One of my favorite things to watch is the progression of a horse’s confidence as they gain more experience. Under the right instruction, it’s incredibly satisfying to see a horse “grow up,” even in the short span of one course or one test.
The professionals make it look simple, of course. Watching McLain Ward coax clear round after clear round out of his more sensitive horses, seeing Michael Jung masterfully guide even his greener horses around tough cross-country tracks, or witnessing Charlotte Dujardin inspire stunning performances in horses who, inevitably, always find themselves compared to the great Valegro, are lessons in true mastery for any onlooker.
But how does one go about instilling that coveted sense of confidence and focus in a horse who lacks mileage or experience? What if you’re not McLain or Michael or Charlotte? It can be difficult to impart eternal calm and assuredness when you’re internally having a panic attack, so confidence must be cultivated on the part of the rider, too.
Photo by Sportfot.
And yet, even professionals — the best in the business — must be mindful of this skill as well. This month’s Noëlle Floyd Masterclass instructor, five-time Olympian Anne Kursinski, can attest to the importance of this, even when you’re as experienced as she is in bringing out the best of each and every horse. But how does she keep her cool?
See It, Believe It, Achieve It
Anne is a major proponent of the time tested concept of visualization. For both horses and riders, the ability to prohibit past problems from carrying forward is a crucial part of instilling confidence. But of course, it’s easier said than done, particularly for the rider.
“When you have a problem — maybe your horse had a stop at the liverpool a few weeks ago — it can be easy to think of that problem when it comes time to try again,” Anne explains. “And so you really have to believe in the outcome that you want to happen. It sounds so simple, but it plays a big role.”
Don’t Get Stuck in the Past
Riding with intention, mindfully, is essentially what Anne’s referencing here. Think of the last issue you had with your horse. If you’re anything like me, having that memory constantly lurking in the back of your head may cause you to subconsciously change your riding as you approach that question again. You may tense your seat too much approaching a flying lead change. Or you may take a stronger hold of the reins and enter into a defensive posture approaching a liverpool your horse previously refused.
But this type of visualization can and will be your downfall.
Photo by Sportfot.
“You must be focused on getting the job done,” Anne continues. “You have to know the riding part — what to do with your body — well enough, but the rest of the battle is all mental, supporting and giving your horse confidence.”
Time for a Pep Talk
How does one put this concept into practice? To put it simply, you must practice positive thinking. Yes, you may have had the issue at the liverpool, but your horse will borrow his confidence from you. By ensuring you’ve done your homework — practicing correct position until it becomes muscle memory, ensuring your horse is responsive to your aids and moving off your leg promptly — the final puzzle piece is simply to believe in that desired end result.
Anne laughs as she explains this concept to me. “I know it sounds so simple,” she chuckles.
But it works.
Practice Emotional Control
Whether we feel it or not, our emotions are easily communicated to our horses. Why do you think most of us lose that brilliant warm-up work as soon as we head into the competition ring? Why do we have running jokes with our trainers that we “forget how to ride” as soon as we hear the bell?
“... believe in the outcome that you want to happen.”
By practicing this idea of mindful riding, of focusing on the visual of what you want to happen — nailing that final halt, making the time on cross-country — gives you the ability to impart that confidence and focus on the goal to your horse.
Simple, yet effective is how I would describe Anne’s training philosophy. Instead of focusing on that abysmal ride you had a few weeks ago on your next trip to the barn, embrace a bit of positive visualization. Don’t feel silly, just do it. Sometimes a simple reminder to be in the moment is all we need.
Feature photo by Caleb Hansen for NoelleFloyd.com.
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.