Here is the thing about Negative Thoughts. You cannot get rid of them.
Our brains are hard-wired to notice the negative. That is how our cave woman ancestors survived. They noticed the scary saber-toothed tiger, they experienced emotions of fear, they certainly had negative thoughts about the situation, and if they were lucky their fight-flight-freeze response kicked in and they were able to run, fight off the saber-tooth tiger, or freeze and hide until it went away.
Now, today we have very few situations where our lives are truly in danger. However, these negative thoughts still occur. See, we still have this inner cave woman who notices all of the negative things, and she is really good at bringing them to our attention, so that we can do something about it and survive another day.
So, when you try to get rid of negative thoughts, your inner cave woman thinks that you are ignoring her. When you ignore her, she gets more scared, and the more scared she gets, the louder she gets, and the more those negative thoughts keep on appearing.
We need to address the negative thoughts by showing our inner cave woman that there isn't any actual danger, or addressing the fear with action.
Speaking of fear/danger, there are two types of fear: Situational Fear and Psychological Fear.
Situational Fear is the fear we experience as a response to a real and present danger.
Psychological Fear is fear with no concrete, immediate cause. It can be fear of what might happen, fear of what other people think, fear of failing, etc.
Now, our bodies respond with the fight-flight-freeze response whether the fear is situational or psychological.
We get a surge of adrenaline, our heart rate increases, our breathing gets faster, our muscles tense, etc. Our body is making sure that we have the ability to take action, to fight the danger, run away from the danger, or freeze and hide until the danger goes away. This reaction to fear is normal and is deeply embedded in our biology-this is the response that ensured that our cave woman ancestors didn't get eaten by saber tooth tigers.
This fight-flight-freeze response might be helpful when getting ready to run away from saber tooth tigers, but it generally isn't helpful when we are working with our horses. As prey animals, horses are very sensitive to the emotions and body language of others in their environment. So when our thoughts shift to the what ifs, and we start to feel afraid, our brain sends signals to our body, and we get tense, we might crouch forward into the fetal position, we might get fast with our hands on the reins, etc. Our horse senses that we are afraid, and it triggers our horses' fight-flight-freeze response, and our horse reacts, which further makes our thoughts more afraid, and the cycle continues, until either the danger passes or we break the cycle.
Psychological Fear can become Situational Fear:
Let’s say something scary happens, like your horse is walking calmly down the trail, then all of sudden he stops and shakes. In the moment you grab the saddle horn and hang on. After he stops shaking, and you realize that you stayed on, you probably have a thought like “Whew-that was close!” and you take a few deep breaths, confirming that you really are ok now, before continuing on your ride.
The key here is that after an incident of situational fear, once the cause of the danger is gone, you realize that “I’m OK now,” and your body returns to its normal heartbeat and respiration rate, your muscles relax, and you go on about your day.
Now, with psychological fear, because there isn’t an actual real and present danger that we can overcome, we might not get to the point of “Whew-I’m ok now.” So our psychological fears accumulate, and we stay in this state of anxiety. And our horse may pick up on our psychological fears, and their response might even transform into situational fears.
For example, let's say you are tacking up your horse, and you are thinking about the how he crow hopped the last time you rode him. You start worrying that he is going to crow hop again, and you start feeling anxious. Even though your horse isn’t acting up at this moment, you are worried about the “what ifs” that might happen. Your thoughts start affecting your body-your breathing, your heart rate, your muscles, your posture. Pretty soon your horse will start picking up on your fear, and he will likely respond by getting nervous himself, and he might start misbehaving. This is how psychological fear can become situational fear.
Break the Fear/Anxiety Cycle, and don't allow psychological fear to become situational fear. If you feel afraid that your horse might crop hop, then spend some extra time doing groundwork before you ride. Or maybe go on that trail ride with a friend instead of alone until you and your horse feel more confident. Remember, that inner voice of worry is just your inner cave woman, trying to keep you safe! Sometimes she worries needlessly, but sometimes not-so listen up! Ignoring her will just make her more worried and louder anyways, so listen to that voice!
Awareness is the first step, then once you are aware of the fears of your inner cave woman, you can take action to prevent your psychological fears from actually occurring.
Confidence. Every rider knows that it is a must have trait to be successful with our horses. If we don’t have it, our horses know it. If we don’t have it, we will be a lot less likely to go after our big horsemanship dreams. Without confidence, we won’t ride at our best.
But what exactly is confidence?
I wish there was a magic confidence wand that I could wave and *poof* instant confidence would appear. Riders would feel sure of their skills and abilities. They would clearly communicate with their horse, and their horse would trust their leadership. They would approach challenging situations with calm and focus. Rider would believe in themselves, and their horses would believe in them too. Most people would agree that confidence is a positive feeling of trust in one’s self, and in their ability to achieve whatever it is that they want to do.
And developing that confidence takes time.
Certainly there are technical skills that riders and their horses must master. These are things like learning balance, how to cue and direct the horse, specific aids for maneuvers, developing a feel for the horse. This is learning to read the horse, to understand how the horse thinks and reacts. This is the horsemanship knowledge that we can spend a lifetime mastering.
Then there is the mental skills and your personal reason for riding. This is the passion you have for horses. This is knowing deep inside that part of your purpose in life is this horsemanship journey, and that you are going to give 110% to practice and learn and grow. This is perseverance to keep at it, this is where you reach deep inside yourself when things get challenging, and you get back up and try again. These mental skills help you to enjoy this journey. You can control your thoughts, the words that you say to yourself. You can change your attitude, shift your mindset, and get yourself in the zone to ride at your best. This is where you realize and understand that most of the time along our horsemanship journey, you are working on your own personal development, you are not working on the horse. Without these mental skills, without grit, you can have all the talent for the technical horsemanship skills in the world, but you will not feel confident and you will not achieve your horsemanship dreams.
Developing confidence takes technical skills, mental skills, and personal development. It is a conundrum. Because it is common to feel like we can’t go after our horsemanship dreams, that we can’t try that next thing, until we feel more confident. But if we never go for it, we will be stuck, and we won’t develop that confidence. See, we build confidence by taking ACTION. And we have to take action before we feel confident! Hence, the confidence conundrum. To build up confidence, both in ourselves and in our horses, we need to take baby steps. We need to little by little ease out of our comfort zones. We need to recognize that it isn’t going to be easy. That there are times when we won’t feel confident. We will have to try something new, to stretch ourselves, to learn and grow. And no one is perfect the first time they try something new! We will make mistakes. We will get it wrong. And every time that we step outside that comfort zone we are building that belief, that trust, in ourselves. Every time that we try something new and we recognize that we got just 1% better, and we recognize and celebrate that tiny little improvement, we build our confidence.
It is so common for us to want to have it all right away. To believe that if we are truly talented and good at something that it should come easy. That if we have to struggle to learn, then it means that we are bad, and for some of us when we don’t feel like we are good at something, we are tempted to just quit. We live in an instant world, where we want answers and knowledge and things, and we want it right now. We are not accustomed to waiting! As a result, we very often fail to recognize that 1% improvement! We think that anything other than drastic changes, instantly and without struggle, isn’t good enough. So we don’t recognize those little improvements in ourselves and our horses. We don’t make ourselves or our horses winners for these little positive changes. And when we don’t recognize these little changes, we don’t gradually build up our confidence, step by step, every day. When we focus on the negative, then we get negative back. Then we don’t even want to try anything new, because we don’t feel good or confident about it. Then we get stuck, or worse, we go backwards in our horsemanship journey. When we are in a negative mindset, we can’t trust ourselves or our horse, and our horse certainly senses our negativity and doesn’t trust us.
When was the last time you recognized and really celebrated a 1% improvement? When was the last time that you really praised your horse and made him a winner for that 1%? What if you did? What if you went 1% out of your comfort zone today? What if you took your big goals and dreams, and you broke them down into little baby steps? Would you feel more confident then, knowing that you only had to stretch outside that comfort zone a teeny tiny bit every day? If you stretched that 1% every day, in 100 days you would have 100% improvement! Fear disappears, and confidence appears, when we take action towards our goals. So get out there, make that 1% improvement, and get gritty!
P.S. Want to learn more about the mental skills and personal development pieces of building confidence? Check out my Confident Cowgirl Online Course!
Read more of my blogs at