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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’

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How Horses Learn
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Natural Survival Instinct
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Train Outside the Box
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Turning and Neck Reining
Winter Training Workouts


These are big issues for some of us beginning our journey with horses and even for some of us that have been with horses ‘forever’ but never really learned anything about their real nature also those who have or know of some who have suffered accidents.

For the Human

For the human it means understanding, communicating, having confidence; in your horse, in yourself and the knowledge that you know what to do in most all circumstances that will help you and the horse to be safe. Developing this confidence takes commitment, careful planning, being true to yourself and your horse.  It is something that must be taken seriously, that really does take place over time; there is no magic pill you can take that will give you the knowledge and confidence that experience will overtime.  However, there are a few things people can do that will accelerate their development, learning and confidence building with horses.  The purpose of this document is to help you on your way to ridding yourself of the anxiety you feel, building your confidence and establishing your leadership.


Confidence for the horse translates to ‘leadership’

The subject of ‘confidence’ is just as big for the horse as for the human because both need to have confidence. The horse is always asking whoever is around it; “Can I trust you? Do you know what to do to help me to feel safe? Can I have confidence that I am safe if you lead me? Can I have confidence if I do as you request that I will not be hurt and will continue to be safe?” The horse has to have confidence in whoever is leading it, be they horse or human. If it does not have confidence it will be safe, the horse will instinctively begin to fend and look out for itself.  Taking your leadership from the ground into the saddle is important; no it is very important. You may become quite efficient at controlling your horse on the ground but if you have anxiety, confidence and/or leadership issues and your horse is sensitive, unconfident, spooky or over-exuberant horse, you’ll need to understand some important principles in order to move forward successfully and preserve your confidence.  Horses need leadership both on the ground and in the saddle; leadership is essential to them.  Regardless of where they are in the peeking order if the human is not recognized as the leader they will become one and make all the decisions as to when to go, when to stay and when to run; if you don’t lead, they will.  Your leadership tends to be challenged in certain situations. When everything is calm and okay, everything is fine! But when a horse feels not confident, scared, spooked or wants his own way there are some principles to observe. 


Areas that affect our confidence

If we want to build our confidence, a good place to start is by recognizing some barriers that affect our mindset and what to do to get past them:

·         Focusing on what might go wrong When your mind is running in circles about all the bad things that could happen, it’s impossible for you to focus on what is actually happening in the present moment.  You are being reactive rather than pro-active.  What to do instead – Be here now. Stay present and in the moment by being aware the environment, your horse and yourself.   Is your horse really concerned about the wind blowing or is he tense because you are tense?  When you pay attention to what is really happening now in this moment, you cannot be worrying about what might happen in the future.   You can prevent things from falling apart – even if it’s only falling apart in your mind.
·         Worrying about the outcome.  When your focus is on the end result, you miss out on the journey.  You miss important steps that are needed in the process of getting there.
·         Focus on each step of the process.  Stay present in the moment and avoid thinking too far ahead to the end result.  You build a solid foundation by identifying and then taking each step that you and your horse need to take together to be achieve your desired outcome.
·         Feeling judged by others Performance anxiety can happen anywhere other people will see you riding.  It could be in a riding lesson, at a horsemanship clinic or in a competition.  When you worry about what other people are thinking, you get in your own way.  Let go of what others might think about your performance.  Stop trying to read other peoples’ minds.  Anyone with a negative opinion will quickly forget about you and move on to another target.  People who care about you will support you.  The opinion of anyone who doesn’t care about and support you is not important.  Let it go.
·         Taking stresses and distractions from other areas of your life into the arena You had a bad day at the office.  You had a disagreement with your kids or your spouse.  You got delayed by bad traffic and now you’re late for your lesson.  Day to day stresses cause physical and mental tension that continues to affect you long after the actual event occurred.  And that tension and stress negatively affects your horse, your patience and your ability to learn.
·         Leave distractions and stresses from your life at the barn door You really don’t want to take them along for the ride.  If you really want to, you can pick them up on your way out of the door.  Or you can also just decide to leave them there permanently.  Slow down.  Take a few deep, calm breaths.  Stretch out your body.  Clear your mind.  If you can’t leave it behind, do yourself and your horse a favour.  Give him a scratch and carrot then walk away.
·         Being a perfectionist.  It is unreasonable to look for perfection in yourself, your horse or your riding.  It’s really is a journey.  You will have good days and bad days.  So will your horse.
·         Stop striving for perfection In riding (as in life) there is always room for improvement.  Recognize where improvement is needed without beating up yourself (or your horse).  Re-read #2.
·         Over thinking or over analyzing.  Riding well requires being able to feel your horse.  It requires awareness for your own body as well as your horse’s body.  When you over think, the left, analytical side of your brain takes control and limits your ability to sense and feel your horse (or your own body, for that matter) and to be aware of what is happening in the moment Being too much in your head takes you out of your body.
·         Think less.  Feel more.  Engage the right, feeling side of your brain by tuning in to the rhythm and movement of your horse’s body, creating an image of how you want to feel (i.e. soft and light like a feather), or humming a tune that calms or inspires you.
·         Taking things too seriously.  When you take things too seriously or only focus on results, riding stops being fun – for you and your horse.   You aren’t having fun if you are constantly judging how well you performed or focusing on what ‘went wrong’ in every ride.
·         Have fun and enjoy your journey.  You came to horses to have fun and because riding brought you a sense of joy, adventure and fulfillment.  Just like us, horses are social creatures that thrive on interaction and play.  Some rides need to be about training, but every ride needs to incorporate fun and light hearted interaction to avoid making your horse (and you) sour and resentful.

Communication and Understanding One another!

A little knowledge goes a long way!  Being a confident horse person requires both technical skills and a positive mindset. Two way communication and understanding are the big secrets.  If we communicate properly and understand one another we can focus on enjoying the time the journey this helps to build a better relationship and keeps your passion alive.  When we and our horses are both soft and light we are; relaxed, calm and enjoying our experiences together, we are open to learning and growth and performing to our best ability.  


Overcoming our Fears

Listed below are a number of ideas that may help you to overcome your fears and become a confident horse person:

·         Learn to recognize and reward progress. The steps to successfully overcoming fear are usually small and may feel painfully slow. “For every complex problem there is an easy answer and it is wrong.” There are no easy or simple answers to overcoming fear. But there is hope and success for those who are determined to conquer their fears.

·         Surround ourselves with a Support Team - Fearful and anxious riders will rarely overcome their fears alone. The more support a fearful rider gathers, the more likely s/he is to successfully overcome their fears. Possible members of an Equestrian Support Team include a; supportive spouse, partner or good friend, supportive trainer who is also an experienced rider, confident horsey friends, riding partners, friendly horse/riding clubs and organizations. Some well-meaning riding instructors add to the problem by refusing to allow their students to voice or talk about their fears. This is not the style of a riding instructor I would recommend for a fearful rider, who needs to be able to talk about and verbally process their fears. A little empathy and understanding can go a long, long way.

·         Assess ourselves and our horse - Are you a good match for each other? Many fearful riders are riding horses they should not be riding. They are over-horsed and intuitively know that, but do not know how to change the situation. If you are not sure whether you and your horse are a good match, enlist the aid of a knowledgeable horse professional to help you. A professional opinion may give you the courage to overcome your fears and work successfully with your current mount, or the courage to say good-bye and find a more suitable mount to help you achieve your equestrian goals and find the fun again.

·         Identify your Equestrian Goals - What are your goals? Why do you ride? What do you want to do with your horse this year? What are your long-term goals? Ultimately, your personal goals and motivations should determine everything that you will or will not do with horses. There is no good reason to be involved with horses unless you genuinely love and enjoy them.

·         Use Training Lessons Plans – If you do not know how seek the help of a professional and start within your Comfort Zone and plan baby steps to move you in the direction of your dreams and goals. The most effective plans will usually involve regular horsemanship lessons or instruction on the ground as well as in the saddle and mobilizing your entire Equestrian Support Team. Confidence Building Workshops and/or Clinics specifically designed to help riders overcome fear issues can be particularly effective in helping fearful riders to get back to “fun” horsemanship again. In summary, there is hope and help available for anxious riders who want to overcome their fears. Successfully overcoming the fear of riding and becoming a confident rider most often occurs when a strong Equestrian Support Team is enlisted and utilized and a thoughtful, logical step by step realistic plan is in place. 

·         Define your Equestrian Comfort Zone - What things are you comfortable doing around horses? Where does your comfort zone end? Many adults set unrealistic goals for themselves and try to accomplish too much and too soon. Successfully overcoming fear always begins well inside a rider’s comfort zone. Start by identifying the horse-related activities you are very comfortable with (such as catching, haltering, grooming, tacking up your horse, ground work, etc. In the beginning, it is strongly suggested that a fearful rider work only within her/his Comfort Zone. Repeatedly challenging yourself to work outside your Comfort Zone usually results only in reinforcing fearful reactions and unpleasant emotions, and will not move you in the direction of your goals (to enjoy riding and not feel afraid). Later on, when you are ready, you will work to increase and enlarge your Comfort Zone with activities that meet your goals (cantering on the trail, team penning, jumping, etc.).

·         Learn to determine a Good Risk from a Bad Risk - The difference between a good risk and a bad risk varies considerably from rider to rider. Good risks may increase your fear level, but they can also be tremendous opportunities for personal growth and development. Good risks usually have a relatively low possibility of serious injury and they move you in the direction of your goals. Bad risks may also increase your fear level, but they may be dangerous and have a much higher possibility of physical injury or danger. Bad risks are also not related to what you want to do with your horse. Your goals, dreams, and personal motivations for riding will ultimately determine the kinds of risks you will or will not choose to take. There are no “objective” right or wrong answers when it comes to evaluating risky activities, because the decision-making criteria are very subjective and personal.

·         Understand you and your horses fear response -. When you are afraid, what happens in your body? One of the first steps to controlling fear is identifying and becoming aware of your physical response. Some common bodily responses to fear include: dry mouth, sweating, “butterflies” in the stomach, nausea, “rubbery” legs, shaking or trembling, chest pressure or pain, tingling sensations, dizziness, tearful, eyes looking down or losing focus, shortness of breath, “racing” thoughts, inability to focus or concentrate, and the fear of losing control or the fear of dying. When you are afraid, pay attention to where and how you experience fear in your body.

·         Wear a helmet -. Every time and every ride. You never “forget” the girth, do you? Then there is no excuse for “forgetting” a helmet. No matter which equestrian discipline or activity you are participating in, a properly fitted, An approved equestrian helmet is the single most important piece of personal safety equipment available today. A helmet may save your life and your future, in the case of a fall or serious accident. Knowing your wonderful, unique brain is well-protected will give you one less thing to worry about when you ride.

·         Learn visualization and imaging techniques - Two wonderful sources of information for visualization techniques specific to equestrians are Jane Savoie and Barbra Schulte. Both of these women are internationally-known competitors (Jane Savoie in dressage and Barbra Schulte in cutting), instructors, coaches, authors, and speakers. Jane Savoie’s newest book “It’s Not Just About the Ribbons” and Barbra Schulte’s audiotape series “Mentally Tough Riding: A Training Course” contain extensive descriptions and information about mental imagery and visualization for equestrians. Their websites are listed in the resources at the end of this article. Visualization and imaging skills require time, practice and disciplined thinking, in order to be effective.

·         Learn to think rationally - Rational, realistic thinking will take you far. Irrational, unrealistic thinking will devour your fun and make you miserable. “Irrational thoughts are absolutist. They demand that you must, should, or have to do or be something, or else you are an absolute failure.” Learn to identify and stop negative, unrealistic self-talk when it starts. Irrational thoughts take one bad ride, day or incident and expand it into you are a bad rider in general, your horse is a bad or dangerous horse, or you are a failure as an equestrian and as a human being. This kind of negative expansion is not based in reality and will not help you to achieve your goals in riding.

·         Learn to identify your Fear Arousal Level on a scale of 1 to 10 - (1 being relaxed and almost asleep; 10 being blind panic or fear of dying). On this scale, 2-4 are the Comfort Zone. This is a very calm and comfortable place to be, and no challenge or growth is taking place. This is the place to retreat back to, when you are feeling stressed. 5-7 on the Fear Arousal Scale are the Learning Zone. Things are interesting and challenging enough to keep you awake and on your toes and reaching outside your Comfort Zone, but you are not frightened. At 8-9 the stress level is too high for effective learning to take place, and fear or panic is beginning to set in. At 10 the rider is frightened for her life, is in a blind panic, and may be out of control with fear. The Fear Arousal Scale is a very useful tool to use individually and with your riding instructor. Learn to talk about where you are feeling on the Fear Arousal Scale, and plan to decrease the arousal level (lower the stress) if you get above a 7.

·         Improve your horsemanship skills - Most fearful riders benefit tremendously from taking additional training and riding lessons starting with the essentials of horsemanship on the ground and in the saddle. These lessons should be with a patient, caring trainer/instructor who enjoys working with timid adults. Lessons on the basic mechanics of ground control and body control in the saddle, understanding feel, balance, and a horse’s movement will help a fearful rider to relax and feel more in control in the saddle. Ideally, these lessons should take place on a calm “well trained” horse.  Watch training DVDs, attend clinics, read etc.

·         Realign your thoughts - when we experience anxiety, we are always conveying certain messages to ourselves. You may not be aware that you are sending yourself messages like “I know I will fall off again if I try that fence” or “I can’t ride at all, whatever possessed me to think I could!?”  If you catch yourself talking in your head like this, tell yourself- ‘STOP!’ and then replace those thoughts with more reasonable, positive ones. For example: “STOP. I am feeling a little bit anxious about riding again, but that’s normal and I can still ride with that anxiety. I am feeling more confident riding every day.”  If you are having trouble with the strength of your negative thoughts try this exercise: pretend you are a lawyer and you are being asked to refute a belief (your negative self statement) by gathering and presenting all the evidence to the contrary (i.e.: what exactly is the probability that you will fall off again, given the facts of the situation?). This approach is not only effective in terms of getting you logically, as opposed to emotionally oriented, but also has the tendency to inject some much needed humor into the situation!

·         Learn How to and Visualize yourself correcting the problem - if you have discovered that the accident was indeed due to a technical error then you can visualize yourself performing correctly. One big caution with this: make sure you do find out, from a coach preferably, what exactly it was you should have been doing (like shifting your weight to the outside when riding a corner) and concentrate on that in your imagery sessions. You cannot effectively visualize by telling yourself “now I see myself not doing that”, because the brain cannot process ‘not’ very well and usually goes with the doing that part of the statement (ask yourself, what does ‘not’ shifting my weight to the inside when riding a corner look like?).

·         Relaxation training -  there are lots of people who are not even aware they have excess tension in their body and as everyone knows, this can have a really adverse impact on your horse’s confidence as well as your own. An exercise which is easy to practice at home is what is called progressive relaxation; lie down comfortably with your arms stretched out at your sides. Start at either the top of bottom of your body, working your way to the other end, alternately tensing and relaxing each major muscle group. Hold the tension long enough to remember what the sensation feels like in that particular area, before letting the tension go. If practiced frequently enough, you will be able to quickly assess, even in a competition situation, whether or not you are properly relaxed or have excess tension in your body. If you don’t practice the skill of relaxation already, then you should be!  I believe relaxation is the most important skill a rider can possess. Think about it – the way you communicate with your horse is through your body, and the more relaxed you are, the smoother this communication will be.

·         Improve your fitness level [if necessary] – If you need to start with abdominal strength. Work up to 100 curls every day. The abdominal and oblique muscles control your position in the saddle and help you to stay with your horse when he turns quickly. Strong abs makes you a stronger rider. Increasing over-all fitness, strength and flexibility will usually increase a rider’s self-confidence in the saddle.

·         Look and act like a confident rider - Even if you do not feel like one. “It is easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting.” The physical positions of keeping your eyes up, chin up, and smiling send signals to your brain that you are in control and confident, even if you do not feel that way emotionally. Look and act like you are confident and eventually you will feel that way.

Improve our Ground and Mounted knowledge 

Many riders are fortunate, they have not had serious; anxiety, confidence and leadership issues with horses but some of us have.  When and if you feel unsafe around your horse, if someone or a professional is warning you about your safety, take it seriously.  No amount of loyalty to your horse is worth getting hurt.  Behaviors from you and/or your horse that threaten your safety and/or your horse “threat it seriously”.  If you are concerned and can’t control your horse, even if someone else can, the horse is still a danger to you and itself.  If you don’t have the time or resources to facilitate this change- at least discontinue riding the horse.  You do have options and hopefully this newsletter sparks more than just ideas and helps you on your way to enjoying a partnership with your horse in the saddle!  


Positive reinforcement methods encourage positive attitudes

Negative reinforcement methods breed negative attitudes