Confidence in Riding – Part 1

We’re delighted to welcome back Human Performance Coach Jon Pitts who always provides food for thought in his articles. In this two part article he addresses the issue of confidence, provides us with a greater understanding of what lies beneath confidence and how it can be made more resilient.

 

       This is a pastime that the majority of the world’s population would never be brave enough to do!

 

I am often asked about the psychological side of riding horses and what we do with the elite riders to help them cope with the pressures of riding.

It is safe to say that competitive riding takes the mental skills of the sport to the next level in terms of brain function and it is important firstly to remember that getting on a horse is something that we’re simply not designed to do! Whilst I’ve been lucky to use technology to understand the best, I’m really keen to stress that what I have learned is just as applicable, relevant and important to the wider riding public.

Since I’ve been talking more about confidence, and promoting the message that actually it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or anxious on a horse at times, the floodgates have opened with many equestrians from the wider ranks almost relieved that it is ok to accept this. I think this is another area that we can chalk up to the “traditional” thought processes developed over the years. I’m still hearing phrases such as “kick on” and “it’ll be alright”, and these seem to be linked to a mindset that we must not be seen to be admitting that all is not well.

The trouble with this is that we’re not working with a machine and so there is always a degree of unpredictability that we have to deal with. More importantly, we also know that the horse is aware of our anxiety, which I’ll go on to discuss a bit later, but essentially we are sat on something that spends most of its time looking out for what is going to eat it.

I’m a firm believer, though, that in a sport that is inherently dangerous and where injuries can be life changing or even fatal, we must now challenge this naïve, traditional mindset. The potential is a better, safer and more enjoyable pastime that also improves the welfare of the horse, something I’m trying to convey through my Fit to Ride system.

 

      The aim is to make the sport better, safer and more enjoyable pastime

 

To begin with, it is important to establish some very simple facts about riding that over the years I’ve discovered through research;

  • Every rider, even the biggest names in the sport, experience a physiological response when they leave the ground and get on a horse. Your memory has clear examples of how and why the potential for danger has increased (falls), and so we experience a slight fight or flight reaction. In elite riders this is very slight, and as we broaden the spectrum this response can become clearer and more exaggerated. If you think about it, at no stage are the mental demands of riding really touched on in learning to ride, and yet this is a pastime that the majority of the world’s population would never be brave enough to do!
  • This is perfectly normal, depending on the scale of reaction. Your brain is fundamentally designed to protect you and instigates this. There aren’t too many riders out there who have never experienced a fall, and your brain uses these memories to build a recognition process that becomes stronger as we gain experience and age. In fact, we become increasingly aware of our mortality as we get older, and the application of your mental “handbrake” gets stronger!
  • I’m perfectly happy to accept many theories (and I’ve heard some pretty “wacky ones”!) as to how the horse is aware of our anxiety. From my perspective I can confirm 3 measurable ones tested in situations. Firstly, we know that there is a response connection between horse and rider: using heart rate monitors on both horse and rider we have artificially “scared” both, and in each case have seen an anxiety response in the other simultaneously. The horse is capable of feeling 3 human fight or flight responses, firstly through tension in our legs, secondly through a change in our breathing pattern via our seat bone pressure and finally often through heart rate in our inner thigh. Given how strong and powerful the horses are underneath us, it is relatively easy for us to pick up on it!
  • The horse is inherently a creature of flight, and is wired up to be ready at the moment’s notice of possible or imminent danger. It always interests me to see how horses are described, and in this case the use of the word spooky amuses me. There are plenty of spooky humans in this world too, and there are various reasons as to why this happens: the brain is a very complex thing, but the protection mechanism is a very primal thing.

 

      The horse easily picks up on changes in the rider's inner thigh, seatbones and leg tension

 

It is important to establish that psychology or confidence in sport is not just about repairing problems, but can actually be far more proactive in building far stronger skills. I’ve been lucky enough to work across many sports, and nowhere is this statement more appropriate than in riding. I’m risking a backlash here when I say that some of the standards of coaching I’ve seen in the equestrian world are far behind other sports. This is quite a “global” statement, and I’ve seen some very good coaches too, but we need to understand how skill acquisition works in order to achieve the aim of helping a rider improve.

This isn’t an attack on knowledge, because there is so much out there. I am looking at this from how the brain works and how we communicate, learn and develop skills.

 

In the next part of this article Jon explains how your riding confidence can be made more resilient through effective coaching and developing a greater understanding of how to have control or regain control in difficult situations

Jon Pitts is a leading Human Performance Coach and was a Performance Analyst to EA. For more information on how you can benefit from the Fit to Ride system through clinics, courses and seminars, please contact him at info@fittoride.org