COURAGE & CONFIDENCE by Gincy Self Bucklin

A bold horse and a bold rider; certainly a desirable combination for almost any riding activity. But what makes a horse—or rider—bold? To answer that question, first we have to define boldness. Many people equate boldness with courage, but it might also be defined as confidence, and there is a big difference between these two definitions.

Courage means keeping on even when you are scared. Soldiers in battle have courage—when people are shooting at you, you are scared, but a courageous soldier keeps fighting.

Confidence means not being scared, because you know you can deal with the problem successfully, so there is nothing to be scared about. Courage to a certain extent is inborn. Some people are just naturally braver than others. But courage can be increased by increasing confidence. If you have jumped lots and lots of small fences successfully so that you are fully confident of your ability to jump small fences, you can probably find enough courage to jump a bigger fence even if you are not a particularly courageous person. Then, when you conquer the larger fence successfully, your confidence and thus your courage are increased again.

Note the use of that word ‘successfully.’ Confidence—the real deep down stuff that makes for a wonderful ride—is built on itself. Successful experience builds confidence and confidence builds successful experience. That means performing a task in a way that makes you feel really good about it—’ I did it well because I knew what I was doing and it was a lot of fun, and not frightening’— not ‘I did it and I’m still alive!’

If you just get through it and survive, some part of you is going to be saying ‘maybe next time I won’t be as lucky.’ That kind of feeling saps confidence and draws on your courage more than necessary. Being courageous in order to overcome fear takes a lot more strength and energy than being confident of your own and your horse’s skills.

Part of confidence comes from practicing skills over and over until the body—human or equine—responds correctly without conscious thought. (The modern term for that is ‘muscle memory.’) I took a skiing lesson not too long ago, and mentioned to my instructor that I had very little confidence on steeper slopes. His advice was not to worry; as I practiced my skills on the bunny slope my responses would become quicker and more automatic, so that I would be able to respond at the faster speeds on steeper slopes. When that happened my fear would disappear. Sure enough, even in the course of the afternoon as my skills improved I found myself handling steeper slopes with confidence.

Everybody has their own rate of developing confidence and courage, depending on factors such as age, coordination and previous experience. You just have to listen to what your own body and your horse are telling you about what is going on. If the messages are good, you continue. If they start sounding bad, then you stop and go back and fix the problem.

Obviously, if either rider or horse is extremely timid by nature, activities requiring a lot of courage may not be best choice for them, although a determination to succeed can overcome many obstacles. But the courageous rider, or the rider with a courageous horse, who depends on courage to get out of trouble because he or she doesn’t want to spend the time building confidence by improving basic skills, is not being fair to either his/her own body or to the horse. Eventually the lack of skill will cause a problem, which, even if it doesn’t result in serious injury, will cause loss of confidence and eventually loss of courage.

Courage is certainly a good thing to have. It can get you out of unexpected trouble, the kind that you can’t plan for; bad footing on the takeoff of a difficult fence that wasn’t there when you walked the course, for example. But confidence is what makes for a great experience. I remember watching the winning cross-country ride in the 1996 Olympics, and thinking how easy she made it look. They just galloped around the course as though it was a hunter course at a nice horse show. Both rider and horse performing with the supreme confidence of those who know exactly what they are doing and exactly how to do it. That’s my idea of what a bold horse and rider should be.



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