For the final article in this series I wanted to move on from the training aspects of confidence and look at how we continue the development process in the season. With Burnham Market now behind us and Belton on the horizon, riders are now into the season and for those aiming for Olympic teams in August they will be clear on what they need to do to put themselves in the frame.
Depending on targets for the season, what you’ve done so far might be a case of dealing with a fresh horse and getting out again, or perhaps looking to see what effect your winter training has had. At this time I find that rider’s confidence can be fragile because you’ve often spent the winter working away at improvements, and if it doesn’t go as you’d hoped or expected it can lead to frustration and disappointment. The trouble with having an off season is that many things can change, especially in the development of a horse during the break. It might be that the horse has come out better, but because it feels different to the rider it creates uncertainty. With all of the riders I work with we reassess goals and plans with the horses after they’ve been out, and in general plans stay very fluid anyway.
Perception is one of the most important parts of confidence, so making sure you’re dealing with accurate information as feedback from performances is crucial. Part of the job of a high performance program is to consistently review and revise plans keeping a rider’s perspective in check because there is nothing worse for confidence than not understanding why something is not working as it should. Across the sporting world one of the biggest issues I encounter is a lack of attention towards reviewing performance (as a result of time more than anything else) and I will spend many hours with riders on the phone going through what has happened and filtering down the information to a clear plan to move forwards with.
Reviewing also allows a rider to process what has happened, deal with any disappointment and assess what could be done better. This is the best way of preventing a build up of negative thoughts, releasing a “pressure valve” and putting in place a positive mindset moving forwards. As humans we learn by our mistakes, and we should never expect to get everything right, especially with horses! Finding the right person to do this with is valuable too, as it often requires an objective viewpoint. Another thing worth noting about a review process is that it shouldn’t just be about the things that didn’t go according to plan, but also about identifying the things you did well! Without fail, when I speak to a rider after cross country the first thing(s) they tell me is what wasn’t good, and it takes time to get the good bits out of them. They might have done 90% right but they still focus on the bad bits!!
It is important to make sure that we do as much as possible to minimise risk, but at the same time test the skills and team work between horse and rider. Coaches need to be mindful that the ability of the horse can often hide the areas of rider skill that need work, and looking at things on paper doesn’t always tell the full story. I would always say that coaches need to have a trusted relationship with a rider that allows the discussion about what needs to be better, and measured honesty is a big part of the review process too.
Looking forwards, confidence is built and not something that we just have. This doesn’t just apply to the rider but also to the horse, and positive experiences are what we want. I’ve spoken in the previous articles of the importance of being proficient at a level before going up a grade, and whilst we lay lots of plans in terms of competitions we are constantly adjusting the plans to make sure we have a smooth path of development. Confidence is also helped by momentum, where positive performances follow one another. If I could one tip on this, it would be that the mistake is to think that to achieve this you need to do the SAME things each time. Whilst you and your horse need to get into a routine with things, you’ll need to be mindful of adapting these basic performance skills to the characteristics of each event. These characteristics could be how exposed the dressage arena is (and what the weather is doing!), how spooky the water complex might be or the undulating ground in the show jumping arena that might affect your horse’s balance. It’s important to recognise these characteristics and adjust your basic skills to be able to string results together.
Finally, I wanted to spare a thought to everyone who turns up to help a rider, be it grooms, owners, friends or parents. Unlike most sports that are far more simple when it comes to support systems, riders are reliant on financial, logistical and organisational support that could only come from those close to us (because it’s free!). But often these people provide necessary psychological support too, and that’s what makes our sport unique. It is worth taking some time as a rider to clearly identify what you need from everyone because as in any competitive environment things can get tense from time to time. Having everyone organised and on the same page will help prevent the build up of unnecessary emotions!
Finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles, they’ve scratched the surface of rider confidence. I’m really pleased to announce that I’ll be doing some regional talks supported by our sponsors Uvex and KBIS and of course the wonderful people at EWW. These talks are aimed at helping coaches, riders and parents to understand how we can best help young riders to develop in the best, most confident and safe way. More details are coming soon: watch this space!

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