Confidence Lost and Found

 

We thought having a horse would make everything perfect. It’s a dream most of us were born with; we were drawn to horses in some way that we can’t explain in polite words. We were a bit frightening to our mothers. We begin to lose whatever meager social skills we had for small talk at social events in favor of clock-watching until we can make an excuse about feeding and leave early. We gave up princess dreams in exchange for barn coats, muck boots and gnarly nails.

We love to tell horse stories that all have the same plot: We get a horse, usually the wrong one. We struggle with challenges on all fronts. We get bad advice, we lose money, we get bucked off. We persist, two steps forward and one step back. We eventually find a better version of ourselves. Then even if the horse lives to thirty, we think we lost them too soon.

As a kid, I clutched the “H” encyclopedia, the only horse book on the farm, and begged daily for a horse of my own. My father eventually relented and came home from an auction with a wild-eyed pony who kicked me in the face. Don’t all horse stories really come down to trying to balance love and fear?

If it was as easy to buy confidence as it is to buy tack; if trust was a supplement that came in both human and equine form, we’d be just fine.

On good days when it all goes right, we should hoot-out with bravado. We survived, we had a feeling of true partnership, whether competing or out on the trail, we had a blue-ribbon ride. We should celebrate, not out of garish pride but because we know the fluid state of reality. We know that confidence can come and go like the tide.

It’s a perfect storm that creates a perfect ride. It’s a hundred details important to your horse like a healthy stomach, balanced hooves, great saddle fit, physical balance, a low bug population, and a peaceful barometer. This all matters because when things go wrong, there’s a perfect storm, too. It isn’t about luck, it involves things that our senses can’t pick up, things important to the horse. And that doesn’t include the human aspects of the perfect storm and we’re much more complicated.

Let’s say you’re a good rider and you have a great horse. The two of you have small challenges but no glaring problems. You’ve had enough horses to know how lucky you are. Then on an ordinary sunny day, just when you have never felt better about your horse and the progress in the last year… Just when your goals seem to be within your grasp, because you’ve gone slow and done it all right, it happens. The ride comes apart. Your horse is frightened and so are you. Maybe you ride it out or maybe you come off. Maybe you bounce to your feet or maybe you’re hurt. The details will be scrutinized, excuses offered on all sides, you will go deeper for better understanding. Some might laugh it off but most of us will find a quiet place and soak in the pain of doubt.

It feels like the rug was pulled out, that your horse has betrayed you. That you are wrong about everything, and you can’t trust your horse or anything you knew. In other words, things just got real. The drama of the moment blinds ordinary perception. You know intellectually that it’s just one day in the story you’ll tell in the future, but it’s the hard day. In hindsight, it may build character but right then, it all feels like a failure as your partnership crashes to the ground.

You’ve been horse-crazy since this obsession began, but now you’re scared, embarrassed and self-critical, feeling that you’ve betrayed your horse, too. You love your horse and you’re afraid. It would seem crazy to someone who doesn’t have horses, but for us, it’s a common. Some would argue, a healthy state of mind.

You might notice right about now that we romanticize horses. We dream of National Velvet or Black Stallion. We give them titles like therapist or lifesaver, or fur-kid. We form a secret society with a password nicker, only to get booted out. Trust is destroyed, confidence is rattled, and it feels like innocence is lost, even if you’ve had ten horses before this one. Weirdest of all, even now, you know you can’t quit. The only thing worse than the despair in the moment is thinking of a life without horses.

“They taught me how it works. You have to let your heart be soft. You have to let your love be just an inch bigger than your fear.” -Dedication in Relaxed & Forward, the book.

Nothing about horses comes without a cost. And so, we start again. We remind ourselves that horses are horses, and then try to understand what that means in a deeper way. They have instincts that rule them, as ours rule us. We have to negotiate that balance.

Instead of being made weaker by our fears, let’s drag them out into broad daylight and, like your weird uncle at family reunions, invite them into the process. What if fear could be re-framed as common sense and we channeled it into self-awareness. We can stop demonizing fear and let it be a learning aid. Not that it’s an easy thing to do, but because hating part of ourselves is a losing proposition. Embracing our parts makes us closer to whole.

Once the swelling goes down, we might negotiate the idea of confidence, too. It isn’t a commodity to gain, so much as a reality that we nurture. We can’t chase it down, buy it in a book, or wish it into existence. We have to befriend confidence and after a bump like this, it’s a bit like a rescue dog, shy in the beginning or trying too hard to act like nothing’s wrong.

We need to show ourselves the patience and compassion we hope to have for horses. We have to give ourselves the time we need to heal. Getting bucked off means that we land in a new reality. Trade romance for an honest relationship with your horse, where strengths and weaknesses get mixed together.

Then go slow. Lower your expectations, so you can congratulate yourself more often. Praise your own breathing. Tack up and take a stroll. Loiter at the mounting block, and then go back to the barn. Take your time to climb back on and have a friend on the ground. Have a three-minute ride and dismount hungry. Say thank you.

Let affirmations take the place of self-criticism. You’ll need to remind yourself about that every day… until confidence becomes a habit.

When we are in the middle of the story we will eventually tell, we’ll lose perspective because the process is always a challenge, with every horse. Details change, it isn’t always pretty, but all horse stories end the same way. We still love them.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

64 thoughts on “Confidence Lost and Found”

  1. One month ago I got severely kicking in the face by my loving, favorite old mare. She has never given me a minute of fear, and I’ve handled her in every way possible. I was seriously injured, broken facial bones, split mouth and nerve damage. I’m not blaming her, I was just stunned it happened. I don’t know what caused her reaction, but it’s safe to say I’m now a big leary about being close and in contact with her. Your message today was close up and personal. It will take me a while to heal, both physically and emotionally. I don’t want to be afraid, but, sadly I have to admit I am.

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    • So sorry to hear, and glad you are on the mend. We always have to guard against complacency, especially with favorite oldies… Your fear isn’t all bad, go slow. Best wishes, Dianne.

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  2. Anna, I honestly don’t know how you do it. There are times I can’t read your posts right away because I feel too exposed, too vulnerable. You’ve somehow crept into my mind, seen my worried, self-doubting corners and have put what you’ve seen into words. I want to hide from the mirror created by your writing and yet, I feel like I’ve been thrown a lifeline. Your posts create an opportunity to reflect and regroup. Thank you.

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  3. Thank you so very much for this post, Anna. I struggle mightily with riding fear issues. I feel all alone in the world with this problem.

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      • I love the way you capture in words what I don’t know realise I know until you express it with such eloquence. The sentence “Don’t all horse stories really come down to trying to balance love and fear?” leapt out at me with its resonance of truth. I am just home from a two day jumping training camp, booked because I knew I was leaking my fear of jumping to my mare. I have come home drunk on that mix of love and fear. We played at the edge of our fear, without pushing, and that magical experience of nudging each other’s confidence forward has left me giddy with love and gratitude. I know it will ebb and flow but I am bathing in it right now and love the way your article captures and frames that. Our mantra now is ‘relaxed and forward’ – everything flows from there. Thank you.

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          • We you in my brain? Did you see me fall? Oh, so timely. And a great reminder that I am not alone in my pursuit of harmony and my aspirations for me and my horse. Many thanks!!!

          • Yes. I am a stalker who hides in the bushes. I travel across the planet so everyone is paranoid, it’s easier to believe than how similar we all are, she types sarcastically. Teehee. Nope, not alone. Kind of “ordinary,” which I mean as a compliment. 🙂 Thanks, Patricia.

    • Michelle, you are most certainly not alone in your fear issues. I’m an advanced beginner that ended up with a horse I love more appropriate for someone with much more confidence than myself. He’s not mean, but energetic and full of himself many days, and for someone like myself lacking confidence, these things alone can cause me shake with thinking about riding and to have to do deep relaxing breathing exercises as I walk out to the corral saddle up. I have to constantly remind myself not to tense up and grip with my knees and hang on to the saddle horn. Luckily I found an amazing instructor who help me me work through my fear slowly and methodically. I’ve been a work in progress for years, and even after he tripped and went down with me, causing a severe sprain to my ankle, I am happy to say that I have gotten better and my confidence has improved….a huge thing for someone like me who was so full of fear from day one. Like Anna mentioned above, some days if it was just too much for me to think about going for a ride, I would just go out, tack up and ride slowly at a walk around the corral, then dismount and call it good for a day…building on that confidence from a good ride, even if it was only 15 minutes. Some days we would just do a little ground work, and call it good. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and build on small things. And don’t feel badly because you have this fear….you are definitely not alone in this!

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  4. Absolutely perfect timing!
    “The only thing worse than the despair of the moment is thinking of a life without horses”
    Here I recline, age 72 with 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung, soaking in every word you’ve written. Thank you for your insight – yes, perfect timing!
    More food for thought, as always.

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  5. Thank you for this. My fears and lack of confidence doesn’t come from a fall or a kick or any sort of trauma but rather just my not being strong enough, as my health deteriorates from chronic kidney disease. In my romanticized version, I’d like to think he can sense that and doesn’t just run over me, tries to watch out for me. When I am with him and we just breathe a lot and I tell him he is enough. I hope he thinks I am enough but I don’t want him to worry about my being afraid of getting hurt, I try to assume the posture of calm confidence, but I worry that he is going to sense my fear and not feel like he can trust me, if that makes any sense at all.

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  6. WOW oh WOW! How did you know that I am sitting right now in exactly the milieu you’ve described. Self-compassion doesn’t come easy and it’s all to easy to focus on what I’m doing wrong. Thank you for this blog post.

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  7. And a p.s.-When it comes to horses, I think that fear isn’t talked about nearly enough other than in the context of, if you have fear, your horse will know it! I know that I have shame around my horse-based fear and I suspect most others with fear feel the same. I would love to hear more about this topic and how to work with the internal conflict of, “I’m scared,” versus, “I must exude confidence!”

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  8. Amongst all this talk of the fear riders may sometimes have (myself included), my mind goes to the all of the horses living with the fear of the imminent interaction with that human that will inevitably be putting a rope around their face/neck and even getting on their back.
    If I’m afraid of something, I can choose my course for dealing with it. Horses don’t usually have the luxury of choice. It has changed the way I think and that has changed my interactions with my horse. I have softened, she has softened and we both seem to enjoy our time together so much more!

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  9. When I reached the paragraph “Then go slow…” a calm settled into my stomach. Yes, that’s what it is all about, really. Taking it slow. Yesterday, I took my mare to my friend’s place to have some much needed “alone” time with her. I left my gelding at home thinking all would be well. My non-horse husband was in a truly bad place when I got home. Apparently Tango screamed the two hours I was gone and my husband couldn’t take it. Needless to say, my time with my mare that was so calming and slow, went out the door as soon as my husband opened his mouth. I knew Tango would be a screaming mimi for a little while but not the entire time. Just when I thought all was well, boom, caught between a husband who doesn’t understand horse behavior and has no tolerance for it and a horse that is a challenge but has taken me to places I only dreamed of. I got through the drama and I’ll be damned, I am not going to let one cranky old man take away the joy I have with my horses. “Then go slow…” is something that I will remember when the “least expect it” happens. I need it as much as my horses. Thanks for letting me share.

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  10. Such a great article. I look back (from 81) & think how much I might have accomplished – horse wise & all else – with more confidence – less listening to the naysayers. Odd word but very appropriate, I think. Attitudes have changed some but not enough. At this point – I’m glad I can do my own thing with no one to tell me otherwise. It wasnt always that way. My only regret is not still being involved with horses. But I sure do have great memories of them & the wonderful times I had. And I so enjoy reading this blog and the great comments – feel right at home!

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  11. I bought my first horse when I was 59. A year earlier I had taken on the lease of a horse from the riding school , ex eventer, medium dressage, head shaker, messed up, a true gentleman of a horse and had helped him recover and find himself only to find that he had a rapidly growing sarcoma in his jaw that eventually prevented him eating. I rode him bitless without a problem. I would wake with tears already in the pillow. That was when I discovered how much a horse meant to me. Then I acquired a quiet thoroughbred hack, known and recommended, and a series of events ( extra feed and Christmas) meant that my first ride ended in a sudden unexpected shy, bolt and fall. “Perfect love casts out all fear” was my mantra but it took over a year to regain my confidence with lots of work relaxing myself and my horse, who it turned out was not so quiet. Put it this way I bought an air vest (which I did need in a second bolt and fall) and would choose my underwear with a view to how it would look in the emergency room. I think I was almost there where love had conquered fear when after the second year he broke a shoulder in the paddock. It has taken more time and a truly quiet horse to fully regain my confidence. I have had to learn so much from many different horsemen in this process that I feel like a different person. I feel like the little girl in your post.

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    • What a wonderful, bittersweet comment. It’s always a big learning curve, but you are doing it quickly… Best wishes, I’ve become a different person for horses, too. Kinda like that. Thanks, Aluson.

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  12. This is just perfect, Anna. Sharing it with some of my friends who are having fear and confidence challenges. … and of course I have them, too. I guess I was just lucky and thanks to some forgiving and wonderful horses of my youth I never fell off a horse or got hurt until my late 50s. .. and have not yet been seriously injured, just fell off in a spin. Nonetheless, my respect for the quickness of a horse’s instinctual reactions is immense. I do know in my bones that riding and being around horses is inherently risky, but gosh, there’s no way I can give up my black beauties !

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  13. “Embracing our parts makes us closer to whole”….what a beautiful phrase. I’m going to write it out in big letters and hang it on my wall. Thank you once again Anna!

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  14. Great piece, Anna. Shared. Crises of confidence affect everyone sooner of later. Thanks for this powerful and astute lead-in to a discussion many need to have. Things happen and seasons change, but finding the way back is always worth the effort because horses are part of our DNA.

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  15. This came just when I needed it; after a miserable scary hack out when I knew before I got on that I shouldn’t…that Fox was upset and I didn’t know why. Thank you!

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  16. Love You Anna ! Your art is always fulfilling and so meaningfull. I’m so greatful you share ! Thank you so very much !

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  17. YES! Here we are AGAIN. Perfect new horse, concussion, fear and acknowledgement of aging and inability. Quit? Not possible. Get back on? Not advisable. Cry, sulk, excuse, grapple, search. Try. A glimmer of hope. Smile. Laugh. Enjoy. A flake of confidence rolling into a ball. Dare to dream. Anticipation, and excitement? She arrives Tuesday. 🤞

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  18. I had so many peace filled wonderful rides on this gelding. I had finally found a horse to “replace” my older gelding with head shaking syndrome…it had taken about 5 years. As you say, he seemed perfect in every way. In February I was thrown (came off/fell off/jerked to the hard left, insert appropriate word here) when he bolted hard right. No broken bones, thank God, but a super sore body and all the other words you described. The disappointments in him and in myself were huge. Loss of confidence, loss of trust, loss of interest in riding, fear, all overtook me. When I finally felt strong enough to get back on a month later, I’m sure my fear sent him into a tail spin and the ride was too long and too far from the barn. I could not wait to get back. A week ago I spent two days, 6 hours with a coach and she helped me tremendously…as has your writing. Slowing down, doing minutes as a time, being successful, making a connection, breathing deep and helping us both relax, regaining my passion, those are my goals. Building confidence again and have a great ride with no fear is my dream. Thank you for your words of wisdom, your offerings to regain what I have lost. Any more of those are going to be greatly appreciated. And from reading here, I see that I am not the only one in this boat! I’m in Texas and I’d love to catch one of your clinics. In the meantime I’ll follow you on your blog and Facebook as seems like you might be my new best friend. At 65, I do not plan to turn in my saddle! Hope to see you on the trail!

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    • Good for you, for getting a coach and moving along the path. This is a great comment; and you are not alone, you’re real to horses, a kind of baptism. Welcome!, I can always use a new friend. If it’s okay, I’ll put you on my TX mailing list so you’ll know if I’m coming. Thanks, and best wishes on the trail.

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  19. Thank you, I have been feeling slightly defeated by a setback with my mare and my confidence has taken a beating. I truly love this article.

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  20. I absolutely love your post “Confidence Lost & Found. I have read it over and over again. It’s soo true!! Your insight is remarkable!!

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  21. So beautifully written Anna,
    I’m new here, I recently signed up for Warwick Schiller’s video library after 7 months of contemplating options after a bad fall. Very nearly moved him on. Several people suggested I read your blog and so here I am. I broke badly, still am broken, more surgery this week.
    I’m desperately wanting to start right back at the beginning with ffr exercises. My head understands exactly what you’re saying, but it’s sooo hard. My fear is so instinctive, just like his. Lots of breathing exercises and time just hanging out in the paddock, but he still knows the monster’s inside. 😕

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    • Sorry to hear about your fall, and wishing you a quick healing, whatever time that means. I hear that you’re 7 months in already. Sounds like you love your horse,too. You are so right, fear (like the horse’s flight instinct) is just such a reflex, and for the road back to the saddle to work, IMO, it is slow and one bite-sized piece at a time. Thanks for giving the blog a try, the online group is so supportive, too. In the meantime, hanging out listening isn’t a bad way to spend some time. We spend so much time talking to horses that we don’t get much listening time. Again, welcome and thanks for commenting, Helen.

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