by  Jenny  Rolfe

Much scientific knowledge and technical data is now available to help us as riders and trainers to advance the training of the athletic horse.  The performance of sportsmen and women is now greatly enhanced by the amount of information that is available relating to the human body and how it can best cope with athletic development. However, even with all this technology at our fingertips, many sports psychologists are employed to motivate the individual, in order to gain maximum performance. Without the positive mental approach, it would seem that with even such in- depth physical knowledge, the athlete may still not be successful.

Confidence and motivation would thus appear to play a significant part in the journey for any performer. Many professional sportsmen take advice and motivation from “sports psychologists” as it has been recognized that for maximum athletic performance the person has to be not only physically fit but confident and enthusiastic.


For example, it is interesting to watch a player in a tennis match. The game may be in full swing with pace and confidence within the match then suddenly just one small mistake is made. The game begins to change and the player’s game falters. For that player, one mistake may mean that he rapidly loses confidence. As a result, the points begin to fade away.

Although as humans, we may experience problems with self doubt, we must remember that initially, it would have been our personal choice, to take on the challenge as an aspiring athlete.
However, when we are training a horse,  it is obviously not his personal choice to take this path,  so it becomes our responsibility to help him enjoy the journey.

We need to take a close look at these aspects from the perspective of the horse, since if these principles of motivation and confidence are true for humans, then they are certainly worthy of consideration for our horses. The path of training, should encompass a desire to understand the horse and his individual nature.  This is the way of true horsemanship.

Confidence is built over a period of time, within any relationship. Friendship and fun go hand in hand and if we can provide a place for the horse where he can feel our pleasure and encouragement in his progress, his confidence will grow. When mistakes are made we need to look to our communications and maybe take a few moments on a loose rein to re-evaluate our attitude or our approach. Trust takes time to build and can be easily destroyed, if we become too impatient.

When we focus on our breathing, within  riding, it will make us more aware of how easily the rider can slightly lose balance, tighten the seat or allow stress to restrict the energy flow throughout the body.

The horse may respond in a negative way to some slight change in the weight or tightening of the rider’s body. The more self-aware we can become, the more we can tune into our horse. He is so very sensitive to our body language and so often, we don’t realize the mixed signals we are giving him.


The horse in his natural herd environment enjoys movement,  which is an expression of his pleasure. He can frequently produce brilliance of gait, worthy of any dressage arena.
I think it is helpful whilst training the horse to not only think of the movements in dressage as technical exercises, but also as an expression of the personality of the horse. The horse is capable of demonstrating brilliance in paces and movements, for instance, extension and passage, whilst he is at liberty. This can be an expression of his joy and pride and if we enhance the personality of the horse, within the training, the exercises will not only be performed as technically correct but can also convey his individual character.  The horse will look to the rider as his herd leader and from this relationship built upon trust,  he can begin to gain his own confidence and pleasure.

Harmony creates Confidence

 It is a normal sequence that learning and concentration can create a certain level of tension. If we are aware of the breathing patterns, of both rider and horse, we can use this knowledge within our training to create more harmony in our work.

Has someone ever said to you “I know what you are thinking” or have you ever known someone with whom you felt such closeness that their words could be predicted? This is the relationship which is built on much time spent together. Over years of creating a bond of mutual trust such empathy can be borne between rider and horse.

The horse will sense our breathing and body language when we enter the stable door and often we are not aware of the mixed messages which we can give. As the leader we need to try and create a place of calmness where the horse has no fear. We can learn to observe his body language for signs of stress, in the same manner,  he will be constantly aware of the signals which we are giving to him.

Each athlete is an individual. Some horses will be able to cope with competitive stress, in fact they may thrive on it. Our responsibility is to understand whether the horse is displaying symptoms of fear and flight or whether his lively energy is an extension of his pride. If as trainers we continually instigate the fear- flight instinct we will be training the horse to fear,  rather than to enjoy the work.  It is possible to produce energy which creates only tense and stilted paces. Only a positive calm energy will enhance natural fluidity within the paces. We have the ability to encourage the horse to produce calm energy which will enhance his joy and pride in the work.



To gain a response from the horse where he is comfortable to accept a contact between our hand and his mouth, he needs to be in a confident frame of mind, where he can place his trust in us. When the horse is calm and accepts the contact with the bit from the rider’s hand, he can show a physical demonstration of ‘submission’ without fear or tension. Submission is a gift from his mind and not from his mouth.

 This attitude is borne of trust and can never be forced and can only be gained by a rider who offers a place for calmness and confidence, with his horse.

This affirmation of our herd leadership can be developed through working from the ground. The ridden work then becomes just an extension of a relationship already built up from body language and mutual harmony in ‘mind to mind’ communications. If you have established your place as herd leader in loose work from the ground, the horse will build  trust and respect and can respond more willingly, to your aids as a rider.

The immense value of loose work as part of a training  program  has proven to be significant. Once the horse can build up this trust, in a language natural for him, then his attitude will be reflected within the ridden work. The horse will more readily listen to instruction and have the ability to relax with more harmony under saddle. Less will become more.


Historically, native Indians lived with their horses as an integral part of their lives. The pressure today,  is to take the horse out of a stable and instantly expect him to comply to our instruction and command. The more we can allow the horse, to be a horse, within training, the more we can teach him with empathy and understanding. Time spent in warming-up can allow both rider and horse to tune into a mutual awareness of  body language and breathing . Once you can understand the power you have through this form of communication, then aids can really become telepathic.

As trainers, the more we can use the power of our mind,  to encourage the horse to be ‘on our side’ and enjoy his work, the more harmony may be gained. This is the way to increase our knowledge, not only of the technical requirements but of the nature of the horse we are teaching.

We are in a climate where various techniques of training are constantly being reviewed and analyzed by experienced trainers and riders. There is much debate on contact and methods of training the horse to gain his attention and submissive attitude.

No athlete whether human or equine,  can  perform with fluidity if there is a continuous restriction on the head and neck.  If we focus on restricting natural forward motion, we are giving the horse confusing messages.  We can teach the horse to move in his natural self carriage, throughout our training, both from the ground and in ridden work.


A logical approach may be to look at the horse, for the messages he is trying to give us. Is his expression relaxed and proud within his training?  It is so important that we look to the face, eyes, ears, nostril and mouth. Also to the fluidity of the horse’s neck,  back  and his freedom of  movement.   These significant signs can tell us whether our methods enhance the partnership we are seeking. . Training then can progress to be not only more technically correct,   but capable of attaining artistry from both the mind and soul.
Let us become horse ‘listeners’ and producing confident athletes, who can express their personality through their work.

Jenny Rolfe's new book ‘RIDE FROM THE HEART’ is available at our shop section or please visit her web site for further information


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