, but it would make you feel better than him!) You would need to show him he could feel better, by leading him through the experience of handling that spooky jump. How you seek to build your own confidence is ultimately the same.

What do you need to feel more confident about? If it’s winning, you may be heading down the wrong path. Not that you shouldn’t want to have confidence in winning, but it’s not the easiest starting point. There will always be things about competing that are not within your control. So, if you rely on winning to fuel your confidence, it may not always show up. Then, like many other athletes, you may mistakenly conclude that you are no good and therefore don’t deserve to feel confident.

There is an easier way. Choose specific skills that are crucial to your particular horse sport. Your list should include physical and mental skills. A dressage rider requires, among other things, precision in position and control of body state. The jumper rider needs an assertive attitude and excellent timing. Once you have created your list, get to work. Like the aspiring actor, you will need rehearsal after rehearsal to familiarize yourself with each of your skills, and incorporate them into your routine.

That kind of familiarity will bring you confidence. But remember, it will not guarantee that you will perform the skill perfectly each time. Distractions, mistakes, and other things will happen to disrupt your confidence. In fact, you could say that by its very nature, horse sport can be a real confidence-zapper. Top riders have days when their horses don’t cooperate. Many leading riders have more losses than wins in a season. There are just too many variables in competitive horse sport to make anything a sure thing.

Keeping It

Once you secure confidence, don’t think your work is done. Your confidence will require upkeep, and this is where your mental skills come into play. There are undesirable mental habits that can prevent you from keeping the confidence you have so carefully earned.

One of the greatest thieves of sport self esteem is the habit of clinging stubbornly to the idea of perfection. Some riders believe if they are not reaching for perfection, their goals are not high enough. The truth is, perfection is not a high goal, it’s an impossible one.

To illustrate this point, I often will ask people in my office to demonstrate what perfection is. I say, “Let’s imagine we are at the world chair sitting championships. Everything hinges on you being able to sit perfectly. How are you going to do that?” They inevitably look at me like I’ve lost my mind, but we always have a good discussion after this. There is no “sitting perfectly,” there is sitting well, and this can mean many different things. 

Similarly, there is no perfect performance. Each of your performances will be different by virtue of the variables involved. You cannot control everything, so don’t even try. Aim for excellence in your skills and learn to trust your instincts. These are things you can control.

horse rider psychology, confident horse rider, horse rider confidence

Top riders lose more classes than they win, and learned long ago to take things in stride. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Fortunately, you can control your thoughts. High level athletes have developed precise skill in this area, and are very discriminating about which thoughts they allow to dictate their training and performance. This means having a keen sense of self, and of personal thought patterns. It also means knowing how to turn the unhelpful patterns into productive ones, and being aware enough to know that unhelpful patterns are hanging around in the first place. This isn’t always simple, although it does get easier. It takes discipline to pay attention to the role your mind plays in your sport day after day, but it is a habit worth cultivating if you want to protect your confidence.

Keeping your confidence on the high side also means striving to have a more selective memory. We all have a bank full of memories, but which ones we rehearse and become most familiar with is totally up to us. Why not put more focus on the positive ones? It may sound potentially self-deluding, but really it’s just good common sense. And after all, those memories are all yours — you were there. You’re just making a choice to use certain experiences to your advantage.

Finally, when you say you want to keep your confidence, be careful what you wish for. Confidence building may not always arise from pleasant circumstances. Sometimes, it’s the toughest of moments that inform you about what you really think of yourself. Anyone can feel good when everything is going their way. But who are you when you’re challenged? Every top level athlete must learn the skill of how to have “good bad days.” This means every time something doesn’t go quite right in your training, an opportunity has presented itself. You can either allow yourself to opt out: “I just don’t feel quite right today, better quit while I’m ahead.” Or, you can grab onto it and reap the rewards: “Sure, I don’t feel great today, but I am going to practice dealing with it because I don’t know how I might feel before my next performance.” Then you will be keeping a kind of confidence that is invaluable: the confidence to perform when you’re not all that confident.

To read more articles by April Clay on this site, click here.

Main photo: Robin Duncan Photography - Make a list of specific skills that are crucial to your sport. Then, practice, practice, practice! As your familiarity and comfort level improve, your confidence will grow.


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