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Creating Confidence in the Saddle
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Creating Confidence in the Saddle

Just as there are no truly bombproof horses, there are no bombproof riders. Like horses, humans are fight or flight creatures. Often when we begin to experience fear or uncertainty around horses we are instructed to “do things” with the horse—move his feet, capture his attention, etc. This all good advice, and it’s meant to keep you safe and in control.

The truth is that you can’t get control of your horse’s mental state until you have control of your own mental state. If you are relying on your horse’s behavior to dictate your level of calm and confidence, you are falling into a trap of reactivity, rather than being a proactive rider.

You cannot be in a panic state while trying to regain or establish control of the horse. And you can’t allow rising panic over the “what-ifs” to be communicated to your horse.

The most primitive parts of our brain haven’t changed over the course of our development into a modern society. The mass of cells deep within our brain known as the amygdala constantly scans the environment for any danger. It runs in the background, on autopilot, taking in information such as sight, sound, and smell, and creating associations between those stimuli and our emotions and motivations.

It’s thought that the amygdala also determines what memories get stored, and where they get stored. The amygdala is particularly interested in how memories relate to survival skills, so it attaches greater importance to memories and stimuli based on their importance to our survival.

When you combine the primitive “danger scanning mechanism” of the amygdala with close proximity to a massive and sometimes unpredictable animal, it’s only natural that we experience some fear or uncertainty. If your horse has a history of spooking at random objects, and you see a scary-looking rock or shadow ahead on the trail, the amygdala goes into action.

When you identify the potential spooky rock or shadow, your body will initiate fight or flight—you might get butterflies or a racing heart. You will begin to tense up, particularly in your upper body. Your diaphragm will naturally collapse, causing your breath to become short and shallow. This is an automatic response by your body. It’s programmed into your genetic code.

It’s also likely that your mind races ahead and provides you with a lot of possible scenarios, all of them negative. Again, this is a survival mechanism, designed to push you towards flight, and get you out of the potentially dangerous situation.

A feedback loop has been created between body and mind. The mind feeds the body negative scenarios, which causes a release of adrenaline, and the adrenaline release creates physical anxiety that causes the mind to look for more danger signs.

In my work with riders, I’ve developed a “calm-down cue” that helps them to deal with fear and anxiety so that they can keep moving forward in their riding.

My methods are designed to be used in appropriate situations—if you are stuck in your riding and feeling held back by fear or anxiety, or are coming back from an injury or accident, this method can help you get to the next level and handle your fears. This means you need the right horse and the right trainer or instructor if necessary. If your horse is truly dangerous or beyond your current skill level, get help! Life is too short, and precious, to waste time in an unproductive or dangerous situation.

My calm down cue for riders involves 4 steps:

1) awareness 

2) thought interruption breath control --thought redirection

3) breath control

4) thought redirection

Once you realize (become aware) you are getting nervous, mentally interrupt the negative thought stream, take a few breaths, and redirect your thoughts in a positive manner.

This process combines mental and physical cues to give you a powerful tool to work through anxious moments. Today I’d like to share the most powerful of the 4 steps with you: the tactic of breath control.

Here’s how it works:  You spot the funny-looking shadow or rock on your trail ride, and worry that it’s going to spook your horse. If he’s spooked at random things before, you probably feel pretty justified in your fears.

The way that we breathe changes during stressful situations. The collapse of your diaphragm produces rapid, shallow mouth-breathing which activates our fight or flight (sympathetic) nervous system. Since your breathing is the primary way the fight or flight response gets triggered, it’s also the primary way we can begin to short-circuit the response.

Deep breathing in and out through the nose activates the parasympathetic (relax and focus) nervous system. It does this by activating the vagus, a nerve that runs from your brain to your abdomen. Activating this nerve produces the release of acetylcholine, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (slower heart rate, a sense of calm and well-being.)

These “calm down” breaths look like this:

--Purposefully inhale deeply through your nose. It’s helpful to flare your nostrils so that the air hits the back of your throat.

--Draw the air in deep into your abdomen, allowing your belly to expand, then your midsection, and finally your chest. Exhale in the same way, first collapsing your belly, then midsection, then chest.

--If possible, exhale through the nose. This is an often missed part of the relaxation breath, but it’s very important because it maximizes the release of acetylcholine. Think about the kind of deep breath (sigh) your horse takes when he relaxed and has understood a training concept.

The key to success with this strategy is practice and planning. My private coaching students spend 5-10 minutes a day several times a week doing “mental rehearsals” of how they will use the calm-down cue.

The more they practice various scenarios before they occur, the more success they report. They also report being more calm, focused, and able to handle unexpected situations when they arise. In short, they have trained themselves to respond more coolly in the moment.

This method isn’t a “magic bullet” or quick fix solution but used consistently over time, it’s a key exercise to help you take your riding to the next level.


photo credit: Flickr creative commons user vesperpiano

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  1. jst4horses
    This is a great article. We utilize these same concept in our high risk and veteran and first responder programs. We found over the years that even for veterans, and first responders, who have been rock solid in horrible situations, the recovery of skills to conquer fear and a lack of confidence is very easily taught by horses. I always remember one young girl who was so fearful she was not able to come in the outer gate to our ranch, let alone the stable or round corral gates. We honored that, and learned in the process how to deal with others in later years. She eventually not only came into the round corral, she rode bareback and was able to ride bareback in a roping arena! She also went on to deal with some severe family and school issues, and the last we heard was at a huge university doing really well. One of the things we tell the riders in our orientation is that there are few things in life that we are afraid of that have the capability to throw us on the ground and stomp on us with iron shod feet. When each person uses the breathing and "let it go" exercises and becomes confident on horseback, we find they also get much more confident in their own lives.
    1. June Stevens
      June Stevens
      Thanks, I love what you are doing. My husband has 20+ year in the Army Reserves, with 2 deployments, so I love anything that helps out our veterans! The horse/human dynamic is such a great microcosm of life--there is so much to learn from it.

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