How to Gain Confidence with Horses - by Kelly Marks
Here is an extract from my book ‘Perfect Confidence – Overcoming Fear, Gaining Confidence and Achieving Success with Horses’ Chapter Two – ‘Perfectly Valid Fears’. There’s more I can add for individual cases with horses – riding, jumping, loading, ground work – I’ll have to make that another blog or article for the Intelligent Horsemanship Magazine and Online Learning. See how to subscribe here
Let’s take a moment to assess the situation before we throw ourselves down ski slopes or hire a horse to go hunting. Let’s just take some time out for a quick reality check. This isn’t intended to limit your ambitions and dreams, but to examine how your particular circumstances might suggest the best way for you to proceed.
If you’re a novice rider, say, with two months of lessons under your belt, and someone offers you a dressage stallion (which they describe as ‘temperamental’) to exercise while their broken leg recovers, you’re not failing to be bold and live life to the full if you decline the offer, you’re just making it more likely that you will live a long and fulfilling life.
Perhaps you’ll decide to spend quite a lot of that life becoming the sort of rider who would relish, and cope with, such a challenge. However, the real question is, when is it reasonable to be concerned for your safety and take sensible precautions; and when does fear become debilitating and prevent you from enjoying life? A friend of mine, who had a phobia of spiders, saw a hypnotherapist who successfully treated her. Afterwards, her mother decided to go to the same therapist to overcome her fear of flying. ‘I’m sorry, I really can’t help you’, the therapist told her, ‘because that’s a perfectly valid fear!’
It’s unfortunate, perhaps, to come across a therapist who is just as doubtful about flying as you are, but it isn’t essential for this lady to take plane trips, and so she has settled quite happily on summer holidays in Scotland and taking the Channel Tunnel to Europe. In the same way, I don’t think anyone can say that we have to ride horses: it can be a choice that we make after carefully weighing up the pros and cons of the sport.
The fact is, it certainly isn’t a hobby without some risks and it would be irresponsible to encourage a nervous person to ride by simply saying, ‘Take this nerve tonic and everything will be fine’. My friend’s mother might have fared better by seeing a statistician rather than a flight-phobic hypnotherapist: if you are concerned about the safety of a situation then sometimes the facts can help us reach a reasonable decision about whether the risks are acceptable to us or not.
For instance, one could point out that Virgin Atlantic haven’t had an accident since they began flying passengers in 1982 and in fact there are many airlines that have never had a fatality or accident connected with them, just as there are many riding establishments or branches of horsemanship where accidents are extremely rare. It doesn’t mean that accidents are impossible; it just ‘lowers the odds’, using gambler speak.
While we should be aware that freak accidents do occur (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reports that, in 2002, 902 people in the UK were admitted to hospital after having some sort of accident involving a household air freshener,) there are also certain things that people do which are clearly ‘daft’. It is not thought politically correct to describe people as ‘asking for trouble’, however, there are, without doubt, people who do just this and you don’t want to be one of them.
You can even win an award (posthumously) for the most idiotic way of causing your own death. The Darwin Awards, named in honour of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from the planet by through utter brainlessness. If you’re not clear about what I mean by an avoidable accident, it’s worth taking a peek at www.darwinawards.com to get some tips on why it’s not a good idea to have a dog trained to ‘fetch’ when you throw lighted dynamite, or to use an artillery shell, which you presume isn’t live, but don’t know for certain, as a desk paperweight.
We know that the difference between intelligent people and stupid people is no more complicated than that intelligent people do intelligent things and stupid people do stupid things. We need to be ever vigilant that we’re getting these two things the right way round. The quickest way to destroy your own confidence is to do a lot of daft things that have very negative outcomes. Conversely, the best way to build confidence is to have as many successful experiences as possible –and that’s what we’re talking about in this chapter.
In the early part of our lives it is the duty of our parents, or at least of the adults around us, to protect us, because as children we have no concept of danger. Of course, it’s best not to have to learn from experience (as I did) that riding (or, more accurately, falling off) without a hard hat can cause a nasty head injury or, as others have learned, that taking a bucket of food into a strange group of horses is dangerous because you stand the risk of getting crowded, knocked over or kicked. As we grow into and, if we’re lucky, reach, adulthood we greatly benefit from experienced people helping us to evaluate different situations.
I’ve heard many times people say, ‘This is how it is for a human’ so it follows that it would be the same for a horse’. Hmmm, that’s the trouble – sometimes that logic works and sometimes it doesn’t. This is why gaining as much beneficial experience and getting a good education in the subject of your choice, whether it’s in the form of lessons, books or just hanging around knowledgeable people to watch their every move and pester them with questions, is invaluable when it comes to making sensible assessments of situations.
However, this carries with it a small warning: if someone tells you something that doesn’t ‘feel’ right, don’t hold back on going somewhere different and getting a second opinion – or even a third or a fourth. Whatever information you’re given should make sense to you. I can’t count how many people we’ve had on courses who have come along because they’ve been told by ‘everyone on their yard’ that their horse ‘just needs a good smack’. The student usually says something along the lines of, ‘the problem is that they are really experienced and I’m not, but I don’t understand how hitting my horse for being frightened is going to make things better between us’.
There are usually other students listening to this and nodding in agreement because they’ve had the same experience. Happily we can show people a safer and more effective way to solve problems with their horses. These will have the added advantage of using methods with which both the student and the horse feel comfortable. It makes teaching fun and rewarding too.
On our Intelligent Horsemanship courses we have a certain number of students who are quite apprehensive, generally, about handling horses. By the time they leave us, though, they will be far more self-assured in dealing with their animals but, I hasten to add, this isn’t because we’ve encouraged any ‘gung ho’ bravery or played them disco music so they go away psyched up and ready to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Although I’m not denying that these methods do also have their place, and I will discuss this later.
The fact of the matter is that often a little caution in the beginning can pay dividends later. Students will go away more confident because they have learned that it makes real sense to be careful and cautious around horses – particularly when approaching a strange animal – and now know how to read signals from the horse and so move around him in such a way as to put themselves at minimum risk. That is when you gain a confidence that is earned and well deserved.