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  • Alison Lincoln

You're either a confident rider or you're not - right?

Actually confidence is a skill like any other which means you can learn it. The first step is to work out what things knock your confidence and avoid them. Sounds obvious doesn’t it, but consider how much time you spend watching others, particularly at competitions. It’s quite common to watch fellow competitors as a way to memorise the test, learn the track or see how the course is riding. The downside is that, if you’re not careful, you may end up doubting yourself, second guessing your plan for riding the course or getting anxious if you see a rider run into difficulty. Interestingly some people find watching others near misses sap their confidence more than their own accidents or mishaps.

If you’re a highly motivated rider committed to constantly improving your results you may find yourself going over and over poor performances to try and work out what went wrong and why. This constant reliving of mistakes can seriously dent your confidence by focusing on what you don’t want to happen. Instead take time to analyse why things went well and how you can repeat that.

If you find yourself thinking about all the things that could go wrong – that’s OK it’s called contingency planning. If, however, you find yourself going over them for the 15th time then that’s not helpful. Accept things don’t always go to plan and that whatever happens you’ll handle it.

This brings us to the next step in building your confidence – practice. You’ll often hear the expression practice makes perfect but actually practice makes confident. Work out what you need to do in competition and then practice it:

  • Practice riding the whole test at home

  • Practice jumping a double with a parallel to an upright

  • Practice cantering in a constant rhythm up and down hills

  • Practice working in a crowded arena

  • Practice working at a higher level at home so at a competition the level feels easy

  • Practice your warm up routine

  • Practice with an audience – borrow some friends to watch / film you ride

If nerves often get the better of you, picture yourself coming out of the arena after a successful ride. What did it feel like? What was happening around you? What could you hear? What could you see? Visualise yourself walking out of the ring smiling, patting your horse and saying “I can’t believe how good that was!” Take a moment to savour that feeling. Smile, breathe out (we often hold our breath when we’re nervous) and go enjoy the ride!

This brings us to the final step of building confidence – positive self-talk. What you say (and think) to yourself day in day out matters. Not convinced? Try repeating the words ‘strong and powerful’ to yourself over the course of a day and notice how you feel. Next day repeat the words ‘weak and tired’ for the whole day (if you can bear it!). How did that feel? Consider if what you’re saying to yourself is building or undermining your confidence. Common examples of self-defeating thoughts include:

  • I can’t believe it’s raining my horse hates the wet

  • I get really nervous competing, I just can’t cope with the pressure

  • I don’t want to let people down

  • We’ll win if I can just jump clear

The simplest way to overcome these negative thoughts is to use a technique called thought stopping. As you notice a negative thought entering your head picture a stop sign blocking its path or use the word ‘stop’ or ‘delete’. Some people even use a rubber band on their wrist which they ping to literally ‘snap’ themselves out of that type of thinking. Now insert more positive thoughts in their place:

  • It’s the same for everyone, I can ride just as well in the rain after all I’ve had plenty of practice!

  • I’m not nervous, I’m excited!

  • Providing I put in the effort and do the best for my horse I’ve done well

  • What will be, will be – I’ll ride into each fence as I would at home, forward and balanced and see what happens

Interestingly research on elite riders found they built confidence by recognising that setbacks were actually key learning moments without which they wouldn’t have achieved what they had. In fact, many believed it was the difficult or less talented horses that taught them the most and made them the rider they were today. Just take a moment to think about that. Riders at the top of the sport build their confidence by thinking differently about the challenges of riding and training horses. I guess that’s something we can all do.


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