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Paralyzed With Self-Doubt

Recently on Horse Master is an episode called “Master and Commander.” It’s about a woman who did all the right things when looking for a horse—she bought a mature, push-button reiner from which she could learn and excel on. Renae is an experienced, life-long rider but yet she never had any formal training. She did have enough experience to know that she wanted a horse with more training than she had, so that she could advance her horsemanship.The only problem was that she doubted herself.

I see this kind of thing all the time—from all level of riders. When they go out and purchase a well-trained horse—an excellent thing to do—they tend to worry excessively about screwing the horse up. This kind of thinking leads to self-doubt and paralysis, which most horses will capitalize on. In the case of Renae—who was a very good rider—every time her horse resisted her, she became totally passive, thinking she was making some awful mistake. She thought she was miscuing the horse so he didn’t know what to do. From the horse’s point of view, he was thinking, “Chaching! I don’t have to do what she asks.” Although he was a well-trained and cute little horse, he had a little bratty side and her lack of authority led to him doing whatever he wanted to do—and nothing more.

When Renae asked him to canter, he went for a few strides then turned sharply into the middle of the arena and stopped. Renae convinced herself that she must be mistakenly cueing him to spin and that it was her fault. So she became passive and allowed the horse to come into the middle and stop. When she did insist that he continue cantering, he threw a few mild bucks and that definitely make her stop him. Again, the horse found out how to make his rider ease up. He didn’t have to exert energy after a mild buck.

My first job was to let him know that his antics wouldn’t work with me. I put him to work in no uncertain terms. He bucked a few times but very quickly determined that the path of least resistance was obedience. He quickly turned into Mr. Manners.

My second job–which was not as easy–was to build Renae’s confidence and convince her that she needed to take charge of this horse. I reminded her that she was indeed a perfectly good rider and that she need not worry about giving her horse a perfect cue—It was her horse’s job to figure out what she wanted.

It was sad to see how devastated Renae was when we started; she had totally convinced herself that she was unworthy of this horse and was a terrible horse rider. When in fact, she had excellent skills and it was her self-doubt that had led to all her problems. She finished up feeling good about herself and her ability to take charge of this horse. I hope that comes through in the show.

My overall advice from this episode? Once you have issued a directive, reinforce it—whether your cue was perfect or not. Your horse is perfectly capable of figuring out what you want. Don’t waffle in your authority.

We all have periods of self-doubt. At least I know I do–how about you? What’s important is to analyze your thought, make changes and move forward with a positive attitude. Have you ever been paralyzed by self doubt and let it affect your riding? What happened to you? Have you had a horse get the better of you simply because of your inaction? How did you figure it out and what did you do to make a positive change? I love hearing your stories. . . .

Heels down and chin up!


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  1. Even though I’ve posted a lot lately, I have more stories from today and am excited. First, Julie, I mentioned in some post back there that my horse, when leading would sometimes fall back a little, get behind me and use leverage to get away. I read your newsletter Q & A’s and the one about leading was perfect timing! I went out with a dressage whip and was more particular about where he was and it went really well. Thanks for the help. I think I’m getting the hang of it. Second, about not doing the same old thing when it’s not fixing a problem: my colt when first being ridden out will try to grab grass-hard-yanking on the reins big time. It’s very rude. I’ve tried all sorts of stuff-spurring as hard as possible (just makes him jump ahead when he grabs), crop on the neck (throws head when grabbing), crop on the butt (bucks when grabbing), ignore because it goes away when he gets going and hope he outgrows it etc. Today I was sick of it and yanked as hard as possible on the reins, punishing his mouth. (a trusted teacher said that’s the only time she would do that)Well, maybe that’s the kind of pressure it will take because it had an effect. I was afraid he’d get dull but he got really light on the bit instead. Hmmm. I’d still like to find a better way. But at least it had meaning.

  2. A perfect episode for encouraging average riders like me to stop worrying so much about technique. Instead, just go ahead and DO IT! I learned this lesson the hard way after being repeatedly bucked off by my extemely hormonal young mare. Although she was still a bit green, she’d acted o.k. while at our trainer’s. Once I got her home, the fun began. Most of the time she acted pretty normal for her age & training level. But for one week every month she was like a volcano. This horse wasn’t content with a few gentle crow hops like Renae’s gelding, but would absolutely break in two with full out bucking fits. When she was in full heat cycle, no one could ride her. Because this mare had behaved well for our trainer, I was pretty sure the reason for her bucking stemmed from a lack of respect for me as her rider. I could either step up to the plate and make her behave, or retire her to broodmare status. It may sound cruel, but the secret to breaking this habit was to flank her in the arena and let her buck until she was exhausted. Then, I’d ride her with lots of bending, flexing, and one rein stops. Eventually, she learned that bucking meant far more work than simply doing what I asked. She’ll probably never be completely trustworthy with other riders, but she finally respects me! Anyone interested in a hormonal QH mare??!!

  3. This was perhaps my favorite episode of Horse Master thus far. I don’t have a horse that has more training than me but a young one that is the first that I’ve started. I’m certainly not a perfect rider and have worried about confusing him. He most definitely has a bratty side and needs spankings but I waver at times wondering if I’ve confused him. Nearly every time he is just taking advantage of my hesitation. The thing that struck me on this episode is that I don’t have to do it perfectly and he can still work to figure it out. REcently I’ve started riding in my dressage saddle, which I hadn’t done with the young horse. He is 4 now and my equitation could use it. I am klutzy in it. So what happens? I’m not perfect at cantering anyway, nor is he. So, I ask for a canter and he starts weaving around, tries to stop and just gets beligerent. I end up losing my stirrups and bouncing along. Yesterday I had an instructor over to help. She said just do it anyway…don’t wait for everything to be perfect, ride through the dropped stirrups, bounce if you must but insist on the canter, with a dressage whip to back it up. Well, guess what. He did canter. And he knew what I was asking all along. Thanks for a very meaningful episode.

  4. I know where Renae’s coming from. I bought Estes knowing she’s got a lot more training than I do and I’m constantly worried about giving the wrong cue and “screwing her up”. Just reading about the episode made me feel so much better, thank you. Can’t wait to see the episode.

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