Let’s Discuss: Courage in Riding

Being brave is something I have struggled with since a child, and is one of the biggest mental challenges I deal with as an adult amateur.

I tend to assume that professional riders are where they are today not because of bank rolls and nice horses, but because of their lack of fear, or ability to mine courage where seemingly none exists. To me it goes hand in hand with the grit that is required of making a living from riding horses. Sometimes I dream of the fences I would jump if only I weren’t so cowardly, or how far along I would have progressed in my riding career if only I hadn’t been scared to try more challenges along the way.

Tattoo that helps me find my mojo

Yet despite my apparent lack of balls, the situation is that I own a horse that is a downright worry-wort. And two weenies do not [obviously] make for a brave combination. Add in that, oh yeah, we’re eventers, and bravery is kind of a necessary quality in this sport.

Jack is therefore teaching me to be brave, every ride. My trainer has embedded a mantra in my head for all those times he goes to look or spook at something- and that’s this:

Don’t tell him what not to do. Only show him what to do.

Here Jack, let me show you how to ditch

So if he gets tense, I shouldn’t also get tense- instead I should sit deeply, remind him to focus on the rhythm and going forward. It’s been a huge learning curve to go against instinct and not clutch the reins in panic, but slowly and surely I’m becoming a more reliable partner for my giant scaredy cat. Which I need to be- because as George Morris puts it, every second in the saddle you are either training the horse or untraining the horse. And if I have any hope of creating a confident partner in Jack, I need to be brave myself and show him the way.

Is finding courage something you also struggle with? How do you overcome your fear in the saddle? Is your horse one that gives you confidence, or do you also find yourself being the brave one? What tips or tricks do you have for squashing fear?

16 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: Courage in Riding

  1. i don’t think it’s any secret that i struggle a lot with confidence in riding. it’s just tough. for me, personally, my biggest weapon in that never ending battle is constant practice. the more routine and habitual i can make nerve-inducing activities feel, the less power those activities have to make me feel nervous. so…. considering i haven’t jumped in weeks and weeks while my horse was laid up, i’m now having to face down some of those same demons again as we are finally able to get back to work over fences. so the cycle continues lol. at least my horse is brave!

  2. Pfffff courage is so, so hard, and yet, so so important. I think May and I take on the burden of courage at different times. It is probably one of the best things about our relationship. The truth is, she doesn’t have the scope or stamina to ever be a training level horse, and I am not a pro rider that will hit every distance every time. As a result, we both have reasons to doubt.

    However, I mitigate it by being prepared. The XC is going to be about 6 minutes long? Let’s make sure we are comfortable cantering around for 12. The Stadium will have one 2 stride combination and be full height? Let’s school at Novice height and throw a triple in there. This way, we both have extra reserves of training to cover one another when raw bravery might otherwise fail us. She is a brave horse, but I don’t expect her to keep carting me around the 10th jump if I royally mess up the first 9.

    Finally, I never discuss my nerves. I don’t call anything scary. There are just “good challenges” on my courses! If something scares me, I just look past it into the horizon and keep my leg on and my hands up.

    • I think your approach is excellent- and I totally agree that being overprepared makes shows a lot easier. But what about building up the confidence to jump those bigger jumps, even at home?
      The other thing I personally struggle with is when eventers get on the whole ‘let me tell you about this time I fell/saw this horrendous fall/etc etc’ and it gets into my head. Why do we do that?!

      • At home, I have really benefited from riding with people that jump higher than I do (or just having the jumps set higher). Riding around jumps set at 3’9″ – 4′ REALLY makes BN look teeny-tiny.

        I also try not to set the jumps myself. I either let my trainer set the jump height, or I ask my husband to adjust them for me once I am on. After I am done, then I get off, walk up to it, and feel all my “wow, that was big” feels. If I am nervous about something, I will throw a placement pole in front of it. It gives me something to look at that isn’t the jump, and it makes sure my horse hits a good spot on takeoff.

        I also go slow with it. Jump around the 2’3″ until it feels boring. Then add one 2’6″ jump, then maybe a 2’6″ line, then a full course. THEN jump about 2’6″ until it gets boring. Confidence is slow to build and quick to lose.

        (Do I dare mention that I have a bad habit of watching fall videos the night before competition? DO NOT DO THAT. I promise it doesn’t help) 😉

  3. I’ve never had any fear issues, really, but I agree with the above comments about confidence. For me, my courage expands as I gain more confidence in my horse/myself. Like 2 years ago there is no friggin way I would have even jumped a Training fence, and now there isn’t a Training fence on earth I wouldn’t point him at. There are very few P fences at this point that I’d say no to even, and who would have ever fucking thought. I think the key is learning to be patient with yourself (and horse) and remembering that it takes time to build these relationships. Keep making good deposits into that trust bank, and it will come.

  4. i am the BIGGEST WEENIE around and was in awe of your clinic with Boyd. I would not have jumped half that though my horse probably would of 🙂 Remus used to be weenie about jumping but he has gotten much better about not spooking or refusing but I still have that feeling oh no will we make it over or not. Alas I still am weenie!! So we work on it together!! I love your mantra it makes sense. And i think you are not a weenie at all 🙂

    • Haha, if you were in my head you would wonder why I even do this sometimes! But when it goes well, it’s such a thrill that I can’t walk away from eventing!

  5. I am a very timid rider. I have to say that having an instructor that understands and respects my fear without minimizing it or getting impatient has been the biggest game changer! Within a year with the right trainer I’ve been able to find the right horse and am consistently feeling confident enough to try new things, big and small. Most importantly, riding is FUN again and I look forward to riding instead of feeling anxious about what might happen.

  6. I read this article recently, and I think it applies here: http://eventingnation.com/william-fox-pitt-clinic-takeaway-be-affirmative/

    I found it interesting from a psychological stand point of rewiring your brain to ask for the action you want, which in turn helps you perform the action with your horse and build confidence and trust. I need to remember this all the time when I ride.

    For what it’s worth, I am a huge weenie and I thought your videos were inspiring. You look VERY brave, but I can also tell that you are convincing Jack along the way:)

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