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The danger of “Fake It Till You Make It”.

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Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz… serious bravery… based on years of experience and work!

I can’t remember where I first heard this zeitgeisty phrase, with its pleasing rhyme and cadence, but it definitely wasn’t in an equestrian context. In most other walks of life (apart from life or death situations, hopefully) I’m sure it’s okay… just pretend to have confidence in public speaking – or whatever it is that daunts you – until you actually do. Go for it, what have you got to lose?

But in an equestrian context, especially one involving XC fences, it is a horrible concept.
We all know that ‘fear goes down the reins’, so you can be sure that whoever else you might be kidding with a display of empty bravado, it’s not your mount!

Confidence and bravery should be based ON something. On previous form, for either you or the horse, or both together. On having done your homework with good trainers who will be honest with you and guide you in the right direction (even if that is “you’re not ready yet”).  On having proven to yourself and your horse that you can do this, at home or in other competitions. On lots of good experiences – white marbles in the pot, if you like, to use an old metaphor: i.e. that if you have lots of white (good) marbles in there, the odd black (bad) one will be coped with by the horse.

I was a working pupil for Leslie Law years ago, and he said to me once (when we were discussing a photo of him jumping a particularly daunting 4* fence), “If you’re accurate, you don’t have to be brave.” It has really stuck with me.
However… I think you still have to be brave. Even the most accurate rider can have a horse slip, trip, or misunderstand. Top riders are accurate, some of them quite literally to the inch, but they still need bravery.

Have you heard of Denny Emerson? Former US Event Team member, author of “How Good Riders Get Good.” What he doesn’t know about XC isn’t worth knowing. If you haven’t found it yet on Facebook, follow him, he posts as Tamarack Hill Farm.

On there you will find his wise words, and totally honest rants, about event riders and eventing. A couple of days ago he wrote this:

“Some insights after watching hundreds of horses and riders tackle the XC at So Pines over the last few days—
NO 1. Courage is still the most important single ingredient. Nothing else matters—skill, fancy movement, jumping scope and technique, a great eye for a distance, flawless form—NOTHING—–if courage isn’t there first.”

And Denny really really really knows what he is talking about!

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Definitely not in the same league as the combination above, but this is me and Daisy, at a fence going into the water, both looking relaxed and confident.

I wholeheartedly agree with what he says. Courage has to be there.
Of course, nerves are normal – this is serious stuff, the pressure is on, so anyone who has no nerves at all possibly has no imagination!
But blatant terror (which I have seen, before the XC) is dangerous, and very unfair on the horse. I’ve heard of a rider who actually vomited while going XC. That is crazy crazy CRAZY. Why would you put yourself, and an unsuspecting horse, through that?

If the horse had a choice between having someone confident on board, or someone utterly terrified and likely to be paralysed with fear (quite apart from casting their cookies up all down its shoulder!), possibly strangling it into its fences, crawling around at a petrified snail’s pace, or panicking and firing it from heaven knows where, of course s/he would choose the calm, confident rider who is far more likely to get them to the fence at a good place from a good pace. This is a dangerous business, as we all know: we are putting the horse’s neck on the line as well as our own… we owe it to our horses to only ask them to do things we are confident we can both cope with.

So, my golden rule is… please, don’t EVER try to ‘fake it till you make it’. If you are terrified of XC, stick to small fences until you are bored, and only then go up. Work on controlling and overcoming your nerves, through NLP for example. Make sure you’re on a good, capable, honest horse who can cope if you aren’t totally consistent. Or even, do other things… lots do, there’s no shame in that! Plenty of other equestrians think Eventers are total nutters… fair enough. Terrified eventers definitely are nuts!



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  • Great article. As a rider who completely lost their nerve I totally agree. It’s taken me years of building back up (certainly no faking it here!). I’ve now got an excellent honest trainer & systems in place that help me deal with nerves. Nerves are good, nerves mean you appreciate the task you have in front of you & you care about it. Being crippled by nerves is not good & this is what I’ve had to deal with.
    That said surely it’s better to have a rider who is a nervous sort than the over confident, doesn’t listen to anything rider who is constantly putting themselves & their horse at risk by tackling stuff they haven’t got the skills for?

  • Great article! It’s just interesting that the first time I ever heard the phrase “fake it till you make it” was in an equestrian setting. It was said by a highly respected coach in US riding. This person was not an eventer, and so while I agree it can be dangerous on XC, I still find it helps me be confident in all other aspects of riding. If you tell yourself something enough, eventually you’ll start to believe it.

  • Karla, I can only applaud you for working at it so thoroughly to overcome your nerves. That’s a huge accomplishment.
    As to your second point, I am not so sure – although it’s not necessarily always nice to watch, horses do tend to go well for brave riders who just kick on and get on with it (especially out in the hunting field!) Of course modern xc courses are very technical and definitely require a lot more than just ‘point and kick’ (which is why BE officals keep an eye on everyone and flag up those who don’t look at all safe) but at least that sort of rider makes it clear to the horse what they want it to do, whereas the terrified one strangling the poor thing is sending it all sorts of conflicting messages. 🙁 🙁 🙁

  • Emily, that is interesting. I’d say it’s probably fine in dressage but I’m not so sure it’s even that good an idea in show-jumping, above a tiny height… horses can lose their bottle show-jumping too, but at least the fences will fall down!

  • Fair point! I suppose what is definitely true is that at either end of the spectrum terrified/over confident) lies the real issue & danger but having a healthy ‘respect’ for what you are doing is most desirable?

  • Yes, I think so. Anyone who thinks it’s not dangerous at all (especially tiny fences… crikey, I think they can be worse in a way, especially if not fixed down, but that’s a whole other issue!) and has a blithe attitude is probably more worrying!

  • Hi there, good article, I only can say that I love xc and all other equestrian disciplines. I would say don’t ever just get pinned down on your nervousness in xc. Try to loosen up in the other disciplines, eg dressage/flat work, show jumping and even hacking out. Then intermittently come back to xc and you will see soon enough the more confident you get at these other disciplines, the better you will get at xc. Also get a horse that suits you!!! A lot easier said then done!

  • Lovely article! I see so many riders rushing through heights just so they can say they have gone that height, and this can be so dangerous even on a confident schoolmaster. Do what is comfortable for you until you are bored with it, then move up.

    I have however employed this saying in some scary training situations, when a horse starts throwing its fears at me – then you fake it til you make it cos if you start letting the fear get to you, it is overs for you and your horse. Sometimes you just need to sit and fake smile and preach confidence to yourself very loudly in your head so your horse picks up on your good vibes instead of your bad vibes. This is in rare circumstances though and should never be held to on a course, only in stressful situations where you need to calm down your horse *now* or something bad could happen.

    As for Karla’s point about a slightly more nervous rider…that is certainly true for a horse! A good friend of mine has an extremely confident, but more experienced mare and a more nervy gelding. The mare puts them in more dangerous situations as she just goes, put anything in front of her and she just goes. The gelding backs off a bit, has a look, checks in with his mom and as soon as she gives him a go ahead, he will go for it. Way easier to encourage than to constantly hold and check!