Mount up With Confidence: Cultivate the right confidence for high performance in the saddle.
Written by Dr. Jill Wierzba on January 7, 2019
Have you ever found yourself riding for fun or at a show warming up for a class and thinking: “I wish I felt more confident right now.” Or maybe you were getting ready to walk into the ring and that pesky internal dialogue kept rambling on: “I’m worried I won’t do well, and I don’t feel very good about this. Why am I here anyway, I don’t belong here. I shouldn’t have even signed up, look how much better everyone is compared to me.” In these moments, what that internal voice is really saying is: “I don’t feel confident.” This lack of confidence directly impacts our ability to perform at a high level, especially in those moments when the pressure is on and it matters the most.
The role confidence plays in riding performance.
Let’s look at an example scenario that helps to illustrate the impact confidence has on riding. For this example, we’ll use a hunter/jumper scenario, but the underlying thoughts and feelings could play out in any riding style or discipline. Imagine that you’ve just gotten on your horse and are warming up for your class at a show. The warm-up ring is busy, but your trainer has claimed a jump for you to warm up with. You do your usual trot and canter both directions, bending in and bending out, shorten and lengthen your horse’s stride. You feel ready and your horse feels ready to start warming up over fences. You start over a small oxer and easily ride up to a nice distance. Your horse jumps it well. Good start. You canter around to get it again as your trainer puts it up a hole or two and you ride up to it again and…miss. Your horse chunks it pretty bad, you land in a heap on the other side, and maybe even bring a few rails down in the process. Damn. You canter away (or what might resemble a canter) in a slight daze, a little embarrassed, feeling at a loss, and a lot less confident in your ability to go jump around your course. But, you brush it off and canter around to get it again. You try to be bold in your approach and soft in your seat but instead you tense up and pick at your distance, and you chunk it…again! Ugh, two in a row! You shake your head, you can’t believe it. You feel yourself start to shut down as a serious feeling of self-doubt shrouds you, which your horse feels and he starts to get tense too. What starts running through your head sounds something like: “Why did I come to the show!? I shouldn’t be trying to jump around at this height, its scaring me. I can’t do this.” At this point, maybe your trainer yells for you to “Sit up! Put your leg on!” And so you do. But now you’re over-riding. And instead of having a balanced canter with impulsion, it’s frantic and choppy. And your warm-up just seems to be going from bad to worse. You are now extremely frustrated with yourself and your confidence is completely dashed. Instead of walking into the show ring thinking about your course , you’re focused on all those little doubts you’ve ever had about your riding and being worried that you’ll even be able jump around. Confidence would really help right about now, but you just don’t have any after what happened and don’t know what to do to get your confidence back. But you’re walking in the show ring in three rounds, so you’d better do something quick.
Don’t worry, it happens to all of us.
It’s safe to say, we’ve all experienced a time where we lacked confidence to some degree. We’re all human. Some of us experience it more, some of us less. Some people experience a lack of confidence every time they get on a horse, and others only in critical performance moments. One of the most common things that happens when we become aware of our lack of confidence is that it starts to snowball. We start doubting ourselves more and more. This becomes a serious problem because the less confident we feel, the more poorly we perform while riding! Poor riding performance comes in many forms: we get too timid and our horse stops listening, we start shutting down and giving up, or we overcompensate and over-ride. All of the ‘problems’ we experience while riding seem to be connected to our confidence–or in many cases, our lack of confidence! Once we start to doubt ourselves, our ability, even maybe our horse, our performance begins to completely unravel.
What exactly is confidence anyway?
In order to build the kind of lasting confidence that leads to high performance in the arena, we first need to understand what confidence actually is. The word itself is a good place to start: the word confidence is made up of two parts: ‘con’ and ‘fidence’ (pronounce it like fee-dence). Con = with; fidence = trust. So, confidence = with-trust. Confidence is all about doing what you do with trust. Trust in… yourself, trust in your abilities, and trust in your team (including your teammate: your horse). Another way to think about trust is certainty or “being sure.” Certainty comes from 1) past successful experiences; 2) from watching others being successful doing what you’re trying to do, at or just above your level; and 3) from lessons learned based on your past mistakes.
Is there such a thing as the wrong kind of confidence?
Yes, there is. The “wrong” kind of confidence is fickle–it comes and goes, it’s based on things you can’t control, it’s unreliable and it can sometimes even get you hurt. The wrong kind of confidence can take many forms, the most common being: 1) over-confidence (riders who believe they can take on more than they are really capable of, and typically hurt themselves, their horses, or others); 2) the “fake it til you make it” kind of confidence (this is problematic because all you’re doing is focusing on trying to look or feel good rather than focusing on the skill of riding and training your horse); and 3) outcome- or results-based confidence (this is problematic because you are reliant on outcomes only, which you actually don’t have a lot of control over).
Confidence is being certain and trusting your abilities, and is reliably built and maintained through consistent experiences of success and learning from mistakes. Rely on what you are truly, accurately capable of – that’s the right confidence.
Step 1: Identify all the areas where you have certainty.
Are you certain of…having your heel down for a strong anchor? Secure seat in the saddle? Ability to sit up? Be soft with your hand? Are you certain of your horse? That she’ll be quick with her feet? That he’s sensitive to your shifting weight and responds right away? Those are all areas of certainty. Once you’ve identified your areas of certainty, write them down. Make sure you are specific. For example: ‘I am certain I consistently have my shoulders back and eyes up,” rather than “I can sit up.” and revisit them often. This is the the best way to keep focused on your strength and be confident when you start self-doubting.
Step 2: Know when you start to self-doubt.
Pay attention and take notice of the times you start to lose self-confidence. Does your confidence breakdown at the same point in competition? Or after a particular situation in practice? The earlier you can catch your confidence slipping, the better! You don’t want to wait until your confidence is spiraling downward to do something about it. For example, if you know you anticipate a lead change as much as your horse, or it’s a certain jump height or type of jump (coffin-jump anyone??) that makes you lose confidence, try to identify how your body and mind react in that moment – maybe you feel tightness in your stomach, your shoulder drops, you stop being firm or your aids to your horse become unclear. If you can catch self-doubt early, you can do something about it so it won’t severely impact your performance.
Step 3: Make a mental shift as soon as you start to feel your confidence waver.
Have a good “go-to” source of certainty. It doesn’t really matter what you mentally shift to, as long as it’s something that gives you a sense of confidence. I feel very confident when I sit up and almost back with my shoulder. So, if my horse starts being wiggly to the jump, I focus instead on sitting up and back. I am certain that I can get myself into a strong position with my shoulder and posture, so as soon as I feel my confidence waning, I mentally focus on resetting and being certain of my posture. If you get nervous about certain tests or obstacles, or just knowing a judge is watching you, try making a mental shift that helps you focus on that “go-to” source of certainty – maybe it’s counting your rhythm to the fence or down the center line. If your horse is being squirrely and you need confidence to keep riding amidst some crow-hops, focus on your certainty in the fact that you give firm, clear aids to your horse focus him on work. Learning to make these mental shifts a habit can sometimes be frustrating at first, so be patient but persistent with yourself. You won’t regret it.