Beyond Mechanical Confidence: the difference between Talking and Listening

Beyond Mechanical Confidence:  the difference between Talking and Listening

When I visit clients, and work with their horses, they often comment at how well their horse works with me.  How quickly their horses relax, become calm – and start becoming eager to learn things – when this isn’t the experience they normally have with their horses.

And while I could say that is because of my amazing skills and knowledge (and the ego driven part of me would REALLY like to think that)  I actually believe that the main difference between me and them is simply my level of confidence.

Actually that’s not true – I believe the difference is in the TYPE of confidence I have.

Many people I meet are very confident in knowing what to do, how to “fix” things – and what to do when.

You may know some of these people – in fact, like me, you may have been one of these people at some stage

I have called this type of confidence “Mechanical confidence”—and it’s   based on a sort of analytical calculation:

If the horse does X, I will do Y and the result will be Z

Some riding lessons are like this:

If the horse falls out on the circle, I will shorten my outside rein, move my outside leg back and the horse WILL do the circle without falling out….

Some groundwork is like this:

If the horse looks out on the circle, use the rope to tip its nose in until it learns to keep the nose in – now the horse will circle with its nose in…..

Now in both these examples, there is nothing wrong with the equations.  They will work.  They will do the job.

However, they are both examples of “Mechanical solutions” and so lead to “mechanical confidence”

There are times when having confidence that you have a purely mechanical solution is VERY useful – if I have a horse leaping about on the end of the rope and need to stop that immediately so both of us stay safe, then having a simple, mechanical solution  “if I do this then he will stop” – is VERY useful!

And I think we all go through this Mechanical confidence phase as part of our development as horsepeople – the trouble is that for many of us, we stop right there.

Why does this matter?  After all, if we have the knowledge then we can cope, right?

Not necessarily:  and the main reason for this is that the HORSE is not mechanical and neither are WE.

Running the mechanical approach leads us to treating the horse like a simple machine: press button X and Y will happen.   So what if it doesn’t happen?  Well, most of us will press button x HARDER….

So let’s see where this could take us:

My horse is supposed to keep his head close to vertical when I am riding my dressage test.  Hmm, I am holding his head in, yet he keeps putting it ABOVE the vertical and I keep losing marks.  No problem, by analysing this I can see that if I put MORE strength into my reins, he will bring his head in.  Hmm, that still isn’t working – I know, how about I train him by riding him with his head BEHIND the vertical, and then when I loosen the reins a bit in the actual test, he will HAPPILY ride with his head vertical and feel happy too!

Mechanical thinking, leads to horses being treated as machines – which leads to some very effective training practices which are NOT good for the horses.

Another example of this is the use of training gadgets – pessoas, side reins, draw reins – all are a manifestation of the mechanical thinking approach: he is bringing his head too high?  No problem, train him with this gadget and it will be fixed.

Mouth opening when ridden?  No problem, use this noseband to keep it closed.

Mechanical thinking leads to solutions that often revolve around force – which, in my mind has no place in horsemanship – or when we are interacting with another living being

Also, think about the difference between the horse learning to tip his nose in just because we tell him to, rather than understanding that when he DOES this, and flexes his body, his whole body feels better and it’s easier to move – the difference between external and intrinsic motivation for the HORSE to choose to do things in certain ways…..

Mechanical thinking is bad for us in another major way too – it leads to “mechanical confidence” where we believe we have the answers to any problems.

But what happens when we meet a problem where we DON’T know the answer?

What happens when the answer that has always worked before – doesn’t work any more?

What happens when we realise that we have no idea WHY these answers work and we are in fact, relying on rote learning and mechanical solutions to keep us safe with our horses?

And what happens when our horse decides he is fed up with being treated like a machine and wants more?

This is when mechanical thinking can break down – and when this happens, our confidence, which seemed SO sure and certain, crumbles like the false wall it is – and we are left without the slightest foundation  to build on…

The biggest problem with Mechanical confidence – is that because we THINK we have the answers, we stop listening to our horse.  We go out with a plan and just talk to our horse, tell them what to do and go through our step by step plan in our own mechanical way expecting the horse to just get on with it.

And when the horse realises we are not listening, well to be honest some (if not most) horses just sigh and get on with it; but some – do not.  And they will shout louder to be heard…..

When we believe we have all the answers, we stop listening.

We close our ears and our eyes to anything that goes against our existing approach.

And, quite often, our unconscious notices this.  And so, as we are happily riding, playing and working away, feeling sure of our knowledge – our unconscious starts realising that we are doing things mechnanically, and we are not listening to our horses – and that’s when the niggling doubts begin.

And so our confidence slowly erodes when we can see no logical reason for it…..

When there IS a reason: we are using mechanical confidence instead of true confidence.

Have you ever met someone who is so busy explaining their point of view that they don’t have time to listen to yours?

Someone with TRUE confidence can listen to your point of view until you finish talking – and then say what they want to say calmly and quietly.  They don’t need to raise their voice, they don’t need to stop you from saying your piece….they don’t need to get upset or frustrated at what you say…..

Someone with true confidence knows that whatever happens, they are safe, they are secure – and they will be given the answers by the person they are talking with – or the horse they are working with.

Someone with true confidence will look at anything the horse does as FEEDBACK, as something to be explored not constrained – and look for ways to help the horse not NEED to do that behaviour anymore rather than simply shutting down the behaviour….

Yesterday I did my first session with Sovereign – a young horse I am looking after for a friend until she gets her livery place organised.  Sovereign has been traditionally trained, is a lovely chap so I thought I would just check him out to see what he knew.

Since he has a traditional background, I used a lunging cavesson and line, and just tested how he moved his hind quarters, what he knew of the different reins and so on.

It soon became clear that he had NO idea of how to move his shoulders.  In fact, when I asked him to flex towards me and step his shoulder away from me, he moved his head away from me and swung his shoulder in with such force that I could easily have chosen to see that as aggression – especially when at first, when I didn’t release, he also swung his head round threatening to bite.

If I had been thinking mechanically this would have been easy:  increase the force, force the bend and the movement and insist on obedience.

And that would have worked – Sovereign would have learned to do what I was telling him to do.

However, it would be compliance, not commitment – and how could I be sure he wouldn’t revert to this behaviour in the future?

Instead I chose to explore WHY he felt the need to do this.  As we know, horses prefer flight over fight, so my first thought was that his need to shoulder into me was a defensive move, in response to feeling trapped.

The work I had been doing was close to him and in hand – so I stepped away and put him at the end of the 12 ft line and did some work from there, using a simple stick to indicate what I wanted him to do.  He softened, and, in this situation, was ABLE to yield his shoulder as asked – yes, he struggled, but it was much easier for him.  His left shoulder in particular was hard for him to move and yield.

Going in close, he found it harder, so I did some work getting him used to me being close – and to accepting a feel on the line.  We played with him learning to elevate his head and step BACKWARDS to find space and release pressure instead of pushing THROUGH the rope…..

After twenty minutes, he was realising that he COULD move his shoulder.  Only a little, but it was starting to work….

And when I went back in the afternoon for a second session, he came right over to the round pen and stuck his head in the halter to start again – which I took as a good sign.

Instead of talking AT him, and telling him he WOULD move his shoulder, which is a mechanical approach; I had the confidence to listen to him telling me about his shoulder, his concerns and his comfort levels – and come up with different things to try to see how they worked.

So – if you are wondering why you are not as confident as you think you “should” be – if you can’t see a logical reason to now be confident – it might be that you are relying on “mechanical confidence” ……

Once you have knowledge, tools, techniques – it’s time to trust yourself and start developing the true confidence needed to listen to your horse

It might mean you make a few mistakes, it might mean you get things wrong – but one thing it WILL mean – is that you are listening to your horse and putting your horse first.

Yours in confidence



14 thoughts on “Beyond Mechanical Confidence: the difference between Talking and Listening

  1. Thanks Cathy. Another thought provoking blog 🙂 I was going to ask how do I know if my confidence is true or mechanical. I feel confident because I feel I have lots of options, lots of ‘arrows’, so if a problem arises I have options i can use in each circumstance. I guess thats the difference – rather than having one stock answer I have several choices and can read my horse and choose appropriately depending on the situation. Think I answered my own question!

  2. hmmm a bit of a puzzler here. If i didn’t know what you meant, i wouldn’t know what you mean if that makes sense. i found myself querying ‘tools’ etc that i 100% believe in just because they are classed as mechanical. but if/when they fail i try something else ‘mechanical’ also………… i’m having trouble separating mechanical with feel here lol. sorry, just me thinking out loud. If you’re not feeling/trying to read the horse then how would you know what ‘tool’ to use? I think i’ve missed a point. 🙂

    • great observation Julie — often it feels like this — the thing is you will know when you are using the feedback your horse is giving you as information , or as an indication to use a tool to control that feedback — so trust yourself.

      Always open to chat about tools if you would like to have a conversation about them!


  3. A wonderful blog, Cathy! A good explanation of the difference in the mechanics of riding and the art of horsemanship! A good horseman will need very few tools and will use then as softly as possible! Oh that more would seek to interact with horse and people at this level!

    • Hi Martha — thanks — the challenge is that many of us start off believing that more than mechanics is possible — but have it almost yelled out of us in riding school! I remember many times where I would ask “but WHY does that work?” and being shouted at to stop over analysing and just do it — which, while it works well as a sports slogan, is not ideal for confidence building or horsemanship!


      • I agree, Cathy! I have found that the ones who don’t or can’t explain want to keep you dependent on them. They tend to hold back the important details. Those that take the time to explain and help you understand are confident and kind enough to help you grow to your full potential. I’ve gotten very picky who I take a lesson from now!
        I enjoy your blog and the way you express your ideas! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great blog Cathy and excellent explanation of being able to read your horse and adjust to any situation (the horse being the situation!). We must always be flexible in how we think and act/react around horses. As you said, they are not machines! They are vibrant, emotional, intelligent animals and need to be treated as such in order to be able to communicate with them and progress in our own horsemanship.

    • And this is often what actually starts the unconfidence — when all our teachers and instructors treat them as machines, and tells us to — and yet part of us knows this isn’t what we want — that is when the first stirrings or uncertainty begin….


  5. Very interesting, I also have lots of arrows, and possibly I run through my repertoire (mechanical) with my own horses, I think there is hope however as I have been helping my sister with her horse and his unusual problem, and I definitely had to listen to him and why this was happening as it wasn’t something I had ever come across before, and I now have a horse I hardly know whinnying at me every time I come into the yard, it’s really cool, I took years to build that welcome with my own horses. I think I need to revisit my relationship with them. Thank you for a very thought provoking blog.

  6. Thanks Cathy, thought provoking and concise as usual! As an adult learner I started traditionally at a local stables and found the mechanical approach far too dispiriting. I was not comfortable with “forcing” the horse to behave. These are riding school horses, surely they know what to do? How come I have to be so forceful “making” the horse do the movement or gait? I almost gave up horses, being unable to get mechanical confidence, and learning to ride, without knowing anything about what the horse was feeling/thinking. I was actually frightened of them on the ground! Luckily I was rescued by a friend who did natural horsemanship and now have my own lovely mare. I am much happier making our time into interesting games and a much better rider knowing when and how to reward. Having read this post I realised why I can do more things than my traditional and much more confident friends! Thanks Cathy

    • Hi Jess- I started riding at a traditional stables too — I remember often being told to “stop overanalysing” when I asked WHY do I use the outside rein! And that led me to natural and classical horsemanship, where the teachers were more than happy to talk and explain and explore as much as I wanted.
      And of course, once you move beyond the mechanical confidence, the whole relationship and meaning of life with horses seems to change!


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