A challenge for many riders who are dealing with confidence issues is that you have been told that if you dismount when your horse “acts up”, you have let the horse win and taught him how to get you off his back. I disagree with this thinking and encourage riders to dismount whenever they choose.
Everyone has a different threshold for where their fear starts. For some people, just the thought of the horse possibly “acting up” is the trigger. For others, it is after the horse has bucked, reared or spooked. The critical factor in the situation is your fear and your ability to manage it.
Fear is controlled by a primitive part of our brain called the Amygdala. It is sometimes referred to as “the lizard brain” as its programming can take over the logical mind as well as the body. When this happens, you are in fight, flight or freeze mode. You lose the ability to think rationally, your body stiffens, your heart rate increases and you either hold your breath or breathe very rapidly. As the fear increases, you may feel other symptoms such as being light headed, nausea, tunnel vision, shaking, sweating or clammy skin. Your horse of course senses and responds to all of these changes and becomes more anxious as well. This is where things can go from bad to worse if you stay in the saddle. You may ride through the issue, but neither you nor your horse will have enjoyed the experience. Chances are greater that it will be a negative training experience for you both.
If you dismount when you recognize the first signs of fear , when your little inner voice tells you to get off, or you do not have the riding skills to deal with the situation, you can create a win-win training opportunity by working through the situation from the ground. Ground work, done correctly, is a great way for both you and your horse to regain your composure, focus and work through the fearful situation. By using training building blocks, you and your horse can take one step at a time at your own pace to gain trust and confidence in yourselves and in each other. When you are ready, you will continue these exercises when you are mounted. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the same session.
If your horse is fine but you are a bundle of nerves, you can practice mounting and dismounting over and over. That will certainly get your horse used to the idea that he should not walk off as soon as you are in the saddle and dismounting does not mean you are finished. When you are ready, ask your horse to walk a few steps – as far as you are comfortable going – before you halt and dismount. Each time extending the length of time you stay in the saddle and/or the area of the trail or arena you go to. You might choose to do some ground work before remounting. Your horse has no idea what your plan is so you can change your mind at any time. As you feel more comfortable and confident, you can ask more of yourself and your horse – gradually extending the envelope of your comfort zone.
Take the pressure off yourself and your horse by eliminating deadlines and expectations. You are on a journey which will have highs and lows. Sometimes you will retrace steps you have already taken and sometimes you will leap forward. Confidence comes from having a good foundation built from solid building blocks, having trust in yourself and your horse, and having a support team that encourages you but allows you to grow in your own time and at your own pace.
Enjoy the ride.