Sunday, January 8, 2012

Preserving Rider Confidence

Confidence is a requisite of riding.  Actually, one could argue that confidence is a requisite of working with horses in general.  In fact, I will take that one step further and assert that confidence is necessary for working with animals.  Why is this so?  As humans we have a cognitive advantage over the animal, however, confidence is not tethered to rational thinking or logic.  Confidence is far less tangible and revealing of one's self-image.  Ironically, people may have better success fooling other people regarding the rigor of their confidence than they would the intellectually inferior nonhuman animal.  Animals are difficult to fool.

Harley is sensible and confident, which helps preserve his rider's confidence.

My birds have taught me this as much as my time with horses.  Avery, our cockatiel, can be quite moody and used to threaten to bite when he did not want to be put back in his cage.  If I approached him with my hand and asked him to step-up, but I was timid and fearful that he would bite me, that is surely what he would do.  And there was good reason to be scared, because when a parrot bites, it really hurts!  So I had a training issue and handler confidence issue.  I could try using a perch (a narrow wooden rod) to pick up my parrot and skirt the biting issue or I could find a way to communicate to him that biting was not going to be the solution to his problem (he wanted to stay outside his cage).

If you have spent any time working with animals, then you can probably see what had to be done.  I had to confidently and assertively place my hand at Avery's belly and request that he step up.  I could not show any fear or hesitation even if he did bite, which he did the first time that I tried this.  I had to fortify myself with a plan and press my hand up to him more when he sunk his little beak into my flesh rather than draw away or wince.  This was not easy!  Thankfully, he only really tested my new technique once before learning the intended lesson: Biting me is not going to make "going in the cage" disappear.  After two repetitions, he pretty much stopped biting all together when asked to go in his cage and often goes in his cage on his own.  Thankfully, we were not dealing with an old or ingrained habit, as he was still a very young bird (six months old) at the time.  My confidence in handling him grew as his biting behavior diminished.  Years later, he almost never bites and my confidence is very high.  I no longer have to pretend that I am not scared of a bite, because I am truly not scared and this encourages more compliant "Good Bird" behavior.

Avery on the right, Rapa on the left, two more peeking through the toys in the cage

I like that little Avery story, because I feel that it demonstrates the basic principle of the confidence necessary to work with animals successfully.  However, this story does not directly translate to work with horses for obvious reasons.  A bite from a parrot may hurt but it is not life threatening and in the situation of my small parrot, will not require serious medical attention (His bite was a nasty pinch, but did not break the skin on my hand.).  Horses, of course, can do a great deal more damage in countless ways, so we cannot take the parrot story and directly apply it to work with horses.  What can be transposed is the concept of surrounding the training and handling of horses with an atmosphere of confidence.  This is very easily stated, but not easily cultivated as the growth of self-confidence is a very personal journey decorated by experience, education, time, and good luck.  Each person requires different ingredients, to some degree, and those ingredients are not always obvious.  For example, learning to ride "safe, quiet" horses builds confidence, but so does riding "difficult, opinionated" horses (or ponies) as long the experiences are a success, which, outside of physical and mental well-being, is also defined in relative terms.  I guess I might argue that a well-rounded education must include both opportunities in as safe an environment as can be created and when the student is "ready".  Just how is readiness determined by the instructor or the rider?  Skill sets.  Benchmarks.  Eagerness.  Instinct?

Once confidence has been developed, the rider must protect this quality just as one must protect physical well being.  The two go hand-in-hand, but it is significant that damage to one's self-confidence may persist long after physical recovery.  This implies that confidence must also be recovered or rehabbed with the components of experience, education, time, and good luck, although to make matters more challenging, the original recipe may no longer apply and will most certainly be impossible to duplicate.  Since the rebuilding process is so individualized and cannot be rushed (the component of time), the rider must make the preservation of confidence a top priority.  This is especially true since there are always the events that cannot be controlled (the component of good luck) and the ever-popular Murphy's Law.

How can confidence be preserved?  The quick solution might be to avoid all dangerous situations, but working with horses in general is dangerous and unpredictable.  I agree that one should not brashly leap outside skill or experience boundaries, but if one never embraces threshold-crossing experiences, then one never grows.  Confidence does not flourish under avoidance and one could argue that avoidance replaces confidence with a false version.  Those of us who have survived and come back from confidence-damaging situations may also describe their new working confidence as stronger than before.  Wiser might be the better term.  And this makes the development and preservation of confidence all the more circuitous and enigmatic.

Allow me to offer a short scenario.  I was working at a farm and one of my coworkers approached me with a problem.  A thoroughbred refused to be haltered in his stall.  The horse seemed fearful.  After discussing the horse's behavior I approached the stall with a lead and halter.  As an employee, I had permission to handle and work with the horses as needed.  The horse's expression was calm and curious, despite his earlier fearful behavior.  I remained in the doorway, as I spoke to the horse, stroked his nose, and inspected the entire horse looking for signs of fear, aggression, or something else.  I was confident that I could handle the horse, but also cautious.  Something was upsetting this animal and I knew that there was a good chance that I was going to see what that was as soon as I tried to put on his halter.  I wanted the lead line over his neck to start, so that I had something to control him with a little bit if he resisted haltering.  I swung the line over the horse's neck in one smooth motion and the horse balked strongly.  Immediately, the big dark bay leaped back and I did the same.  I had kept myself lined up with the OPEN stall door, so that I had an emergency exit.  My coworker later exclaimed that he had never seen someone move that fast.  I was not about to wait and see if the horse was going to turn and kick.  I was protecting my well-being and my confidence.  After I saw the horse's initial reaction, I reentered the stall slowly and deliberately, patted and stroked his neck and mane and with a similar motion draped the line over his neck.  The horse did not object to this and followed me to the door of the stall when I lead him from the neck rope.  Once at the door, I kept a hand on the rope and used the other hand to raise the halter to his face and pet him with the halter in my hand.  I did this several times until he did not flinch and showed signs of relaxation (dropped his head a little, softened his lips and eye wrinkles).  Then I haltered him as normal and brought him out of the stall.  I spent a little time tossing the lead line over his neck and moving it all around until he showed me that he no longer saw the line as scary.  I did not practice re-haltering him, as this was a working barn and there were time constraints, so I had to let the horse go to his paddock.  It was reported back to me, however, that the horse did not have a problem haltering after that.  If only all training issues could be resolved that quickly!

I could not have been successful in that situation, if I had not been confident, but overconfidence might have set me up for an accident.  I blended confidence with a healthy dose of caution.  I left myself an opening and I had a plan, even though I know that things can still go wrong despite care and thoughtfulness.  I was self-preservative, but not timid.  I believe that this story and Avery's story embody my attempts to balance the use and preservation of my own confidence.

How do you try to preserve your own confidence in working with horses or other animals?


  1. Sometimes I think it's more a matter of obliviousness, or being in a hurry and not paying attention, rather than over confidence, that gets us in trouble. That said, it is important to know your limits and not take on things you can't handle - but if you can handle them, it's important for the horse's confidence not to act timid or tentative - that's the quickest way to end up with a nervous horse.

    And then there's the matter of regaining confidence once it's lost . . .

  2. Great post with good thoughts. I think for most of us preserving confidence comes with experience. Usually, I try to approach situations with calm, confidence and the experience of years being around animals. Keeping your calm and thinking about a situation and how to deal with it has always been a good confidence preserver for me.

  3. Well Boy Howdy - isn't that precisely what I am dealing with right now?! :0)

    I may write with a self-depricating tone, but in all honesty, I am very confident in my horsemanship skills. I have to be. I don't have a back-up person and I don't want a back-up person. I WANT to do it myself.

    Each day that Sydney throws a fit and I don't come off or get "loose," my confidence builds. Today I did a long session of groundwork before riding in an effort to convey to Sydney that I could be trusted. It worked very well. In a very short time he was following me all around the arena without a lead rope. He galloped away once, but quickly sought me back out. Good boy!

    After the ground work, I set up my camera on a tripod to film his blow ups to see how bad they really were and to "see" how I reacted to them. While riding, I had no fear during his spin-and-bolt maneuvers. I was pleased with how calm and steady I looked on the video. Watching myself look so calm gave me another shot of confidence. I now feel as though I've got Sydney's "number," and know that we can get through this situation.

    When he first started these theatrics, I was quite scared because I know from experience how much it hurts to hit the ground, a fence, or some other object. But as you said, good experiences breed confidence. I refused to be bullied by the fear. I just grit my teeth and kept going.

    Thanks for writing this today!

  4. I'm in the creating + gaining confidence phase, although I would like to preserve what I have.

    One thing I know is you cannot fake it. Yet sometimes it's necessary to convey confidence when you don't feel it?! :)

  5. Kate- An excellent point. It seems impossible to avoid the hurried situation forever. Eventually, there will be a day when complacency wins and then problems may arise. And the not knowing part. That one is tricky. Sometimes knowing a little can be just as harmful. I have a story about that.

    Regaining confidence can be so difficult, which is my motivation for preserving it. But not all things can be controlled and shouldn't be.

    Grey Horse Matters- There is no substitute for time and experience. And keeping calm. A calm and thinking mind is essential. And reflection.

  6. Karen- I understand what you mean by not having a back-up person. That was a huge reality check for me when my (first) horse bucked (yes, Harley) for the first time. It was a few months after I bought him. I realized that there was no trainer to turn to, no other rider to get on him. I had to rely on myself and I decided "I am not going to have a horse that scares me. I just won't." I had to reprimand him and keep riding until there was no feeling of naughtiness left. Since I did not come off and conveyed my message to my horse, I felt more confident in myself, but I was also aware that I was assuming a new level of responsibility by owning and riding my own horse without help. It pretty much transformed my perspective and motivated me to learn new things like groundwork, the benefits of which you described so nicely in your comment. I was very happy to read about your videotaping, review, reflection, and Sydney's positive responses to your work. Wonderful news and thank you for sharing!

  7. Calm, Forward, Straight- I agree that it cannot be faked to others, but I believe that you can fool yourself a little bit. If you convince yourself that you are more confident you start to believe it. Believing in oneself IS confidence, so I feel that is a beneficial mental coaching exercise as long as one always keeps safety in mind, too.

  8. A very important issue for handling horses. My confidence can be eroded when completely non-horse things are upsetting me - being stressed out affects everything. One interesting thing I've noticed is that when I'm riding with a teacher who I have a lot of confidence in, my seat and confidence as a rider improves. I need to learn to do this for myself :)

  9. Spot on!

    I'm having a similar issue right now. Gwen is a very spooky, fast mare with the added bonus of being the only horse to buck me off in the past 15 years. Many have tried but only she has succeeded (not that she was trying, but that's not the point). It doesn't help my confidence to know that she can get me off like *that*.

  10. Carol- You added a couple new dimensions to the discussion by adding in "outside factors" and "the teacher". I agree that a good teacher can lead the way in confidence building. I have also noticed (experienced) that a teacher has the power to completely dismantle confidence with the smallest of actions. My original dressage instructor was very talented with horses, but could be, in my opinion, too harsh with her students. I never cried as much as that woman made me cry (after I left the driveway, of course). Sometimes I wondered if she even realized when I was trying my hardest. Made me feel like I sucked half the time, but I did learn a lot, so...I don't know.

  11. smaz- That does make it very difficult. I was bucked off a small quarter horse pony after a 12-year streak of not falling off. I was so pissed that my streak was broken and realized that I was not invisible. I also learned how much the fence can hurt. Luckily it seemed that the hit to my confidence was focused on that particular pony. He pulled a dirty trick and I didn't trust him after that. How could I feel confident if I did not trust the horse?

  12. Great post! Confidence is something I've been wrestling with as a pregnant pony handler. It's been improving just by forcing myself to take care of business but I'm still struggling to shake off the constant paranoia. Every successful handling venture is improving my mindset, however, and I think confidence opens a lot of doors. If I want my pony to learn something, I can do it and I get to have the satisfaction of a job well done.

  13. Hi Taterz- Caution is a healthy thing, especially considering your current state. Be safe. Extra so.

  14. FYI: I deleted a comment which included a link for a site which sells goods. Please do not include blatant advertising in the comments here. I like recommendations for stuff, but not mid-sentence hyperlinks. There is a definite difference.


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