Confidence is a precious thing which needs to be built on slowly and wisely. Sometimes things can set us back and for some reason mentally we are unable to get over the problems.
I was that person. I came back to riding after a five year break and though I appear quite a confident person, my own brain will eat away at me telling me how rubbish I am, and that everything is my fault. I am very competitive and a perfectionist which are probably the worst traits to have in a sport where their are two brains needing to work together as a team and one of the partnership cannot speak to you and instead is always looking at your body language and feeling your heart rate through the saddle (scientists have proven horses can pick up human heart rates through the saddle). For me it was a series of falls (usually at the first fence!) on a spooky horse. It eroded my confidence and I began to expect that behaviour, which made me tense and become defensive which then made the horse tense and alerted him to ‘danger’ ahead.
I left the issue and just kept going but at a BE90 when we should have found the whole experience easy, I suddenly lost the plot. After a great dressage of 23, the pressure I placed on myself and going into the phase I dreaded the most became too much. I lost the use of my legs, they became jelly. Every time I approached a fence my stomach would just drop away, leaving me feeling weak and wobbly. The whole round was a disaster and I came out feeling inconsolable because I knew this was my fault and my brain was my enemy.
I decided to get help. I rang a lovely lady called Jo Cooper who specialises in NLP and TFT. Jo’s website. I talked with her over the phone described all the things that made me anxious and we tapped certain parts of my body and the weird thing is it worked. I no longer had the anxiety I felt when riding.
The next step was to change trainers. I went to one who was disciplined (Jo May, a BE accredited and UKCC level 3 trainer) and she did not sugar coat things for me. I had a lot of holes in my training which needed filling and this trainer taught me how to deal with my horse and gave me plans for every occasion. I was also taught about the value of self discipline and that ignoring warning signs such as the horse backing off would lead to issues further down the line. Though an experienced rider, I was all bravado and no substance. Things had fallen apart very quickly mainly because I had no strong foundations of training. My horse was not off the leg, I did not tell it off properly when it was naughty, it was rude, had a terrible canter and all these issues were my fault.
I worked hard on overcoming these issues and with the building blocks put into place my confidence also began to come back. I had a plan of action every time I sat on the horse. I eventually managed to get to Novice level on this horse.
So what can you do in order to improve your confidence?
1) – You need a trainer who you can have a frank and honest relationship with. You need to be able to talk to your trainer and they need to tell you the truth. A good trainer will not rip you apart, leaving you sobbing with inadequacy. They should gently pull you apart and start rebuilding you to become better in a way that leaves you feeling like you are working hard, making progress, learning but all the time within the thresholds of what you are capable of. You need to have a trainer you can trust because sometimes you are going to be asked to do things outside of your comfort zone and you need to trust that they know you and that you are capable and will be safe.
I tend to avoid clinics for this very reason. Someone who does not know me might ask a question too much and before I know it I am back to the beginning with my confidence in shreds. I prefer to stick with what I know and that they know me. My confidence is too precious to throw away just for the chance of riding with a big name star for 90 minutes.
I hate trainers who tell me ‘good’, when I know its not. I prefer a trainer where a ‘good’ makes you feel like you have won the lottery and you have earned that ‘good’. I think too many riders have Ostrich syndrome where they do not want to hear the truth but instead want a sugar coated version. Be brave and seek the truth. You can only benefit as a rider.
2) Confidence is like an empty jar – you need to keep adding pennies to it and not take them away too often. It really does not matter if you stay at a level longer than you think you should. No one is judging you but yourself. Do not feel under pressure to move up until one day you think, actually I am really bored at this level now and I fancy a new challenge and that you feel excited about the challenge and not overwhelmed and feeling sick just thinking about it.
3) Practice until you cannot fail. You have made the decision to move up, so make sure every single box is ticked for that next level. Go cross country schooling several times, jump several courses at the same level, get your trainer to help you prepare in detail for the challenges you might face. At the event when you are stressed, feeling nervous and putting yourself under pressure, you will be so pleased that you have done so much homework and the horse knows exactly what is coming. You cannot be over prepared and you will have no niggling doubts at the back of your mind that you have not covered an aspect of what you will find at the event.
4) Drink and eat at the event. Sounds stupid but being dehydrated will not help you perform. I rely on Mars Chocolate milkshakes at an event as there is no way I can eat but I can cope with drinking shakes. I also now take a couple of litres of water to keep drinking from.
5) Rescue Remedy works! I do not know why, or whether its a placebo but by jove I feel better for having some!
6) Get professional help with your nerves. If your nerves are beginning to affect your horse then its time to get help. You should not be embarrassed about seeking professional help and I am sure your horse would rather you had coping strategies than freezing, hooking it in the mouth or gunning it into fences. There are a lot of professionals out there and lots specialise in equestrian. I became so fascinated by the subject I ended up doing a diploma in NLP and I have found the skills it has given me so helpful to applying in riding.
7) Books like Simple Steps to Riding Success can be really helpful. I really love this book as gives you loads of tips and strategies. Simple Steps to Riding Success.
8) Enjoy the journey. We are doing this for fun and its a rocky road to improvement. You will have good days, and you will have bad days. A diary can really help with keeping a perspective and help you understand the journey you have made. Its also a useful tool if things do fall apart slightly as you can look back and see what may have added to it.
9) There is no embarrassment in dropping back a few levels if you have a blip. I would rather see everything built up slowly again and with strong foundations than constantly crumbling when under pressure. A good trainer will understand this and help you get back to where you were before the blip.
10) Finally – You are not alone! Never think you are alone in feeling this way. There are so many people who have confidence issues. In sport I think we are often reluctant to talk about it so you can feel isolated and like you are the only person who is suffering from this issue. You are not the first, and you will not be the last!