Time Heals

Last weekend I ran a gridwork clinic for my riding club. Members had been requesting them, and I`m trying to get practice with assessing and teaching unknown combinations ready for my ITT exam.

Several of the riders said they were looking for a confidence giving ride. Which is fine with me, and I built the grid to improve the confidence of horses and riders.

Today I was thinking back to the clinic on one of my hacks, and also thinking ahead to the next one which already has a lot of interest, and these are my thoughts on regaining confidence.

If you lose your confidence it can be really difficult to regain it. Especially if you don`t have the support network that you need. It can be hard enough asking for help from friends, let alone strangers. This is where having regular lessons can help because you have a rapport with your instructor, who also knows how to play your strengths and weaknesses so that a lesson will go well. Last week I also taught someone who had fallen off and hurt herself badly and ridden another horse infrequently since, and not gone out of walk. It`s tough, starting at rock bottom with an unknown horse and rider, but we had a look at the walk, chatting to help relax my rider, circling, starting and stopping. It was all about making her feel that she was in control. She soon found how she was over correcting the walk, and creating too much noise so her horse wiggled along, making my rider feel less in control and nervous. Then I suggested a trot. The rest of the lesson was spent doing short, straight lines of a slow trot. I couldn`t, or didn’t, do much teaching as such, but rather supported my rider as she overcame her fears.

At the end of the lesson I felt I hadn`t done a huge amount, and hadn’t made the progress I`d anticipated – I had aspirations of sitting trot, circles etc. However, when she emailed me the next day to book another lesson she was ecstatic about what she had achieved and is looking forwards to doing it again.

Another factor in regaining confidence, and I think this is always underestimated, is time. If you physically hurt yourself you need time to recover both physically and mentally. The physical healing is obvious – there`s no longer a plaster cast, or pain when you move. The mental healing is when your body stops tensing in anticipation of pain. It`s entirely natural, self defence. But only time will help this. Say, if you’ve had back pain whilst doing sitting trot then every time you take sitting your back muscles tighten and you go rigid as a learned response, exacerbating the situation, but it is only by repeatedly doing the sitting trot that your body learns that it will not be harmed and therefore should relax. After some time, you will be able to transition into sitting trot without a second thought.

Another big factor in helping you recover your confidence is repetition. The exercise doesn`t have to be hard, it just needs repeating so that it is autonomic and doesn’t generate the fear response. What I found with my grid work sessions was that the riders didn`t want a complicated exercise, followed by another different exercise. They wanted, and needed, a straightforward exercise that was built up steadily, and to ride through it again and again. It didn’t have to be big or wide, they just needed to repeat it. Then when it was autonomic we could make it bigger. If someone had fallen off on a hack whilst cantering then cantering in the arena until they were 150% confident and then take them on a hack to a different canter spot. Repeat that until they are no longer worried, and then take them to another canter track, and then the same track they fell off on so that they don`t have a phobia of hacking.

Going back to my lesson last week with the very nervous lady rider, the trotting that we did was all the same – straight lines, slow – but that was all she needed. To trot without any pressure, and to repeat it and build the muscle memory.

As an instructor or coach, I think it is really easy to overlook the simplicity of a lesson that builds confidence after a major dent. Yes, nothing special has been achieved in the grand scheme of things, and the horse or rider may not have dramatically improved, or been tested; but to that one person the feeling of positivity, elation, and the urge to do it again is something that trumps all else. Getting positive feedback, both from last week and the clinic, made me realise the importance of these baby steps and the support network, as well as realising how much I had given these riders by doing what I thought was very little.

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