The Riding School: The mystery of confidence

Where does it come from? How does it accumulate, or disappear? Why does it come so easily to some riders while eluding others completely? The Riding Instructor contemplates.

From the Riding Instructor:

Like many of you, I clicked on the video posted last week of the seven year old jumping somewhere in the four-foot range expecting to completely disapprove.  After, though, I felt a little differently.  I’m still not totally cool with it (it just seems a little needlessly dangerous.  Not that the kid couldn’t ride – he looked quite secure – but the room for error gets smaller as the fences get bigger), but I came away admiring not his position or skill, but his confidence.  Where does that level of faith in your own abilities come from?

I have a nice group of students right now who are seven to nine years old and this video made me think about the range of confidence that they represent.  At the high end is a little girl who’s been riding with me since she was four.  She didn’t develop the strength to do much more than trot a tiny bit until she was six; however, in the last year of riding consistently, she has turned into a tough little nut.  She currently rides one of our oldest school horses, a mount famous for tormenting generations of students with his utter refusal to trot at anything but the slowest of paces, usually for less than 10 steps at a time.  But let Tough Nut get on and 30 seconds later, old Slowpoke is practically prancing around the ring (OK, trotting at a slow pace for a normal horse, but for Slowpoke, it’s like the Kentucky Derby out there). And this, mind you, with a rider whose feet don’t actually come off the saddle.  Anything I ask her to do, she’ll do – I’m the one who has to restrain her pace to make sure she doesn’t miss out on her fundamentals.

In the middle is a girl of the same age who has also been consistently riding for about a year.  Her position is terrific: heels down, head up, great balance.  She can trot around in half seat or without stirrups all day long.  In her basics, she’s stronger than Tough Nut.  But something holds her back just a little bit.  She’s still cantering on the longe line, despite being tight as a tick, and I have to scaffold new activities, building them up a piece at a time, as she’s not completely comfortable about tackling new tasks.

And finally, there’s the student who, despite having more miles in the saddle and a better position than the first two, just can’t seem to move herself mentally to the next level.  Despite having all the physical and intellectual tools to progress, she’s stuck in a place where anything beyond trotting presents too much of an emotional challenge; she doesn’t believe she can do it.  We are firmly keeping it in her comfort zone for as long as it takes for her to get bored and ask for the next thing.

All three of these students have had similar instruction their whole riding careers on the same solid group of school horses.  So what makes their confidence level so different?  Some is certainly rooted in personality, some in their lives outside the barn.  But I’d be interested in hearing what made Horse Nation readers feel confident (or lose confidence) in themselves as riders.  What made you believe you could canter or jump or ride outside the ring?

It’s unlikely that I’m going to be sending any of my seven year olds out to tackle a four-foot fence any time soon (I can only imagine the look in the eyes of my long-suffering schoolies, should they even see a four-foot fence set up in the ring), but I’d really like them to believe that they could!

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