How I've Developed Confidence In My Horses

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In last weeks? blog, I discussed why confidence?in our abilities as riders and in our horses?is so critical to performing well and to having fun. This week I'm going to share some tales of developing a partnership based on confidence and trust with three of my own horses.

You can read more about these three horses under the ?Our Horses? tab on our website (www.phoenixsporthorses.com).

I have to start with my wonderful, late partner Merlin, who came into our lives at age 3 and I competed through the intermediate/two-star level. When he came to us, he had almost no confidence at all?petrified of the world around him and uncertain of people handling him or riding him. I think that was just him?he hadn?t been abused. But he had been in a steeplechasing barn, where, just about every day, someone different groomed and rode him. Heather and I decided that the biggest thing he needed was for us to form a partnership with him, so he could develop trust in us.

Heather mostly rode him for the first year or so, and initially she fell off him most days when he spooked and spun away from something?cows in the distance, a piece of paper blowing in the wind, a jump in a new place, the sound of a car going down the road, birds taking flight in front of him. But she persevered and taught him how to listen to her aids and to work. It was the beginning of teaching him that, if his rider says, ?you're OK,? to keep working, to keep going.

But Merlin and Heather never did develop confidence in each other when jumping. Heather had had several ugly and painful falls from bad-jumping horses, so she wasn?t able to trust Merlin?s often-dramatic over-jumping. On the other hand, I'd had the good fortune of riding numerous horses who were fabulous and trustworthy jumpers, and I thought he was one of the two or three most fabulous jumpers I'd ever sat on. So I'd get on him, and with my aids say to him, ?let's go the jumps,? and he?d go. All he needed was for me to give him that little bit of confidence in himself.

And that confidence in each other over fences would become the hallmark of our career. With the help of our trainer, Sharon White, we developed Merlin?s natural cleverness, so that, as we moved up the levels, all I had to do was present him to the jumps at the correct angle and speed and let him do the rest. We believed in each other. I often had people remark on the bond of confidence between us, and even now, nearly three years since his death, I still touch the bracelet made of his tail hair I wear on my right wrist before I start on every cross-country course. I'm seeking to summon some of the confidence Merlin and I shared for the horse I'm sitting on. I'm asking Merlin to ride with me again. And he hasn?t let me down.

Fortunately, I've been lucky enough to develop a similar bond of confidence with Alba, my extraordinarily workaholic Quarter Horse mare, who's been competing at the preliminary level for the last three years.

Alba is, basically, confident in herself and her world, unlike Merlin. But she worries about two things: cows (sHe's deathly afraid of those crazy beasts!) and whether sHe's doing the right thing. Those two elements can make her extremely tense.

Alba and I established a bond right away, and it only grew when she started competing and jumping cross-country courses. I've never had to worry about her going to the jumps?I've just had to control how fast she wants to attack them. SHe's always gone forward from my aids, but I've worked for four years on developing her confidence in my more subtle aids. I've worked to refine her understanding and acceptance of my aids and to develop her strength and suppleness through the work we do on the flat. So it's been fascinating to feel the quality of her movement improve and to feel her become more and more obedient, especially at home.

Even though keeping her calm and attentive in competitions is still a work in progress, I look forward to the cross-country phase.

it's neat to feel a horse who's so eager to face the challenges ahead of her and to know that I've helped foster that.

Amani, my 5-year-old homebred, is still a work in progress, but a work who is progressing very well. Amani had the misfortune of starting work with another homebred filly who didn't care to work much at all and who injured me very badly and did put a big hole in my confidence by throwing me, violently, twice. So it took a bit of a leap of faith to continue riding Amani when she was 3 and to take her to her first few competitions.

But I could quickly feel that, although Amani is an opinionated young lady (we call her ?the princess?), she is eager to work and has confidence in me in my aids. I've had to develop in her the ability to focus on what sHe's doing (she can get rather ?blonde?), especially to focus on the jump in front of her, to ignore whatever is going on around her. But I've done that, and now she has a laser-like focus on the jumps. And sHe's a fabulous jumper?I think she may be as good as Merlin.

I've been fortunate to have had in my life these three horses with whom I've had rewarding long-term relationships, to have ridden these horses on whom I'd go anywhere and jump almost anything. But, as I suggested, that other filly did punch a hole in my ability to immediately feel fully confident with horses I sit on for the first time. As a result of that horse and my advancing age, whenever we get a new horse in for training (especially a youngster or a horse with whom the owner has been having problems), it takes a few days for me to develop confidence in the horse, to learn how he reacts to my aids (especially the driving aids of legs and whip) and to the environment. I always put a yoke around his neck to grab on to and usually wear a body protector the first day or two.

But once I've tested him or her, and I've become confident that he or she won?t object unexpectedly to my directions, I can feel my trust in them, and (I hope) them in me, develop, allowing us to literally and figuratively go forward.