Look, Breathe, Sit Back To Boost Riding Confidence

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Three steps to overcoming riding nervousness–plus, a way to remember them when it matters most.

Fear can make you tense and defensive. That, in turn, can cause you to be rough with your horse. It’s as if you’re trying to bluff him into believing you’re not afraid. But you’re not fooling him; he’s just catching nervousness from you, because that’s what herd animals do.

What to do instead? These three things:

Look up in the direction you’re traveling, not down at your horse. This subtly reminds both of you that you’re actively in charge (rather than fixated on him).

Breathe deeply from your abdomen. Imagine filling a glass of water all the way to the top, then emptying it all the way back down to the bottom. Do it in rhythm with your horse’s strides. This will have a calming effect on both of you.

Sit back on your seat bones and get your nose behind the point of your belt buckle. Soften your lower back and all your joints, so you can follow your horse’s motion. Relaxed muscles promote a relaxed mind.

How to remember these three steps? Develop a mantra: Look, breathe, sit back, and ride. Memorize it, then use it to coach yourself back to focus and relaxation whenever you feel your nerves taking over.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

Fear Of Cantering

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight:
How do I overcome fears of cantering?

Hi Julie,
I have been riding for about 2 years. I’m 53, and although I have been around horses (started my daughter riding @ 4-5 yrs old, own a race horse) have always been terrified of horses, yet love them. I want desperately to ride well. Lately, I have been “stuck”; cantering sends me into a panic. I try, and yet I freeze, I can’t focus on steering or keeping him going, all I can think is stop! I think my instructor, patient as she is, as well as the barn staff have written me off, and are losing patience with me, (and I don’t blame them). What should I do, how do I combat this and get past it? Do you run intensive, submersed horse clinics to overcome debilitating fear? Or recommend one? Please help!

Sue

Dear Sue,
Fear and lack of confidence are more common in riders than you think. In fact, most people that have been around horses have dealt with this issue at some time or another. Let’s face it; they are big, scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. I’d be more concerned about someone who said they’ve never had any fear around horses. Fear is a natural emotion and it’s one that keeps us safe—keeps us from doing really stupid stuff. But when fear begins to impact your enjoyment or begins to control what you do and do not do, it’s time to take action.

It always amazes me how many people want so desperately to ride and be with horses, in spite of their over-powering fear or after a bad accident or injury. There is a deeply rooted passion there that keeps you motivated even though the fear is sometimes crippling. That is why it is always important to think about why you are doing this—what is your purpose? Passion? Fulfilling a life-long dream? Enjoying an activity with your spouse? Whatever your purpose is, you need to define it and embrace it. Purpose leads to courage.

Canter is certainly the most fear-inducing gait and at just about every clinic I do, there are people that are fearful of the canter. That makes sense because if things are going to go wrong, it is likely to be at the canter. So your fear is perfectly understandable. Since canter is the closest thing to the flight response that we ask our horses to do, sometimes it can trigger undesirable behavior. So before you ever tackle the canter, make sure everything else is going well—your horse is responsive and obedient, you feel ready, the footing is good, the situation is right. I always tell my riders: Never get in a hurry to canter—it will happen when you are ready. If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it.

There’s an old saying in horsemanship that says, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” In other words, you can accomplish much at the trot and unless and until your horse is working really well at the trot, there’s no point in asking for canter. The same things goes for you—if you work on improving your riding skills at the trot, it will prepare you better for canter. So work on posting and sitting trot; do lots of transitions—collected trot, extended trot, collected trot. Trot figures like circles, serpentines and figure 8s. You may even want to start working on lateral movements, like leg yielding at the walk and trot before you tackle canter. When you can do all these things confidently, the canter will be easy.

When all the stars are aligned and you feel like it’s ready to tackle the canter, I can share a few things with you that may help. First, make sure you know and understand the canter cue, so you can be clear to your horse. When you haven’t cantered a horse for some time, he isn’t thinking about a canter cue and so he may go into a fast trot instead of a canter. If he does, slow him down firmly and immediately ask for canter again, as if to say, “wrong answer; try again.” Repeat until he canters on cue. Once he realizes that you actually want him to canter, the cue will get easier.

Make absolutely certain you do not pull back on the reins when you cue for canter; in fact, you’ll want to reach up toward his ears as you cue him. One of the first things that happens in the canter departure is that your horse’s head will drop down as he launches himself into the gait—if he hits the bit at this moment, he will think you do not want him to canter. This is a HUGE source of problems at the canter; people are pulling back without realizing it, especially if they are nervous about it. It is a very frustrating problem for the horse because you are punishing him for doing what you asked him to do.

I suggest working on the canter in the arena, but only cantering a few strides down the long side of the arena at first, transitioning back to trot in the corners. The turns are harder and you are more likely to lose balance in the turn, so staying on the straight-away will help. Also, I’ve noticed that nervous riders will do okay on the first few strides but the longer they go, the worse they ride. So if you’ll just canter a few strides, then stop, then do it again, you will probably accomplish more. Gradually increase the distance you canter. Remember to breathe!

Some riders and/or horses will do better cantering out on the trail with other horses than they do in the arena. Often it is easier to get the horses into it and they will canter along naturally with the other horses. I have used this technique many times with nervous riders and we will generally canter on a slight uphill slope so the horses are working too hard to act up in any way. But you have to know your horse before trying this out on the trail; some horses will be better while others may be worse.

The biggest mistake people make in trying to ride the canter is to lean forward, thus closing your hip angle, which causes you to be thrown up and out of the saddle with each stride. To counter-act this, you need to sit well back, with your shoulders even slightly behind your hips. The canter involves a motion similar to pushing a swing—your shoulders come back as you push with your seat. So before you ask for canter, always remind yourself to sit way back and push the swing. Fear will make you want to perch forward in the fetal position; try to remind yourself to sit extra far back to counter-act this tendency.

One more thought on working up the courage to canter—try it first in a Western saddle. Even if you plan to ride English, getting confidence with the gait will be easier in a Western saddle since you have to the horn to hold onto if necessary and a little more support than in an English saddle. Take all the help you can get. Once you gain some confidence, you can switch back to an English saddle.

My video, “Canter with Confidence,” will give you all the information you need to cue, ride the canter, understand leads and all the way up to flying lead changes. Knowledge will help your confidence. I also have a new video coming out in September which is a compilation of Horse Master episodes dealing with real horses and riders that are working on the canter, from cueing to slowing down the canter to lead changes.

For anyone dealing with fear of horses, it is important that you do not allow others to push you into something you are not ready to do. There is no law anywhere that says you have to canter a horse. When you are ready and you want it to happen, it will. If you don’t canter—so what? It is also important to surround yourself with supportive people and share your goals and your plan with them and let them know how they can support you. I have written a lot about rebuilding confidence, so there are many articles in my Training Library that will help. I also have a motivational audio called “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” which you can download from my website (or purchase the CD). Many riders have found this to be a very useful tool in overcoming fear. Listen to it on the way to the barn.

By the way, it is your instructor’s job to be patient, keep you safe and help you attain your goals. You are not beholden to her and her staff—they are beholden to you. Don’t worry about them and don’t let anyone else pressure you or frustrate you. You are doing this for you—not for them. Don’t worry about what others think; surround yourself with people that are supportive of your goals. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they are!

I have heard from hundreds of riders who have used my techniques to overcome their fear and learn to enjoy horses with confidence. You can make it happen but you have to work at it—have a plan, know what you are going to do when you feel fearful. Because of the mind-body-spirit connection, if you cave into the emotion, it will overtake your mind and body. If you have the mental discipline to think positive thoughts and control your body language (looking confident even when you don’t feel that way, the emotion cannot take over. Don’t ever give up! You can make this happen. I know you can.

Good luck!
Julie
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
Canter with Confidence DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Principles-of-Riding-vol-4-Canter-with-Confidence-GPRV4DVD.htm
Canter Master DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Horse-Master-Canter-Master-Horse-Master-Cantering.htm

Learn To Ride At Julie’s Clinic’s

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

The Questions You Ask Most
This Issue: Will I be too afraid to learn at a clinic? I’m afraid of being judged…

Ride and Learn
Horsemanship clinics are a way of life for me. I’ve taught hundreds of them and I like to take them whenever I can. I enjoy taking clinics and it helps keep my teaching and riding fresh, rejuvenates my spirit and I always learn something about my horse. Knowing I have a clinic coming up where I’ll take my horse—whether I am teaching or participant, helps motivate me to ride more. I like having a goal to work toward with my horse—whether it’s personal, competitive or physical; it helps me stay focused and productive in our training sessions. Does that work for you? What are your current riding goals?

I’ve been very focused lately on planning my 2011 Clinic Tour. Along with my focus on clinics, I’ve been reviewing and updating all our information on clinics, what to expect, what to bring and how to get the most from the experience. I know from what people tell me—either before or after the clinic—that they were very nervous to ride with me. This always bothers me– although I’ve heard it enough to know it is a common theme—not just in my clinics but for everyone. It bothers me because I know how hard I work to make sure all the riders are safe, comfortable and satisfied during one of my clinics and I think that most people who have ridden with me would agree that there’s no point in being apprehensive about riding with me.

I always tell the riders at the beginning of my clinics that nervousness is a wasted emotion, because I’m here to make sure they have fun and learn something and no one is under any pressure to perform; do as much or as little as you want. But still, I know people are reticent and I know there are some that will never sign up to begin with because of it and I wish I knew how to alleviate those fears. So what is it about taking a horsemanship clinic that is so frightening? Is it fear of the unknown? Fear of riding around other people? Fear you’ll lose control of your horse? Fear of riding in an unknown place? Based on a previous bad experience? Horror stories heard from others?

When I teach a clinic, my main goal and focus is to keep the rider safe, both physically and emotionally, and make sure they have fun and leave the clinic feeling good about themselves and having learned something. I’ll pretty much do whatever it takes to make sure that happens for each individual and for everyone that is something different. I think the first part of being a good instructor is being able to analyze the horse/tack, the rider errors, the personality and confidence level of the rider and the temperament and training of the horse. Then you have to be able to put all that together to discern what the most important thing to work on first is. And that’s the tricky part—because a person can really only work on one thing at a time. The next step, and the one that some trainers don’t do so well, is to be able to effectively communicate to the rider what he/she needs to work on, the why and the how. This must be done in a kind and supportive way that makes the rider want to try harder.

Too much of any emotion–be it fear, humiliation, anger, etc.–blocks us from a state of mind to learn anything, let alone mull over complicated concepts. Therefore, taking care of a rider emotionally always comes first. I believe that although you have to point out people’s mistakes as an instructor (that’s why they are there) it has to be done in a tactful and supportive way, in safeguard of the individual’s emotional well-being. I believe strongly that you also have to make an effort to find someone doing something right and then give them copious praise. That praising others, inspires all riders to work harder (“Amber, good job using your eyes as you went around that turn” can only lead to every rider in the arena looking up and where they are going). I also feel a strong responsibility to the well-being of the horse and sometimes this can be touchy—pointing out that the horse’s “problem” is actually caused by the person.

In this instance, I find that although it sometimes takes a little more work on my part, I can almost always address the situation and still take care of both the horse and the rider’s emotional well-being. I consider myself very fortunate that the type of riders that come to my clinics are almost always fun, interesting, open-minded and keen to learn. This makes them pretty easy to teach. I can count on one hand, and still have fingers left over, how many caustic or toxic people I have encountered in the thousands of people I have taught at clinics. I am so thankful that my clinics tend to draw great people. Although I have heard the occasional horror story from other clinics, I think most people learn and grow at clinics and I know they will at mine.

On one level, I totally get it—riding in front of a group with a bunch of strangers can be nerve wracking. Riding horses requires such a voluminous amount of information to master that it can be overwhelming at times. The unknown quantity of how your horse will respond in an unknown situation is a little intimidating. On the other hand, the opportunity to learn, grow, explore new concepts and master new skills is quite compelling.

What about you? Do you like to ride in clinics? What do you get out of it? Does it make you nervous? Why? I’ll be interested to hear. Come share your thoughts on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv
Until next time,

–Julie Goodnight

Boot And Foot Position

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Make sure you ride with your boot far enough into the stirrup so that the ball of your foot is weighted. If you just place your toes into the stirrup, you’ll bend your foot and lift your heel. With your boot far enough in the stirrup so that the ball of your foot is weighted, it will be easy to ride correctly with heel lower than your toe.
–Julie Goodnight with Kestar Boots (kestarboots.com)

Sit The Spook

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Sit the Spook
Learn how to sit the spook on trail for safety and control with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

All horses are capable of spooking. Horses are hardwired to flee in response to fear. They’re naturally programmed to watch for danger and for the herd leader’s cue for when to bolt.

Get away first; think later.
While you can desensitize your horse to most any stimulus you may encounter on the trail (and you should), there’s always a chance he’ll see something new, scary, and spook inducing.

“I laugh when I see sale ads boast a ‘bombproof’ horse that will never spook,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Of course, horses are individuals and some may spook more often than others. Put the word “never” in there, and horses will prove you wrong.

Arabian Horses are stereotyped to be more flighty than Quarter Horses, but there are individuals who prove the stereotype wrong for each breed.

Quarter Horses bred for cow work may see a slight movement and look for something to chase.

You can’t totally remove the spook from the horse (though you should desensitize him as much as you can), but you can program your brain to know what to do in the moment when your horse spooks. You’re the part of the equation that can change.

A great trail-riding horse doesn’t need to be “bombproof” if you prepare your mind and body.

Here, Goodnight will give you her six-step method on how to sit the spook: (1) Envision perfection; (2) relax; (3) sit well; (4) be the herd leader; (5) react quickly; (6) convert his behavior.

Goodnight will also provide a special riding exercise just for kids.

Step 1: Envision Perfection
Is your horse tense on the trail? Envision your horse as well-behaved and calm, and ride him in a way that lets him know you’re in charge.

Don’t allow your horse to look around and find something to spook at. He doesn’t need to look from side-to-side and take in the scenery. His job is to look at what’s in front of him and mind the footing.

You’re in charge of where your horse looks. His nose shouldn’t move beyond the width of his shoulders. Looking straight ahead is the obedient response.

Ride with two hands. If he turns his head to look at the scary bushes, wildlife, etc., bump his nose back to center with light rein pressure.

Avoid gripping the reins tightly. Keep the reins loose, so your horse doesn’t feel your anxiety and think he should be worried. But don’t allow too much rein slack. You’ll need to have enough contact available to turn your horse if he reacts to something scary. (More on that in a minute.)

If your horse is tense, calm him by showing him you’re a worthy leader. Get him moving, and give him something to do. You don’t have to ride in a straight line. Guide him to the right and left; go around a bush.

Turning in different directions will get your horse thinking and give you control. Control his space, and remind him that you’re in charge of where you both go.

Step 2: Relax
Relaxing can be a tall order — especially if you think your horse might spook. To relax, close your eyes momentarily, and picture a balanced rider. Assume a centered, balanced position, with your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel in alignment.

Then systematically relax every joint in your body. Imagine relaxed toes. Unlock your knees. Relax your hips, and move with your horse’s back. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your fingers, wrists, hands, and shoulders.

If you’re worried that your horse might spook and become uncontrollable, you’ll probably tense your hips, clamp your legs, and grasp at the reins. You might even go into the fetal position.

These are normal reflexes in response to fear — your body pulls into the center for protection. But when you’re riding, this isn’t a safe posture at all.

Rolling into a ball causes you to pull on the reins, and drive your heels and legs into your horse’s sides. These actions tell him to be worried and move quickly — so you’re actually cueing him to spook.

What’s more, when you’re worried, you tense up your joints, locking them into position — a dangerous riding posture.

Tense a bicep as though you’re showing off your arm muscles. Notice that when you do so, your wrist elbow and shoulder joints lock.

Responding to a spook by tensing up and locking your joints is like hitting an ejection button. When you stiffen your back, shoulders, and legs, your body becomes one tense, locked object that can’t move with your horse. Instead, you’ll likely to bounce right off.

Step 3: Sit Well
On the other hand, you can be too relaxed, riding with your feet out in front of you, as though you’re sitting in a recliner with a remote control in your hand.

This isn’t a balanced position. If your horse spooks, you won’t have time to regain your balance to correct him, and you’ll likely be left behind.

Do you lengthen your stirrups for trail riding because it seems more comfortable? Don’t think you can ride with too-long stirrups because you’re “just trail riding.” Let’s take “just trail riding” out of the vocabulary.

Choose a stirrup length that allows your feet to rest without reaching — and while keeping your knees slightly bent so you can move like an athlete. Also, make sure your legs will stay underneath your seat.

Instead of sitting far back in the saddle, maintain an active, athletic stance. Suck in your belly button, rock back on your pockets, and sink your heels deep into the stirrups.

For a balanced, anchored position, ride with your toes up and heels down. Roll your ankles so that the bottoms of your feet are angled away from your horse.

Rolling in your ankles and slightly lifting your pinky toes move your legs into a close contact position and wraps the stirrup leathers around your legs.

There’s a yoga term that will help you imagine sitting up, back, and in balance: back body. Ride with your back body extended. That is, lengthen all your back’s bones, ligaments, and “energy.”

Almost everything in life causes you to cock your chest and abdomen forward and lock your hips, that is, living in the front body. Think hunching over the computer or slouching on the couch.

In riding, you want to elongate your back body and be conscious of your back. Relax and round your lower back, and extend your torso up; shorten your front-side and lengthen your back-side.

Stay in your back body, and don’t allow your energy to move forward. Use this visualization to prepare for riding — and prepare for a spook.

Step 4: Be the Herd Leader
Your horse is a herd animal, wired to notice the reactions and tension of the herd members. When you ride your horse, you’re in his herd, so he looks to you to make sure everything is okay. Imagine yourself as a strong, calm leader.

If you even think your horse might spook, start deep, abdominal breathing. He’ll detect if you’re holding your breath, which signals to him that he should be afraid.

Breathing with purpose will extend your spine and help you think about riding in your back body. Breathing is critical. Do it. Air is free.

Moving your eyes will help keep your whole body relaxed. Your horse will notice your tension if you lock your gaze on something you think may spook him.

Focus where you want your horse to go — not at something that’s potentially scary. When you focus on where you are now or where your horse is going, your eyes lend weight and point your body to that point.

What’s more, when you turn and look at where your horse is headed, instead of where you want to go, the problem gets worse.

Let’s say your horse spooks at something to the right of the trail and that’s what he’s moving away from. But you’re more afraid of the drop-off to the left of the trail that he’s moving toward — so you look left.

Your horse usually goes where you look or follows your focus. So by looking the wrong way, you’ve encouraged him to spook. Instead, focus where you want to go so that everything in your body gives him a consistent cue to go where you want.

Step 5: React Quickly
When your horse spooks, you won’t have time to stop and think. Spooks happen fast. You’ll only have an instant to stop your horse’s desire to bolt and focus him on the path you want.

This is the time that your at-home, in-the-car, thinking-ahead mental practice comes into play. Here’s a breakdown of what happens during a spook and how you’ll need to respond to keep your horse from bolting — all while keeping yourself relaxed, in your back body, breathing, and looking where you want to go.

In a spook, your horse first turns in the opposite direction of the scary object and tries to get away from it. He’s acting on his deep-seated flight instinct to survive.

Get in your mind that you’ll always turn your horse back toward the spooky stimulus any time he spooks. Lock in that image. Practice the motions and scenario over and over. Facing fear countermands flight.

Your horse will never run toward the spook-inducing stimulus, so a turn is required. Be prepared to turn with one rein. This flexes his neck and encourages the turn. Then ask for the stop.

If you pull on both reins at once, your horse will run right through the reins, and you’ll be in a pound-for-pound battle you can’t win.

If you shut off his escape path, he’ll try to turn another way. Be prepared to turn to the right then to the left with one rein while avoiding putting any pressure on the opposite rein. Block each escape path, and point him back at the scary stimulus. He won’t bolt toward what he’s afraid of.

The further your horse gets into the flight response before you intervene, the harder it is to get him out of the bolting run. Your reaction has to be quick. You might have to take a sudden, hard hold of your horse so that you can stop him before he bolts too far. If he gets four or five strides into the bolt, you may not be able to stop him.

As soon as you turn and stop your horse from bolting, he should stop and look at what scared him. Program in this response by approaching scary objects at home. Praise your horse each time he stops and looks at the scary object.

Repetition locks in this response and will help you on the trail. You can’t take the spook out of your horse, but you can teach him how to deal with it.

During a spook on the trail, your horse may be so scared that he won’t be ready to stop and will instead turn away again. Each time he turns, block his path. By doing so, you’ll leave him no other option but to face his fear.

As your horse calms, ask him to stop again. Encourage him to take a breath by taking a deep breath yourself. When you eliminate his flight option, he’ll calm down and listen to your cues. Soften your body, and sigh out the air. Pet him on the neck. Let him know you’re the leader in your herd of two and that all is okay.

If your horse flies backward, chances are, you’re pulling back on the reins. Note that pulling back on the reins doesn’t stop your horse. In fact, it may be causing the problem.

Instead, reach your hands straight toward your horse’s ears, and pump your legs on him from behind the cinch.

If you can’t stop the backward motion, pick up one rein toward your opposite shoulder, and cause him to cross his back legs. He can’t back and cross his legs at the same time. (You might want to practice this at home.)

Step 6: Convert his Behavior
When your horse determines that the scary monster isn’t going to kill and eat him, he’ll “convert” to investigative behavior. Investigative behavior is simply curiosity and will cancel out his flight behavior.

If your horse moves forward toward the scary thing, allow him to check it out, and praise him. This will convert him — replace one natural behavior with another without getting into a fight.

When your horse is curious about what spooked him, he’s suddenly brave. He’ll want to go closer. Praise him for his courageous actions, look for a new location to ride toward, and move down the trail.

For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD​ at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com​

This article first appeared in The Trail Rider ~ September/October 2014