We watch riders of all different levels, in all different disciplines, completing some truly amazing feats. We see people’s work with problem horses, turning them into something incredible, a far cry from what they used to be. We watch our idols with utter respect, viewing them as unwaveringly confident, people who are up for anything and ready to handle all sorts of different horses, ride through all sorts of different questions without batting an eye. We assume that those we look up to have it all figured out, that they never question themselves, that they never have lapses in their confidence or their own judgment. We couldn’t be more wrong.
There is the assumption that once a rider hits a certain level of training or competition, they’re set and have it all figured out. There is the idea that once a rider declares as professional, they no longer need guidance and are able to problem solve everything on there own, that they have utter confidence in their abilities at all times. While the need for outside support starts to dissipate more as riders gain experience, the belief that riders above your skill level no longer experience lapses in their confidence is completely untrue. Self doubt is something that everyone on this planet experiences and will continue to experience, even the people at the top of the top within their respective talents. Self-assurance grows with experience, but life is not a linear journey and there will always be instances that arise where we start to doubt our decision making or our ability to accomplish a certain feat. Such thoughts typically arise during the tough parts of life and often times, the people experiencing said thoughts never vocalize them, they remain internal, thus no one ever really finds out that said person was doubting their own abilities.
Let’s talk about me, for example. I have tons of videos of me riding through horses’ crazy antics. I typically seem to purchase horses straight off the racetrack or rescued horses that come with baggage. Because of this, a lot of the positive comments on these types of videos are about me being brave or people wishing that they had my confidence. It is a funny thing to read, people assuming that my confidence is concrete, that in any given scenario, I haven’t ever experienced hardship or doubt. Let’s take my main competition horse, Milo, for example. Dealing with him has been a ride and a half. I started out with a scrawny little two year old who has now developed into a coming seven year old that is a far cry from the horse I initially adopted. Along this journey of training him, I have hit a ridiculous amount of road blocks and I sure as hell have doubted myself and my abilities. Training young horses is generally a ton of small steps forward and in some instances, a landslide backwards. When I first began working with Milo, when things wouldn’t come together quickly or when we had bad days, I always blamed myself. I was frustrated, convinced that I would never have a horse who would be able to do this or that. I only really voiced such thoughts to my mother, who luckily was around to act like a voice of reason. My amount of self doubt during the initial year or so of having Milo was high. I’d never closely worked with a horse who had so much baggage, so much reactivity and it was a steep learning curve. But, looking back, I do wish I’d had more faith in my abilities and more patience with what I was doing.
My lack of patience is largely directed at myself and to this day, when I feel impatient with how slowly training is moving along, my first go to is to blame me. I’m doing something wrong. Someone else could do this better, why is this not happening quicker for me? I had similar concerns in my work with Simon, my most recent rescued problem horse who had an extreme fear of people when he arrived and could not be touched let alone haltered or really handled by people. Simon’s arrival was a bit of a shock. I’d bought him at an auction where he was going to otherwise sell to a kill buyer. I really did not have much information on him but much of the horses there had been handled and at least halter broke, so I had the assumption that he would at least be halter broke (really stupid, do not have any standards when buying from an auction). It was a rude awakening when he arrived. Achieving the initial contact was tedious. He wanted nothing to do with people at all. He could be nasty, aggressive and would attack if he felt threatened. As weeks went by, the progress was at a snail’s pace. Especially when being limited by the fact that the horses were in quarantine and could only be in a specific area, I could not use a round pen and I had another horse loose with him while trying to work with him, otherwise he would try to jump over the stall door to escape. I told my mom that I didn’t ever believe Simon would get better. That he hated me. That I must be doing something wrong. But, the key here is that while saying all of these things, I never gave up. Putting myself down and doubting myself was the outlet for the frustration I was feeling with the lack of progress.
It seemed to happen all at once. Suddenly, Simon was at the door waiting for me. Letting me pet him. Taking treats out of my hand calmly, without the aggression he had in the beginning. Eventually, being haltered. Then, being halter broke. Then, wearing a blanket. Eventually, it was him carrying me as a rider and being an incredible student for his first rides under saddle, a sensible young horse who was a far cry from the terrified, aggressive pony that I’d initially worked with. What I was doing DID work, it just happened very very slowly, then all at once after initial contact was made. I hadn’t ever really had the opportunity to work with a feral pony like Simon, though. I doubted my ability to do right by him because of the time it took to do so. But, I never pushed him too hard. I patiently waited for him to take treats out of my hand and spent an awful lot of hours just sitting near him so he would have to get used to my preference and eventually, eat his food that was near me. Nothing I did was negatively affecting the horse, other than minimal stress that came with his fear of me being present. And yet, I blamed myself and was ridiculously hard on myself for not having the exact same timeline as other trainers, even though other trainers were working with different horses, different resources and had varying levels of experience.
I would assume that most riders and trainers, even Olympians, would experience doubts like I have. Nerves when entering the show ring, fear that they won’t succeed, that they won’t do right by the people who are out there cheering them on. Worries that client horses are not moving on quick enough, that perhaps they are not the right fit for them. Even in cases where you have lots of experience, doubting yourself during hard times is perfectly normal. In fact, I would question people who claim to never had feelings of doubt, considering questioning oneself in such a dangerous sport is probably a large part of ensuring safety. Anyways, couple this uncertainty with mental health issues like anxiety or depression and you’ve got the perfect cocktail of self doubt. It is important to be able to take that step back and realize where your negative thoughts are going. Realize what is connected to your own personal anxieties or what leads you on the path to self-deprecation. For me, largely these doubts are linked to my anxiety disorder. I often doubt my ability to do the most minuscule of tasks, things I’ve done over and over again with my eyes closed. I doubt my ability to properly latch the gate that I latch everyday without fail. I doubt my ability to set my alarm in the morning, despite the fact that 99.9% of the time when I double check, it is set. I doubt my ability to send texts to the right people, checking in a panic in the off chance I sent one to a complete stranger or the wrong person in my contacts. I doubt myself in pretty much any aspect of my life that you could possibly think of. I’m aware of it and I’m largely aware of the cause of it, but I still do it. Constantly. And guess what? Lots of people do. You are not alone.
So, here’s to sparking a conversation related to the realities of living life in general but even more so when working with such unpredictable animals. Doubt is normal. Anxiety is an incredibly normal feeling and many of the riders and trainers who you respect experience the feeling of anxiety or in a lot of cases, might even have an actual anxiety disorder. I can also attest to the fact that there are a number of riders who continue to work and grind whilst battling depression. Everyone has their road blocks. Their issues that they are working through. Everyone doubts themselves sometimes. It is just important to never let that prevent you from continuing to try.
Don’t be afraid to own your anxieties. Don’t be afraid to be open about your doubts. There is a whole crowd of people just like you that will exhale deeply with relief when you admit to such common human characteristics that many people ignore and pretend don’t exist. So, hi there, I hear you. I doubt myself too and I know how hard it can be to try to make it in the horse world while experiencing personal anxieties along with worrying about the judgments of others. I know what it’s like and want you to know that you are not alone, far from it, actually.