I’m sitting in a chilly classroom on the campus of a local community college on a freezing Saturday morning. It’s a back to school moment complete with radiators that do nothing but emit worrying banging sounds worthy of the Victorian plumbing that orchestrated the school rooms of my youth. Desks are notably absent but rows of chairs are fast being filled. By the time 10 am rolls round every single one of the 50 plus seats is taken. And every single one is occupied by a woman. Why are we braving an arctic portacabin on a day when we could otherwise be riding? Well, it’s a confidence thing.
On this particular weekend, I’ve agreed to accompany two friends to a horse confidence workshop. Despite not having any confidence issues myself, I will confess to having had them in the past. And what strikes me immediately is just how many of us there are. The session is a bigger sell-out than Charlotte Dujardin’s farewell performance on Valegro. We’re packed in so tight that the noise from the radiator is not only drowned out, its non-performance is no longer an issue thanks to combined body heat.
We are given questionnaires to fill in. Just what are our fears when riding? Was there an inciting incident such as a bad fall which caused it? Or did our confidence just leave us, suddenly drain away like water down the plughole as it did for a very experienced friend of mine, with no explanation? She confessed this to me once out hacking. One day she felt she could do anything. The next – she was too terrified to even think about riding. No falls, no inciting incident, nothing. To this day she said, she had no explanation why it happened. But it did and it was very real. So real in fact she spent the next three years not doing the very thing she loved most. Until she realised she simply could not bear the thought of never riding again. So, she got back up there, convinced that at any moment she would fall off, die in a ditch, be impaled on a hedge or end up trampled and horribly crippled. Too embarrassed to ask for help as she felt she had ‘no excuse’ to be terrified, she rode through it. Until one day several months later, she just realised the fear had left her. As suddenly and mysteriously as it had come on. To this day it has not returned. But she now carries the fear, ‘like fear itself’ that one day it will.
Everyone today is here to get help however. All willing to admit there’s a problem happening. But not only is the issue widespread it appears, it also takes the same form. At least amongst today’s participants. Because when it comes to the point where everyone is sharing the reasons why they are here, 95% share the same issue. They are too scared to canter their horse. The other 5% are made up of people like my friend – in the grip of a fear where they experience an all-pervasive nebulous nervousness. It matters not how fast or slow the horse is going. But it gets me thinking: what is it about the canter specifically that so many of us find daunting? Because aside from the 5% with the all-encompassing riding fear, the 95% admit that in every other respect they enjoy riding and are confident handling their horses. And when it comes to the need for speed – well, isn’t experiencing that feeling of flying when we canter the reason we wanted to ride in the first place? Behind the fear there’s this determination that propels us forward as we seek answers to the problem. Which actually suggests every single person here with a fear is actually fearless in their approach to finding a solution.
I decided to write about this simply because this eye-opening session and subsequent conversations with friends taught me that this problem is more common than most of us outside the confines of a learning environment would care to admit. Because if cantering your horse is an issue for you, then you are certainly not alone. I’m not intending to offer advice on fixing the problem although I will share tips that were handed out by the workshop leader at the end of this post which may help if you’re battling canter confidence. However, there is no Dumbo feather or ‘one size fits all’ solution simply because everyone’s situation and journey is different. We need to talk about common issues facing riders simply because – they are common. Because the problem with any issue to do with confidence – be it cantering your horse or any other, is that it not only can cause feelings of isolation and failure (after all, everyone else is doing this, right? It’s just you that is the complete and utter numpty); but lack of confidence in one area can quickly leech into others. And not just to do with horses. Mastering anything has a positive effect on our overall self-esteem. And as riders, I believe the majority of us are hard-wired to reach for the next stage – if only to be better for our horses. But if we fail and continue to do so, or else suddenly fear doing something we once found easy, the negative self-talk quickly follows. Keep the dialogue going and most of us are very good at pointing out all the other things we suck at too. Soon it won’t just be about not being able to canter. The self-blame quickly extends to anything from your inability to find a suitable mate to being passed over for that job. And all the while, that cantering goal is receding into the distance faster than you can say ‘Frankel’.
And even though the problem as I have discovered is widespread, whether you are on a livery yard or have your own premises, finding someone to confide in or asking for help, isn’t always that easy. One of the realities of the horse world is that just like any other, people can be judgemental or sometimes downright unkind. And telling anyone facing a confidence issue after a fall that ‘If you ride horses you have to accept that sooner or later you will fall off’ is counterproductive. Of course intellectually we all know and appreciate that. We are aware of the risks that go with the territory. But we’ve not having an intellectual reaction. We’re having an emotional one. We need an emotional solution combined with practical help.
So, how do we feel the fear – and do it anyway? Here are the take-outs from what turned out to be an insightful, honest and empowering two and a half hours where riders fearlessly bared their souls.
1: Stop comparing yourself to others. This is your journey. There is no statute of limitations that says you have to have reached a certain point in your riding by a given time. Take all the time you need and think of the journey as the goal in itself. While it’s good to set yourself deadlines, putting pressure on yourself to do something before you are ready will only result in setbacks. Also, that person you’re comparing yourself to who appears to do everything so effortlessly, may for all you know, be harbouring confidence issues of their own or have done in the past.
2. Ask for help. Yes, it sounds obvious but choose who you ask to help you carefully. A professional instructor is usually your best bet. And please don’t be afraid to be honest. Believe me, you won’t be the first person to come to them with the problem. Sometimes the best solution to ride away a confidence issue is to work it out on horse other than your own. A schoolmaster from your local riding school may be just what you need to prove to yourself you can do this.
3. After the fall. Nobody, no matter how confident they are in their riding ability, wants to fall off. Gravity always wins. If you are dealing with confidence issues due to a fall – whether this is cantering your horse or anything else, and are finding it difficult, consider changing your saddle at least for a short while until you rebuild it, to something a lot safer. A hybrid saddle such as an Australian stock saddle can be used with a regular dressage girth. It’s designed to do a job – keep you up there as in rough, remote terrain in the Aussie outback, parting company with your horse can literally be a matter of life or death. The same goes for Western saddles although these are much heavier. Knowing it is so much harder for you to fall off can be a big step to regaining lost confidence. And both Australian and Western saddles offer a deeper seat. As with any saddle – please ensure it is properly fitted for your horse and avoid cheap Indian imitations. All these saddles hold their value so you should not be out of pocket should you wish to sell it after your confidence has returned. However – be warned, these saddles are extremely comfortable and you may end up hooked – for hacking at least!
4. Going round in circles. Believe it or not, although the menage seems like the safest place to gain confidence at the canter, for some people it has the opposite effect. Yes, you are in an enclosed space and your horse cannot go anywhere. However, several participants at the workshop spoke about ‘arena stress’ – worrying so much about striking off on the right leg at the corner it added to their anxiety about cantering in general. Know you can ask for the canter anywhere in the arena, not just at the corners. Try a short canter in a straight line instead. If you are practicing on your own in the arena and find yourself tensing up, music can help you relax. It may be stating the obvious but please, do not hack out with earbuds on for safety reasons.
Finally: Is it you – or the horse Part 1: Many young horses do not yet have the muscle strength to hold themselves balanced with you on board at the canter. This takes time to build. If you have canter confidence issues and your horse is unbalanced, this will only exacerbate that feeling you are unsafe. Cantering in long, straight lines will help your horse build this and this usually involves hacking out unless you have access to an Olympic size arena. If you are not confident enough to undertake this, please find an instructor or experienced rider who can.
Is it you – or the horse Part 2: Hopefully you and your horse are a perfect match and your confidence has only been temporarily shaken. With time, patience and perhaps professional assistance, you will eventually be back where you need to be. In rare instances however, lack of confidence is down simply to you and the horse not being the right match – at the canter or anything else. See my post here on Hereford equestrian about what to do when your horse happily ever after just isn’t.
Confidence issues can affect riders of all levels and abilities at any time. I’ve focussed on the canter simply because it seems to be such a stumbling block for so many people. And often occurs not at the start, but after the rider has successfully cantered in the past. We need to share our experiences – the good and the bad, the confidence building and the destroying, so when something does happen to shake us, we know we’re not alone – or about to be judged. Confidence is built not from being able to do things easily, but from solving problems whether we’re riding or attempting to do anything else. Remember, if you’re willing to own the fact you’ve got a confidence issue, you’ve already shown how fearless you can be. Cantering on is now only a matter of time.
Written by Helen Watts