Sooner or later, every rider suffers a loss of confidence. In many cases this comes as a result of an unfortunate experience; a fall out hacking, being bucked off, etc. Unfortunately, the rider’s fear can be transmitted to the horse, starting a negative cycle that is hard to break. With a little positive thinking however, you can turn the cycle around and get your confidence back.
Horses have an extremely good sense of smell and this not only helps them sniff out particularly tasty herbage whilst foraging, but also allows them to smell chemicals and hormones given off by other horses and also by us. When we become afraid, we give off ‘fear’ pheromones and horses can smell these. Naturally, if they sense that the herd leader (that’s you!) is afraid, they will become stressed and unsettled themselves.
Your horse can feel every move you make on his back. If you’re tense, tight and stiff he’ll feel this straight away and will wonder what you’re afraid of. He won’t understand that you’re nervous because you’re afraid of falling off him; he’ll probably assume there’s a nasty predator lurking in the bushes and you’ve sensed it before he has. Immediately, he’s on the alert and his behaviour begins to mirror yours; he tightens up through his back and neck, shortens his stride, raises his head to look for the danger he thinks is there and starts to ramp up his flight response just in case.
Start a positive cycle
Many riders try to tackle fear by learning something new. This won’t work because your brain will simply shut down all but the vital fight or flight strategies. When you learn something new, your confidence rises with each success but when you’ve lost your confidence the skills will not come back until you’ve regained it. Your brain must be in a similar biochemical (emotional) state as when you learnt the skill to be able to recall it.
Your mind and body are integral parts of one system. This means that if you influence one part, you influence the whole. If you smile into a mirror, your body will release ‘feel good’ pheromones. Where you look also affects how you feel. When we say that we feel ‘down’, our whole demeanour is downward; our head hangs, our shoulders droop and our mouth turns downward. If we say that things are ‘looking up’, we do exactly that; we lift our chin, we smile, we open out our shoulders and stand tall and we focus on what’s ahead of us.
A very useful tactic when you’re feeling nervous is to think about where you’re looking. Nervous riders almost always look down. Smile; look up and forwards, try humming or singing an upbeat tune, you’ll be amazed at the difference.
Get straight back on?
Never feel that you have to get straight back on your horse or you’ll never regain your confidence. This is an urban myth. Your brain will associate the pain you experienced when you fell off with being on the horse. It begins to associate horse riding with pain and thus you’ll feel even more apprehensive about getting back into the saddle. Allow yourself ample time to recover physically and as you do so start to make ‘future memories’.
Replay the events leading up to your fall but substitute the ending for different outcomes. Your mind will need to know that if a similar situation occurs in the future, you can handle it. Therefore, if you create happy future memories where you ride effectively, safely and with a big smile on your face, you will effectively erase the bad memories and overwrite them with the positive ones.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.