Rider confidence is something every horse owner desires. But, many people struggle with a lack of confidence when they are working with or riding their horse. This may stem from a lack of experience or from a bad experience in the past. I’ve even known some tough cowboys that struggled with confidence and fear issues after a bad horse wreck. It’s called being ‘chilled’.

A lack of confidence is not anything to be ashamed of. However, it will definitely hinder your horse/human relationship and prevent you from actually enjoying your horse. But the good news is, it CAN be overcome.

Rider Confidence Killers

Maybe you were out on the trail and the other horses sped up. You tried to hold your horse back, and it didn’t end well. Or maybe you’re new to horses or have just never felt sure about how to communicate with your horse in an effective way.

Confidence in both the rider and the horse comes down to this: If your horse is confident then that builds your confidence. If you are confident in what you are asking your horse to do and how you are asking him to do it, that will build your horse’s confidence. You both feed off of each other.

Confidence = Sureness

I actually like to replace the word confidence with ‘sureness’. The more sure the horse is, the more confident he will be when you ask him to do something. The less a horse understands, the less confidence or sureness he will have in what he needs to do. So, he will look for an alternative (and that’s never good). When you are sure about what and how you are asking your horse to do something, that confidence will transfer to the horse.

Once your horse is sure about things, he will respond in a soft and light way (without a fight) and this, in turn, gives you assurance in his ability, safeness, and understanding. Rider confidence is not something we are born with. Confidence develops over time as our horsemanship skills improve which, in turn, improves the willingness of our horses. For more resources on improving your horsemanship, check out the Buckaroo Crew.

Confidence Example

Imagine you are a passenger in an airplane. The engine is sputtering, the plane is vibrating, and it all seems very unstable. In this situation, you would naturally be uncomfortable and have your guard up. It would be impossible to feel confident and relaxed.

But suppose the airplane was in good mechanical condition and everything felt smooth. The engine was running strong and quiet with no air turbulence. You would then be able to relax and enjoy the ride.

If a horse is not right in his mind (mentally neutral), it is IMPOSSIBLE for the horse to have or to build any confidence. It would actually NOT be a good idea to be relaxed and have your guard down on this type of horse. 

Your confidence will suffer and your guard HAS to be up because the horse is not reliable. Knowing you have mental (and therefore physical) control of the horse is what develops confidence.

All Of The Sudden

If you’ve had an ‘all of the sudden’ experience on a horse where it seemed everything was perfectly fine and then ‘all of a sudden’ …… the horse was NOT actually perfectly fine. The bother and anxiety was there all the time. It just wasn’t super obvious.

Many people don’t recognize that their horse is NOT mentally sound. They don’t know how to recognize the signs their horse is giving them. They think their horse is basically okay because they can ride him around. But he is actually full of turmoil and confusion. He is often on the verge of his fight or flight instinct kicking in.

Mentality Before Confidence

It may seem like a no-brainer to say that your horse needs to be mentally sound, but the horse world often focuses solely on the horse’s physical condition and abilities and totally ignores the mental side. But the truth is, if you get the mentality correct, everything else will easily fall into place.

If your horse is mentally unstable, it will be impossible to have confidence when you are riding him — no matter how good of a rider you are. We often blame ourselves for not being a confident rider. But if you are on an unpredictable, confused, and internally tormented horse, you MUST be cautiously alert at all times. 

If your horse is mentally sound, you can ride with confidence because even when something unexpected happens, you know he can handle it. If he spooks, he won’t bolt. Any time he goes fast, he can slow down. He can head back to the barn and stay at the speed you are asking him to go. He won’t look for the way out of a situation by bucking, bolting, or rearing because he knows the way out is to yield to the pressure he is feeling.

A horse being mentally sound doesn’t necessarily mean he is not going to be heavy to your leg, and great at sidepassing and sliding stops. But if he is unpredictable, spooks easily and is dangerous to ride, you can be sure that he is not mentally sound. The more sure a horse gets of himself, his interaction with humans, and what is expected of him, the more confident and safe he is.

What Is Normal?

I consider a horse ‘normal’ when he doesn’t do weird things — like bolting, bucking, being buddy sour, etc. These things are not normal. They are caused by a mental distortion, unrest, and inward torment because the horse is not sure and confident. This is the true root of any problem.

If a colt is started correctly, he will not have any of these common horse ‘problems’. It is ‘normal’ to start a colt and never have to deal with buddy sour, barn sour, bucking, bolting, rearing, anxiety, too hot, lazy.

It’s Never Too Late To Build Confidence

But even if your horse is 10 or 20 years old, you CAN start over, fill in the missing pieces, and help him be confident, sure, and safe. Tom Dorrance said that a horse naturally has a need for self preservation in mind, body, and spirit. The spirit part he was talking about has to do with this sureness and confidence.

Here are some practical tips for building confidence in both horse and rider

Get The Horse Right First

Just because a horse does something, that doesn’t mean he is confident or sure about it.

Most problems can be spotted in the simplest of interactions with the horse if you know what to look for. The truth is, many of the horses that are being ridden around every day would fail the test if they are asked to do the simplest tasks with high quality and accuracy. 

Remember that you have to work on what the horse needs to work on, not what the rider wants to work on.

Don’t set yourself up to lose confidence by trying to ride a mentally unstable horse. Get the horse RIGHT first.

Signs Of A Mentally Unstable Horse

What are some signs and causes of a mentally unstable horse that lacks confidence?

  1. He can’t walk, trot, and lope on a loose rein without constantly trying to speed up.
  2. His fight or flight instincts kick in when something unexpected happens.
  3. He has never been taught to handle speed and pressure.

People don’t realize that there is internal pressure in this type of horse that is building and building until it explodes. The horse may be ‘rideable’ and seem pretty okay at times, but the question is not IF they will blow up, but WHEN.

The Speed Test For Rider Confidence

It is actually not safe to ride outside of a pen until you and your horse are pretty confident with speed. A horse being comfortable with speeding up is essential for mental soundness. If something unexpected happens (and it will) the horse must be able to handle that increased pressure. Getting him comfortable with speed is the best way to wean him into that bullet-proof mindset. 

An additional key to safety is that the rider must also be comfortable with speeding up. Ironically, the fear of being bucked off and not allowing the horse to freely travel is what gets people bucked off. 

A horse must be taught to handle pressure, stay focused on the rider, and ignore monsters. If he overreacts to increased pressure, that is a good indication he is not mentally sound.

Magnets

The magnet that your horse is drawn to could be the barn, another horse, the trailer, or a gate. If your horse has magnets, he is looking to that object for security and to make him feel more safe. 

Is he unable to watch where he is headed with ears forward? This is a sign that he is not mentally sound, lacks confidence, and has limited ability to focus on you. With this mindset, it is nearly impossible to teach him anything. Therefore the horse can not become confident or sure in what he knows.

People often say that their horse is ‘fine’ at home, but when he’s taken to a new environment, he becomes spooky and buddy sour. Or they say that on Monday and Tuesday the horse was great, but then on Thursday he acted like a totally different horse. This is because the horse is not yet sure and confident.

Make Sure The Foundation Is Not Missing

Many horses have no basic understanding of groundwork, mounting, catching, stopping, backing, going, and turning. If you know what to look for, the defects in his understanding can be easily spotted.  If you can get these small pieces operating better, the bigger things will fall into place. 

For example, the horse may get in the trailer, but he doesn’t want to be in there. He is anxious, paws, and rushes back out when unloading. He is not yet sure and confident that the trailer is the best place to be.

When lunging, the horse may go around, but he doesn’t do it well. He can’t stay out away from the human and leaks into the circle. This causes the human to yield to the horse, which says to the horse, ‘I am the leader here, and I have to do the best I can to make sure I’m okay’.

You may think that the horse coming into your space during lunging is no big deal, but it’s just one more area that causes the horse to be less confident and leads to much bigger issues.

Horses can basically just guess and get some things right. They may stumble on doing a task correctly, but it will not be consistent until they are sure and confident.

Catching

A horse that is not confident may try his best to avoid human contact. When catching and haltering, he would rather be anywhere else than with a human. The horse wants to stay with his herd or in a familiar place for security. He will act more spooky and nervous in an unfamiliar place than he does at home. This is a sure sign that he is not yet mentally sound.

Get Off My Back

A horse that lacks confidence may raise his head, widen his eyes, hollow his back, and stiffen his gait with a rider on board. His gait and cadence will be different with a rider than it is when he is loose in the pasture. He obviously is not 100% okay with a human being on his back. He is not confident about it.

 Solutions To Build Rider Confidence

The solution begins with developing your horsemanship. That will equip you to control the horse’s feet, mind, personality, attitude, thoughts, and feelings. Horsemanship is just as much (if not more) about mental control as it is about physical control. If the horse you are riding is mentally sound, your confidence will boom in a hurry.

You can have some physical control to a degree, but still not have the mental. If you have the mental, you will have the physical. Guaranteed.

The way you get a horse’s mentality correct is by getting him to where he’s sure of what he knows and trusts you as his confident leader. The only way to cause this to happen is to improve your horsemanship.

Improve yourself to improve your horse.

If you also need work on improving your seat and balance, first find a confident horse to ride. Concentrate on ‘feeling’ of the horse, keeping your body relaxed, and allowing his motion to dictate and generate the movement of your body. For more on that topic, read How To Ride A Horse.

Examples Of Rider Confidence

When a horse is confident, you could lose complete and total control of the reins and everything would be fine. As a matter of fact, on the last day of our clinics (after several days of preparation), we often practice loping with no reins. It’s a very freeing exercise for both horse and rider. If losing control of the reins is dangerous, the horse is not right in his head. With a mentally sound horse, if the headgear accidentally fell off, you would simply quit telling him to go, and he would come down to a walk or stop.

The way you help your horse reach this goal of being mentality correct is by getting him to where he’s really certain and confident. 

It is very hard, if not impossible, to be confident on a horse that is not mentally sound. But you can ride a green colt with confidence if he is mentally sound. When I used to start a lot of colts, I would make sure they were right in the head before I ever got on. That preparation has prevented lots of grief and buck offs.

The Little Things That Will Build Rider Confidence

In the horse world, the little things ARE the big things. Everything you do to get a horse more sure works to build confidence. This includes bridling, trailering, grooming, saddling, groundwork, leading, riding, unsaddling…. everything.

One of my greatest wishes is that every single person would have the opportunity to ride a horse that is truly mentally neutral/sound. A horse that stays right between your hands and reins no matter what the circumstances — fast or slow speed, other horses nearby or not, familiar or new environment. 

My biggest motivation for building a nice horse is the way it feels to ride a horse that is ‘with’ you mentally and physically. It’s totally addictive.

The way that happens is to help the horse become sure and confident in every area

Case Study

My neighbors down the road acquired a new horse that was very well bred. The previous owners had even roped off of him and used him to work cattle. They called me because, even though the horse had been ridden quite a bit, he was still very spooky and flinchy. He couldn’t really be trusted to not jump out from underneath you.

I went over to their place and first worked with him in his large stall. When I entered the stall, he would try to avoid me. So, I just applied some pressure and caused him to move more than he intended whenever he would try to turn away. After a few minutes, he was okay with me being in the stall and started following me around instead of avoiding me.

Then I worked on picking up his feet. He was very resistant and nervous about having his legs and feet touched but, within a few minutes, he was letting me hold each foot with no problem. Then I put him in a small pen and worked on catching until he got good at that. Then I did some fencing until he would easily come up under my knees while I was sitting on a panel above him and ‘give me his back’. 

What Happened Next

Just those few sessions made a huge difference in the whole demeanor of the horse while working around him on the ground. He went from being a spooky mess to being gentle and engaged with a human. 

The point is, just because this horse had been ridden around and even worked off of, he was still very unsure of interacting with a human. His mindframe was not correct. He was still full of anxiety and unsureness, so this was a wreck waiting to happen.

The new owners were smart enough to recognize this. These people are not novice riders. They have a long history riding performance horses, but were still not entirely confident to ride this horse until he got more mentally sound. That was wise.

The horse’s unsureness will eventually manifest in undesireable ways.

It could be a big release (bucking, bolting, rearing) or small release (pawing, anxiety, tenseness), but it all points to a horse that is not mentally neutral.

Experienced riders realize that an unstable horse is a danger, and they know that the solution is to help the horse become confident, therefore safe.

Confident Horse = Confident Rider

Building a horse’s confidence is the key to not having typical horse problems. It is also the key to having rider confidence because the two are impossible to separate.

When a horse is mentally neutral, sure, and confident, you don’t have to spend all your valuable time chasing and attempting to fix problems.  All that is out of the way. Your horse is in a neutral (aka learning) frame of mind. Then the sky’s the limit on how far you can help the horse progress.

Time spent riding your horse does not have to be scary or frustrating. It should be and can be the most enjoyable thing you’ve ever done.

To listen to my Confidence podcast, go here: How Do I Get More Confidence.


Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.