The Balance Between Humility and Confidence in the Saddle

An Adult Amateur dressage rider's musings

Nancy Pine and Rayson, her treasured 26-year-old Danish Warmblood

As an Adult Amateur rider, I have found that working around horses, training horses and riding horses are all challenging pursuits. Good instruction has given me practical tools to improve communication with my horses. Still, even with the best help, I think it’s normal to experience feelings of frustration when our aids seem ineffective or even cause resistance. In our heads we’re asking, Why isn’t it working? Why isn’t he doing what I want? And in the case of resistance, Uh oh, this is getting scary. We need to understand what is actually happening and what to do about it. Is the horse trying to be disobedient? Should we increase our aids to correct the undesired behavior? It is at this point that the rider, with guidance from her trainer, can evaluate the problem and make crucial assessments based on these reactions.

Since I have high goals for myself, I’ve spent most of my lifetime trying to answer these questions. Nine years ago when I bought a 3-year-old stallion, adding one more challenging dimension to an already complex ambition, I knew that I needed to clarify my thinking and, consequently, my approach to my training. Horses are remarkably sensitive, both physically and intuitively. They are also powerful. A stallion has the added challenge of wanting to follow his own instincts. I knew that muscling my horse around was not an option. I am not a brilliant rider. I am not fearless. I am, however, knowledgeable and, concerning animals, patient. If I was to be successful with my young stallion I realized that he and I needed to enter this endeavor together.

This is when I discovered the fifth natural aid (in additional to seat, leg, hand, voice), the aid that is perhaps the most important underlying source of successful communication—confidence. Just as horses sense fear in humans, they also sense confidence. In my experience, fear creates tension and, in some cases, aggression. But on the other side of the coin, if a horse senses confidence, he will generally react positively. The conundrum is how to balance these two essentials: humility and confidence.

The voice in my head often asked, How can I act confidently when I’m not sure that I’m doing everything right? I had to remember that there is no “perfect” in dressage. The best and most successful riders are always working on improving their position and use of their aids. With good basics and a healthy dose of curiosity, I was able to take a break from an exercise to re-evaluate my position, choice of exercise and use of aids and then approach the problem again. But that wasn’t the whole answer.

At the same time that I was parsing my possible deficiencies and giving my horse the benefit of the doubt, I knew that I needed to execute my next attempt with renewed confidence. Like all things dressage, it’s a very delicate balance. Too much humility without confidence will probably result in a lot of second-guessing and, consequently, less effective communication. Too much confidence can easily become ego-driven riding. It is likely to include blaming the horse and stalled progress by the rider, who is too convinced that she is always right, which effectively ends the rider’s learning curve.

This brought me to my next question: What’s going wrong and what can I do about it? Horses don’t scheme, but they, like humans, instinctively try to make things easier for themselves. They can get nervous, tense or angry when requests are unclear or have an agressive feel to them. Blaming the horse doesn’t work either. A horse only reacts to the circumstances he is faced with. Doing the same unsuccessful thing over or even escalated is not likely to solve the problem, but it is likely to step up the resistance.

I was very lucky to have horses with strong personalities and clear voices. For example, my stallion always tells me when I act unfairly and he has always been right. The kick-out or buck is his way of telling me to rethink, regroup and ask again. My next better-planned, better-timed request allows him to trust me, and that allows my confidence to grow. This is a cycle that worked! As the process continued, my riding improved. As my riding improved, my stallion became more confident, which in turn made me more confident, and so it went. When I ran into another problem, I re-evaluated. As time passed, I became more aware of my most common mistakes. My checklist became more automatic, which made the process a little quicker.

Many of my fellow Adult Amateurs just don’t believe they can problem-solve. They don’t trust themselves and their horses seem to agree. The horses are likely to give half-hearted responses to half-hearted aids. The aids aren’t necessarily wrong, but they aren’t given with the expectation that they will work. It’s attitude not amplitude. Confidence should create clarity. Clarity enhances communication. Add to that a good instructor who cannot only facilitate the problem-solving, but can help to adjust the humility-to-confidence ratio. The instructor can emphasize the positive for the rider who needs to be more sure of her aids or step in to remind the rider that her horse is simply reacting to the forces acting on him and direct the overconfident rider to re-evaluate her position, aids and timing.

There are always bumps in the road. It sometimes seems that there are things that I’ll never do correctly or can’t quite figure out. When I’m stymied, I go back to what we both do well while I try to find another way to tackle the problem. Fortunately, thanks to the generosity of my horses, they seem to accept my inadequacies and sometimes, as with any good partnership, they’re even willing to fix my mistakes. 






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