Choosing the perfect horse for a nervous rider is not always easy, but it is possible to find a balance between safe and challenging.
A nervous rider is you, your trainer, or your child. Everyone has periodic self-doubt or fear, which varies from mild to panic depending on each person and situation. Nerves happen to the best of riders from top-level athletes to those just starting out. After all, we are astride 1200-pound animals with minds and hearts of their own. We literally put our lives in their hooves every time we interact with them.
The horse you ride will make or break your confidence level. Ride a horse that is too challenging and you feel less confident or worse, quit altogether. Ride a horse that is too quiet and easy, and you never learn or improve your horsemanship. It is a delicate balance to maintain. As you grow in experience and confidence, you may need to change horses. In general riding different horses consistently will also prevent you from developing too many bad habits and teach you something different.
For example, the schoolmaster that refuses to move into the trot will teach you to use leg appropriately while a horse that gets forward will teach you to make him wait without holding. I have found that horses with bad habits have taught me the most. Not all the lessons were happy, but they were memorable. Like, how to sit a buck or prevent a horse from rolling with you on him. Ahh, that handsome gelding Picasso was infamous for it. He was predictable, I’ll give him that. My arms were incredibly strained each time I rode him as a teen.
So what are some things you should look for in a horse to help you gain confidence?
Age ain’t nothing but a number or so the saying goes. Young horses have much to learn and can often be too much for an inexperienced or nervous rider. A young horse needs a firm, guiding hand and a trainer who knows when to let them blow off steam and have a little fun too. They are more prone to bucking, spooking, and can be less forgiving as well.
A horse that is at least 8 years old is recommended for a riding lacking confidence, but between the ages of 12-18 years old is ideal.
Are there exceptions? Of course! And those exceptions depend on the following.
Training time is imperative to all horses regardless of age. The more a horse is desensitized to a variety of situations, the more experience he or she will have. More, the more experienced the horse is the more you will trust in them to carry you through safely.
Look for a horse that has been there/ done that. What discipline do you want to learn or ride? Does the horse have experience in that area? If you want to become an endurance rider, a Western Pleasure horse may not be the right choice for you.
Horses are versatile and it is not uncommon to see a polo pony going on trails or even fox hunting. But make sure you know what their background is and how long they’ve been doing it. More, do they like their jobs? A horse that likes what he or she is doing is going to be a lot happier, and as a result, more willing.
Hands down, you need another opinion and from someone who knows horses and knows you. Who better than your trainer? I tend to be hard on myself whether I deserve it or not. I will always choose the safest option and tend not to push outside of my comfort zone without a little nudge from my gal pal and trainer, Robin. She gives me courage because she believes in me more than I do myself.
I rode this amazing little Quarter Horse named Chico for almost two years. I mastered riding him and he gave me no surprises. But it became a little stale. So I suggested to Robin it was time to ride another horse. She breathed a sigh of relief and exclaimed, “Finally!”
Then she surprised me completely and offered me her horse, Delight. I’d cared for him doing turnout and feedings and he was my favorite to spend time with. But at the time he was a 4-year old off-track thoroughbred and I was afraid that I couldn’t handle him under saddle. She gave me the little push I needed and our first ride was amazing. I fell head over heels for him and rode him two years afterward until I fell badly and couldn’t ride him the way he needed to be ridden.
Horses are as varied as people and have an array of temperaments and personalities to match. When searching for a horse to buy, or ride, the physical conformation is as important as the demeanor. Don’t let appearances fool you! I’ve met quite a few sweet-looking, fat ponies that have a serious attitude problem when “provoked”. Some horses are more forgiving but it is hard to tell right away.
How can you tell a horse is kind? Gentle? Forgiving?
It’s hard to be 100% sure, but in my experience, the introduction is incredibly important. First impressions count. Introduce yourself and let the horse smell you. Talk to them. Do their ears perk up or do they turn away, uninterested in your attention? Or do they nudge and nibble you? Are their eyes kind? Or do you see the whites and them looking at everything but you?
This isn’t an exact science, but a feeling. So much of horse riding is about “feel”. So trust yourself and begin a new relationship with a proper introduction. Let the horse get to know you a little by your scent, voice, and energy on the ground. If you are nervous, do they become nervous? Or do they seek to comfort you?
When I was a working student doing turnout and feedings at my barn, I gained so much confidence in the saddle because of my interactions on the ground. I worked with the most difficult horses, and yet learned so much and gained confidence in myself. Why? Because I took the time to get to know each of them. I learned that whatever they dished out, I could handle. And I learned to enjoy being in the moment. Would I have ridden some of those horses? No way, but I did go on to ride a young off-track thoroughbred for two years because I fell in love with him on the ground.
Brains vs. Heart
Like personality, a horse’s brain is different in each. A friend of mine bought a horse recently. The vet described him as having a small brain because he was deprived of oxygen in the womb. Coincidentally, he was also one of the horses I cared for that helped me to gain confidence. He can be a wild man! But he has a lot of heart, and he is willing to try.
I’ve never met a horse breed with more heart than a thoroughbred until I went to Mongolia. Watching those semi-feral horses live free and then carry their nomads across the steppe, opened my eyes. Horses are exceptional. They learn to trust us and if we trust them, they will carry us and care for us without question. Those are the horses with brains and heart. Earning their trust and respect is one thing, but we have to give our trust and respect as well.
There is no easy formula for choosing a horse that will calm your nerves and help you to gain your confidence. The above will help you to choose a horse that is best for you, but you must be willing to try new things and step outside your comfort zone. That thoroughbred I fell in love with on the ground, made me nervous but I learned an incredible amount riding him.
Always, keep moving forward.