The Importance of Praise

I read this great story the other day about a teacher. The teacher wrote 20 sums on the board in front of a classroom full of teenagers. One of them was wrong. The teenagers started laughing. The teacher asked them why they were laughing, and the teenagers said “because you made a mistake.” The teacher said, “You laughed at me for the one sum that I got wrong, but you didn’t praise me for the 19 sums that I got right.” The teacher continued, “this is what will happen to you all during your working life, you won’t get praised when you do well, only criticised when you do badly.”

Firstly, he was quite right! The importance of praise in the workplace seems to be a foreign concept to many employers or managers, yet people will work so much harder for you if they feel appreciated. It’s not simply a question of being paid, people want to feel valued. Great employers have the ability to make everyone from the floor workers, to the managers, feel appreciated, it is one of the hallmarks of a good business.

Exactly the same thing applies to our horses. The good riders make their horses want to give that extra bit. Like the good employers whose staff will stay late to help, the horses of good riders will make that extra effort. If you praise your horse for all the things he gets right, he too will feel valued, and will understand what you want him to do. We forget to praise, we remember to criticise.

How often do you tie your horse up, groom your horse, tack-up and then your horse starts to fidget and you tell him off? But did you praise him for standing still all that time? Probably not! Exactly the same happens in our ridden work, we criticise our horses when they make a mistake (despite the fact we were probably responsible for it!) and forget to praise.

Interestingly the ratio between praise and criticism was subjected to academic research and reported in the Harvard Business Review. The ideal ratio is 6 positive comments to 1 negative comment. So the next time that you ride, or even handle your horse, try this. Make sure you have praised 6 times, before you criticise, and see what effect it has on your horse (and yourself!)

How to bomb proof your horse…

We have all been there. Peacefully hacking along, enjoying the view, when suddenly your horse launches itself sideways, leaving your heart thumping, and your nerves trembling. Spooking is one of the main reasons why people do not hack their horses out, but it is possible to help your horse build in confidence and reduce the possibility of spooking.

First though we have to accept that horses are flight creatures. Their survival depends on their ability to flee when in danger, the problem comes that they can’t differentiate between actual danger, for example a lion, and perceived danger for example a crisp packet in a hedge. However, with training, we can help them.

Begin with working with your horse on the ground in a safe environment, such as an arena. Make sure that your horse is listening and responsive to you on the ground. There is no point in expecting him to listen to you when he is scared, if he is incapable of doing so when he feels safe! Start with something small, such a bucket, make sure that your horse will walk quietly past the object at a distance before beginning to move closer towards it. Only once he is happy with this should you begin to increase the difficulty of what you are asking of him.

If there is something in particular that your horse is fearful of on your hack, break this down into small, manageable steps. Does he spook when passing a farm? Are their flapping plastic bags and tractors? Work on each item separately. Begin with a small plastic bag, tied to the fence, again ask him to walk past at a distance. Gradually reduce the distance between the horse and the scary object, always praising him for the correct response. Once you can lead him safely past these objects, change the environment. Set up obstacles in a field and repeat the process in this different location.

Once you are feeling confident in the field, you can progress to leading him on a hack. Again, build up slowly. Don’t head straight off to the most scary hack, but rather build in stages so that you and him can grow in confidence. Only once you can do this should you progress to hacking him out.

If when hacking you become nervous or fearful of something, find somewhere safe to dismount and lead him past. The horse has not won if you dismount. In time he will become more confident, as he watches you walk calmly past, rather than feeling you getting nervous on his back.

Horses are incredibly trusting, they put their faith in us that we will protect them. If he trusts you, he will believe you when you ask him to walk past the scary plastic bag. By carefully putting the building blocks in place and helping him to overcome his fears in small, bite-sized chunks, you can turn your anxiety into enjoyment, and your fear into pleasure. While we cannot control the environment around us, we can work to give us and our horses the tools to help control our responses to whatever we come across.

Nervous? Do more groundwork!

When I remember competing as a child, my primary emotion is one of anxiety. Even now I can feel my heart race, my stomach chewing over on itself, and my mouth sticky with fear. I was a nervous child, an anxious competitor and my horse was bargy on the ground. My anxiety around competitions would kick in the day before, as I contemplated the day ahead. Every part of the day was a source of anxiety from the grooming, the plaiting, the loading, the tacking up, the mounting, to the actual test. Such was the behaviour of my horse that the entire day became a mountain to overcome. My mother would on occasion trail round the show ground until she found a strong man to help with my horse.

As an adult, I now look back on that scenario with slight disbelief. No-one ever suggested that I could improve my horse’s behaviour on the ground, my trainers were focused on my ridden results, my mother simply accepted that that was how the horse behaved, and as a child I didn’t realise that I could strongly influence his behaviour. As an adult, I would take young horses to shows and spend most the day teaching them to stand quietly in the car park, the collecting ring, and only once I had taught them that lesson in however many trips it took, would I ever compete them.

In hindsight, there was so much we could have done. Teaching him to stand at the end of a 12ft line quietly, would probably have massively helped the problem. Or asking an instructor or professional for help. Confidence on the ground would have helped me with my anxiety turning the show days into ones filled with fun rather than panic.

Feeling confident on the ground gives one a “safe place” to return to. If you are scared on the ground as well as while mounted, the only position of safety is when the day is over, and experiencing that level of anxiety for a whole day has a severe impact on your adrenal system. If you are already at the limit of your capabilities for processing your adrenalin, you are then going to struggle when your levels are topped up by standard competition nerves.

By teaching our horses to behave on the ground and by increasing our own confidence on the ground, we build a better foundation for our ridden work. If we are confident on the ground, and we become worried whilst riding, we can always dismount and regain our confidence, but if we are fearful on the ground, how can we expect to be confident on our horse? All good things are built on good foundations, from houses to horses…. make sure the foundations of your relationship with your horse are good, so that you can turn your anxiety into anticipation and your panic into pleasure.

Confidence – it will return…

The rubbish winter is drawing to an end. Winter is hard work. The short day length combined with the erratically changeable weather so common across the United Kingdom, leaves us rushing and struggling. Our horses, usually a source of pleasure, become another daily battle. As the moments when we do manage to ride become less frequent, the enjoyment of riding can diminish.

Most things become better with practise, and confidence is no difference. On the downside, it is easy to fall out of practise if we don’t keep on performing a skill. It only takes 48 hrs to begin losing muscle, so imagine that confidence is similar to a muscle, lack of exercise over the winter can lead to reduced strength, and nerves can flit in and diminish our enjoyment.

However, there are ways to combat our winter nerves. Reduce your expectation, don’t judge your winter riding against your summer riding, the prevailing conditions are so very different, that it is simply an unfair comparison. There are plenty of ways to enjoy spending time with your horse in the winter that don’t involve riding, so if you are battling with your nerves in the winter, why not spend time grooming or massaging your horse, you hopefully will enjoy the opportunity to bond with your horse in an unpressured way.

Remember we are coming out of the winter now and as we start up again be kind to yourself. Don’t expect everything to click back into place straight away. But as the days lengthen and we get to spend more consistent time in the saddle, you will find your confidence will return rapidly. Just like your muscles, it is possible to build your confidence back up again, by simply working it a little bit every day. And just like muscles – your confidence will be strong again.

How horses can be part of the problem…

Horses are wonderful. They can be brilliant for our mental health, giving us a bond without falseness, a language without words, and a chance to find ourselves in the souls of our horses. However, for some people, and in some circumstances, horses can be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Bullying on yards has not gone unreported in the equestrian media, I’m sure we have all witnessed incidents, to a greater or lesser degree. While there are many incredible yards, where you can mix with supportive and helpful peers, there are some that are more problematic. Loneliness and isolation can occur when we are surrounded by people, and indeed to feel lonely in a crowd is a peculiarly sorrowful state.

Feeling that we are on a different path to the others in our yard can leave us feeling inadequate or alone. In an ideal world, we respect the path that others are taking, but sadly in practise this rarely happens. You may enjoy walking your horse out in hand, and derive great pleasure from that bond that you have created. Your neighbour may be fiercely competitive and gain satisfaction from beating other people. It can mar our own pleasure to have scorn poured down on us.

If you are lucky enough to be able to keep your horses at home, or on your own land, you are spared having to deal with the judgement of others. However, you are stuck around the schedule of your horses and may be forced to spend longer periods of time alone than can be healthy. If you are in a good place mentally, being alone can be healing, soothing, restful, and looking after your horses can be rewarding and beneficial. At some points in our lives, however, we may not in the best of states, and those feelings can quickly morph into other less desirable emotions. Being alone can feel lonely and we can begin to feel overwhelmed with the burden of responsibility for our horses.

If you think you are starting to feel isolated in the equine world, there are steps you can take to remedy this. Consider moving yards if that is possibility, though bear in mind that all yards come with their own issues. Find a like-minded friend who you can talk to, be it online, in person. They don’t even need to have a horse, just be supportive and kind. If you are struggling caring for your horses alone, consider asking someone to help. Again, weigh up the pros and cons of this, as inviting someone else into your space can cause other issues.

If you are feeling isolated with your horses, remember that other people feel like you do. Other people feel alone and lost, others feel overwhelmed and drowning in responsibility. Keep searching for these people, for your family, keep talking, keep reaching out. You will find allies in the strangest of places. Horses are meant to be a source of joy, all too often that joy can be lost, but, it can also, be found again.

How to bombproof your horse…

We have all been there. Peacefully hacking along, enjoying the view, when suddenly your horse launches itself sideways, leaving your heart thumping, and your nerves trembling. Spooking is one of the main reasons why people do not hack their horses out, but it is possible to help your horse build in confidence and reduce the possibility of spooking.

First though we have to accept that horses are flight creatures. Their survival depends on their ability to flee when in danger, the problem comes that they can’t differentiate between actual danger, for example a lion, and perceived danger for example a crisp packet in a hedge. However, with training, we can help them.

Begin with working with your horse on the ground in a safe environment, such as an arena. Make sure that your horse is listening and responsive to you on the ground. There is no point in expecting him to listen to you when he is scared, if he is incapable of doing so when he feels safe! Start with something small, such a bucket, make sure that your horse will walk quietly past the object at a distance before beginning to move closer towards it. Only once he is happy with this should you begin to increase the difficulty of what you are asking of him.

If there is something in particular that your horse is fearful of on your hack, break this down into small, manageable steps. Does he spook when passing a farm? Are their flapping plastic bags and tractors? Work on each item separately. Begin with a small plastic bag, tied to the fence, again ask him to walk past at a distance. Gradually reduce the distance between the horse and the scary object, always praising him for the correct response. Once you can lead him safely past these objects, change the environment. Set up obstacles in a field and repeat the process in this different location.

Once you are feeling confident in the field, you can progress to leading him on a hack. Again, build up slowly. Don’t head straight off to the most scary hack, but rather build in stages so that you and him can grow in confidence. Only once you can do this should you progress to hacking him out.

If when hacking you become nervous or fearful of something, find somewhere safe to dismount and lead him past. The horse has not won if you dismount. In time he will become more confident, as he watches you walk calmly past, rather than feeling you getting nervous on his back.

Horses are incredibly trusting, they put their faith in us that we will protect them. If he trusts you, he will believe you when you ask him to walk past the scary plastic bag. By carefully putting the building blocks in place and helping him to overcome his fears in small, bite-sized chunks, you can turn your anxiety into enjoyment, and your fear into pleasure. While we cannot control the environment around us, we can work to give us and our horses the tools to help control our responses to whatever we come across.

Are you having a bad day?

Everyone has a bad day every so often, and then every so often you have a terrible day when you feel like you have slithered all the way down the longest snake on the snakes and ladders board, right back to the bottom…

Sounds familiar? Don’t despair! First take a few deep breaths. When we are anxious we breath more shallowly and take in less oxygen, our brains interpret this a stress and then we become more anxious. So breathe – I know its hard but it really does help, you can do it anywhere, you can do it discretely, its free and you can do it by yourself.

Once you have breathed, tell yourself it is okay to have a bad day. You are not a robot you don’t function the same from day to day, we are affected by the world around us, and our triggers. We are constantly in motion, and evolving.

Remind yourself how far you have come, don’t focus on today, imagine a graph, steadily rising, this is simply a blip, not a trend.

Reduce your expectations for today. So, you had planned with your new found confidence to go on a longer hack by yourself today, but that was going to be a challenge so today is not a good day to do that. Why not lead your horse round that hack instead? Or do some groundwork or give them a massage? This is not failure, it is adjusting to the circumstances, it is sensible.

Be kind, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t say things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else. Look after yourself, chocolate, hot bath, early night, good book, whatever you need.

And then tomorrow, you will wake up and the world will look different, feel different and you will wonder why yesterday seemed so tricky, and then you will carry on with your day…

Five tips for confidence…

Confidence seems somewhat elusive to those who doubt themselves. We have all been there, looking round thinking of all the things that could go wrong and all the ways we could fail, until we render ourselves completely incapable of doing anything!

But confidence is just another skill, and you can learn to do anything. So here are five tips to help you build your confidence.

  • Be positive. Spending your time thinking “what if my horse spooks?” will not help your confidence. Instead visualise a positive outcome. Rather than visualising your horse spooking, visualise yourself trotting confidently around the corner.
  • Small steps. If you become nervous in certain situations, break down the situation into bite size chunks. Are you nervous at a show? Break down the day into pieces. Are you nervous of loading your horse, or getting on in a strange place, or maybe even finding your way somewhere you haven’t been before. Once you have broken the day down, you will be able to identify what is causing the nervousness and then work with that area.
  • Be kind. Don’t be self-critical, be kind to yourself. Remind yourself how far you have come, praise yourself for every step, even if it is simply that you were a little less scared than yesterday, remember to praise yourself!
  • Set yourself up to succeed. Don’t over face yourself. If you enter a class above your ability and don’t do very well, you will enter into a negative mind-set about it. Why not enter a class below your ability, then you will have a rewarding experience before you start to push yourself.
  • When we are nervous, our muscles tighten and we don’t breathe properly. Our brain requires oxygen to function, you cannot think when you are scared!! Take a deep breathe, and another, and another, and off you go!

Confidence – it comes and goes…

By Lizzie Hopkinson

Confidence is one of those strangely elusive things, that if you look too closely at it may vanish. Some people seem to find it effortlessly easy, while others find it a harder skill to master. Sometimes you think you have it sorted and suddenly it deserts you, leaving you floundering around.

Everyone has days like that, you are not alone. Often we can be trundling along quite happily, and suddenly we hit an “anxiety pocket” and just like that we are floundering.

There are ways to tackle this. Firstly remember to breathe! Long slow breathing is proven to calm us down and reduce our bodies stress response. Secondly, ground yourself. Grounding is a technique whereby you focus on your body and how to relates to the earth. You can read more about this here: https://scottjeffrey.com/grounding-techniques/

Reduce your expectations. So if your final goal is to be able to hack your horse by yourself, and you have previously been hacking with a friend, but you have suddenly hit an “anxiety pocket” then take a step back. You can ride in the school for a few days, you can take your horse for a walk in hand. You can spend some time doing groundwork, or simply massage him instead. After a few days, the anxiety may have passed and you will be able to carry on towards your goal.

If you push yourself too hard in the anxiety you can make the problem worse. But remember you know yourself best of all, people respond in different ways and need different types of support. So if your confidence suddenly takes a dive, work out what will help you. Most of us respond well to increased support, so see if your partner or friend can come with to ride.

Whatever the cause of your confidence dip it will bounce back, just remember to be kind to yourself.