California Riding Magazine • January, 2009

Soft Touch Training Tip
The confidence building program's final stage: confident rider.

by Teresa Kackert

Now at the final stage in our three stage confidence building program (confident handler, confident horse, confident rider), I hope we can all begin to see the necessity for what I consider to be the basic fundamentals for effective and enjoyable equitation at all levels: 1. effective communication, 2. qualified training, 3. human and equine confidence. The are a couple of reasons I have chosen to talk about these areas. Over the years I have found that without these basic fundamentals there is a lack of foundation on which to later build more complex skills. Without this foundation, both horses and riders may later be faced with insurmountable and unavoidable frustrations or limitations regarding rider or owner satisfaction in both equine performance and behavior.

Becoming a “confident rider” does take time and is also a continuous process that evolves over time. From our first pony ride to our first 3’ fence (…dressage score, long distance ride or world class competition…) let alone getting back in the saddle after a spill or recovering from some other limiting injury, we must all address and resolve our relative levels of confidence or lack thereof. The key point to remember is, at some point, we all need a reliable process that we can use to restore, enhance or increase our confidence. In these steps here, I will address what I feel are the three primary elements in building or re-building the “confident rider” at the non-pro level: (1) mental positioning, (2) physical conditioning and (3) effective training.

Mental Positioning

Our first element, mental positioning, basically means, “getting into your horsey zone.” This will require focus and practice. Before I work with my horses I use basic stretching, deep breathing and relaxation techniques to put me in the right frame of mind. I recommend finding a little quiet time beforehand. I sometimes use my car or my tack room/office. With all the stresses of the day still on our minds, it’s critical to set them aside so the very precious and limited time we have to spend with our horses is quality time—for both myself and my horse. I have found that some days, nice relaxing music helps, on other days it’s simply some peace and quiet and on other days it’s performing the seemingly monotonous yet simple tasks and chores around the barn that help me clear my head. I’ll be the first one to say that sometimes my mental relief is accomplished by just hanging out with my horse, grooming and talking and that is great!

In any event, I strongly recommend preparing yourself mentally before working with your horse, primarily when addressing any new or challenging skill or performance related activity.

The most important step after clearing out the “cobwebs” of the day is to begin visualizing exactly what it is you intend to work on that day and exactly what it is you hope to accomplish. A written lesson plan is a great tool and it can be as simple as a short outline of the one, two or possible three things you would like to work on that day but it must include your desired outcome as well. Moreover, I have often found that it is much easier to achieve something once you have already visualized it; from the simple ground pole to crossing the flowing river on trail, from the perfect canter departure to the ideal halt; if you have “seen it done” in your mind’s eye, it can and will happen. I continue to use this technique throughout my training sessions at all levels. Before working with your horse on any challenging issue, I strongly recommend taking some quiet time to visualize your success before you start.

Once in the saddle, I continue to visualize myself and my horse as the perfect equine poster children: wonderful form, effortless function, graceful in all respects! Specifically, I focus on rider posture, rhythmic breathing and synchronizing my body to his, whether riding or leading, in order to facilitate harmonic performance. A rider must be able to meld with his or her horse in all the subtle areas of communication and throughout the training, performance or pleasure session; breathing, speaking, walking, leading, riding—pace, tone and rhythm of each must match and synchronize with the other; the closer the match, the more effective the communication and bond.

Effective timing techniques will match the rider’s inhale and exhale with the rhythm of rider’s hips, which in turn match the movement of the horse’s stride. Particularly in the trot, rider pace, softness, timing and rhythm with their mount can be soft and ideal when properly performed. Our goal here is to work fluidly with the horse under us—at all gaits. Proper and effective rider position is eyes and head up, looking forward, leading the horse’s track with our gaze. The rider’s body should be relaxed, sitting vertically but not stiffly, shoulders back but not over exaggerated, chest open, arms and hands low and soft yet steady, rider’s legs should be quiet yet firmly placed alongside the girth, rider’s seat should also be quiet, soft and controlled on our horse’s back, etc. These are just some of the finer points required to achieve our ideal ride and consistent performance with our horses and we look to our trainers to help us. Without a doubt, what we do before and once we’re in the saddle will translate directly into our horse’s attitude, behavior and performance. This is why it is critical that we be aware of our own disposition and performance if we expect our horses to respond in a cooperative, facilitative and willing manner.

Physical Conditioning

However, it is the second element of confident rider that often offers the most challenge: physical conditioning. In this area physical conditioning does apply to both the horse and the rider. However, let’s just look at the rider for now. Just like our horses, we are all made different; none of us are the same. As a result, every horse and rider team has their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. I have found over the years that in order to achieve the goals we set, we must be realistic in assessing our individual situations. There is no doubt in my mind that rider physical fitness can be very helpful in facilitating a rewarding equine experience. Many times over research has shown that by increasing our strength and fitness level even a small amount can immediately result in an exponential increase in ability and confidence. Medical advice must always be sought before beginning any physical training and or conditioning program if need be.

Otherwise, I recommend starting and sticking with the basics. A gentle, controlled warm-up is always a must. Whether it’s cleaning our horse’s pen or tidying up our tack room and grooming our horse, the important thing is that we achieve increased blood flow to our ligaments and muscles and slightly elevate our respiration. I also like simply taking a nice brisk walk around the stable or, for the more competitive of us, a nice stroll around the arena with soft footing will do the trick.

First, our core, primarily our abdominals, are most critical. Strength here will help us in all aspects of riding and handling our horses. Simple, safe, repetitive abdominal exercises can pay off even in a very short period of time; pick an exercise that works for you.

The next area I focus on is strengthening our legs: calves, quads/thighs, glutes, etc. It goes without saying that without sufficient strength in our legs we may be unable to effectively remain in the saddle or communicate with our horse. Simple exercises like a one or two-step mounting block as a cardio step exercise is a simple and very effective means for strengthening and conditioning. Or, for the more competitive, I use a hay bale size two-step structure in the same manner. If the knees are good, I like the hay bale squat (deep knee bend) for working all the major leg muscles as well as the glutes!

The third primary area I address is our arms. Despite the need to always remain soft and gentle with our hands and reins, we must retain enough strength in our arms to again, safely and effectively control and communicate with our horses. I realize we are all not body builders or physical fitness regulars but we can all benefit from a little toning up and strengthening of our arm and shoulder muscles. I recommend sticking with the simple push-up (modified from a kneeling position if need be) as well as basic arm curls and shoulder presses with small, handheld dumbbells. For those of us who double as western riders, some of our saddles can weigh up to as much as 30 pounds and toting those saddles around can wreak havoc on our joints if we don’t have the muscle mass needed. Remember ladies, we’re not trying to win any contests here, rather we just want to ensure as much as possible that we have all the tools necessary to enjoy our passion with our horses as safely and as long as possible.

Effective Training

Our third and final element in “confident rider” is effective training which involves appropriate and adequate practice and successful repetition. Our goal here is to develop proper “muscle memory” that will enable us to perform confidently without having to physically think about it. This will empower both us and our horse.

In the end, it is the sum of these three parts that will result in accomplishing our goal of “confident rider.” However, we must continue to practice and repeat these steps until we can consistently achieve that poster horse and rider look we all know we have inside of us! By training our mind to clear, focus and envision our individual goals; strengthening our bodies (and mind) so that we have the tools necessary to facilitate our accomplishments and, finally, by performing our training sessions over and over again successfully and effectively (with professional assistance when necessary), we will almost certainly become more confident riders and achieve higher and more enjoyable levels of performance than we had previously experienced.

Good luck and enjoy the wonderful world of horses!

Teresa Kackert is Certified Gold by Chris Irwin, Master by Richard Shrake, and a C.H.A. Clinic Instructor. She may be contacted via e-mail at GreatHorses@msn.com.