Last weekend I judged at a local unaffiliated dressage competition. The first horse in the arena was extremely tense and looked as though it would be more at home on the race track than in a dressage test. The poor rider did a very creditable job of hanging onto her horse for the duration of the test and remaining on board, but I couldn't help but think how nervous and tight she looked.
Many riders lose their nerve following an accident, a fall or some other unpleasant experience with their horse. Sometimes the old adage that you should "get straight back on" is not the best strategy. Give yourself plenty of time to recover. Riding is a hobby and it's supposed to be fun! If you don't feel confident enough to get back on today; there's always tomorrow.
Some people are naturally cautious. They worry about the "what if?" rather than enjoying the here and now. If you're one of those riders, try to have faith in your own ability to manage your horse and in him to do as you ask. Think about all the times you've ridden in the last few weeks. How many times did you come to grief? The good rides you had will almost always outweigh the bad.
It could be that the problem you have had is a regular occurrence. If this is the case, why risk a repeat performance? If you know that your horse always spooks in the same place and tries to run away with you every time you follow a certain route out hacking, simply pick another trail! I once had a horse who always spooked, dropped his shoulder and set off bucking around the arena until I fell off. This always happened in the outdoor school, never indoors. So, I simply avoided riding him outside until I found a way of overcoming the problem. There's no shame in avoiding the issue. Better to keep your confidence intact until you work out a solution than risk losing your nerve and allowing a naughty habit to become ingrained.
I've often heard riders say that they feel they are letting their horse down in some way and not allowing him to realise his full potential. A classic example was the girl who loved dressage but wasn't confident with jumping. Others on the yard persisted in telling her that her horse would make a great eventer and that she should "give him a chance to show what he can do". Eventually, she convinced herself that her horse was wasted on her and that she should sell him on to someone who would do more with him. What rubbish! The horse was perfectly happy progressing up the dressage grades and enjoying hacking out. He didn't care whether he jumped or not!
If your horse is inclined to be a stress-head, make sure you are relaxed yourself in all your dealings with him. He must learn to respect you and will take his lead from you as his "herd leader". Remember when you're riding that every action has a reaction. Make sure it's not you that spooks at something you've spotted in the hedge before your horse does!
Nervousness can create a vicious circle. Okay, your horse bolted with you and you fell off but if you get tense and tight every time you ride, he will too and it's much more likely that he'll run off with you again. You can break that cycle before it's too late and your enjoyment of riding is ruined.
Learn to control your breathing. This will help to control your nerves. Horses respond to fear by increasing their respiration rate. This in turn increases their uptake of oxygen. The heart rate increases too to pump the oxygenated blood (and the hormone adrenalin) around the muscles in readiness for flight. If your horse feels your breathing become quicker and shallower, and your heart starts hammering, his flight response will kick in. Take slow, deep breaths. Your body will relax and so will your horse. Make sure that your leg is closed softly and firmly around your horse and that you have a secure, elastic contact on his mouth. Your horse will then feel safe and secure between your leg and hand. Don't hold the rein too short and tight or grip with your leg. You will immediately transmit any tension or nerves straight to your horse. Your mind is a very powerful tool. Use it to drive your nerves away by thinking about something else. Try visualising yourself and your perfectly behaved horse executing a brilliant dressage test or cross country round. See every movement in your mind's eye. Think about how you would ride each exercise immaculately. Your mind will be so busy concentrating on the movie you are making in your head that it will forget all about making your nervous or frightened. Another very useful tactic to put your fears firmly in their place is to have a definite and clear plan of action before you ride. Decide on a sequence of exercises to ride and stick to it. Keep the session brief and don't just end up wandering around the arena worrying about what your horse is going to do. If you keep him busy he won't have time to think about being naughty and you won't have time to worry about it!
I hope you enjoyed my article. Please vote if you did and do feel free to comment!