How to be Resilient: Why can’t I STAY confident?

How to be Resilient:  Why can't I STAY confident?

How to be RESILIENT: Why is it so hard to STAY confident?

Several questions sent to me, and my own experience with clients and students – reminded me that one big concern is how to build SUSTAINABLE confidence.

Many people go on workshops or courses and come away inspired with confidence, and indeed feel confident and relaxed for quite some time.  Then, one thing happens (the horse spooks, or a friend falls off) – and suddenly the nerves are back.

What is happening here is that whilst the surface issues of confidence are being addressed, the underlying foundation for confidence is not being solidly constructed.

This can be for many reasons:  it might be that there are other things on your life that affect you, so even though the horse side of things is sorted out, the rest of your life is not, so as time goes on that comes back into your mind and erodes your confidence from the course or workshop

It might be that the course DID sort out your confidence – but now something NEW is affecting it – and you don’t have the tools and strategies to deal with this new thing….

It might be that in the excitement of feeling confident again, you have pushed yourself through some of your own thresholds, ignoring your inner voice saying “be careful!” so your unconscious has decided it has to frighten you to get your attention back and make you careful again!

It could be for many reasons – which is why it is important that each one of us understand about confidence, how to build it – and have our own toolkit with tools ready to use when things don’t quite go as planned.

Having a toolkit and knowing how to use the tools is one key aspect of having sustainable confidence – of being resilient.  After all, if we have a flat tyre, but know how to change it – then is is less of a big deal than if we don’t have the tools or knowledge….

However, there is something even more fundamental that affects our ability to build sustainable confidence, or resilience – and that is a facet of ourselves that can make it harder or easier to be resilient:  whether we have an external or internal locus of control.

A “Locus of control” is where we see control of our lives.  If I have an external locus of control, then I tend to believe that everything that controls my life is OUTSIDE me, and therefore outside my control.

Someone with an external locus of control, when they are late to work will say “ah, well the traffic was bad  — what could I do?”

If I have an internal locus of control, then I tend to believe that everything that controls my life is INSIDE me, and therefore within my control.

Someone with an internal locus of control, when they are late to work will say “ah, the traffic was bad – I should have left earlier”

See the difference?

There are a few things to know about this locus of control thing before we get carried away using it for anything:

1.If we look at the population as a whole, we will see that there tends to be a distribution with a pretty wide spread: (just imagine the line is smoothly curved!)

Most people will fit in the middle where their locus of control isn’t really very extreme.

2. For those in the middle of this curve, our locus of control can vary depending on the situation – when I am dealing  with bureaucracy for example (eg the recent interaction with the DVLA, the UK driving license authority) I KNOW I am not in control!  Therefore in that situation my locus of control is external and rightly so…

However, I will TEND to inhabit a place where I am more external or internal MOST of the time – for example, with my recent run in with bureaucracy while I couldn’t control what was happening, I COULD control how I felt about it – I could choose whether to go around ranting and raving and feeling angry – or I could choose, using the self management skills I have learned over the years, to step back from it, accept it as how it is and make the best of things, using it as an example in a blog perhaps!

3. And this is the key:  for 99% of us, our locus of control is LEARNED and therefore CHANGEABLE!!!

In a study where they looked at 5 year olds in school, they kept track of how many comments a child received in a day that reinforced an INTERNAL or EXTERNAL locus of control.

Comments that reinforced an EXTERNAL locus of control would be if they were playing with blocks and the blocks fell down “oh never mind, the blocks are uneven, no wonder they fell down”;  an INTERNAL comment there would be “look, if you put the blocks like THIS they will stay up”…

Can you guess how many of each that 5 year old got?

Would it surprise you to know that in one day at school, the child got 197 comments reinforcing an EXTERNAL locus of control, and only 9 reinforcing an INTERNAL locus of control?

A friend of mine used to stop her child from crying when he fell or banged into things by slapping hte offending pavement or table and saying “bad pavement, bad table” – it made them laugh and stopped the tears BUT – it also started building a strongly EXTERNAL locus of control in her little boy – when she shifted gears to emphasising more INTERNAL comments, she noticed a significant change in his behaviours – and decisions.

I know from my own experience that this is changeable – I grew up a highly internally focused person, and my first job (as a sales rep for a major pharmaceutical company) was making huge progress – until a new manager came on board and within three months I was an externally focused person thinking nothing was in my control!  Thank goodness I left that job and found my balance again – but it ws proof to me that locus of control IS changeable

Think about it for a minute: what are the kinds of things that cause you to believe things are OUT of your control (ie they will move you to the LEFT on the curve above)?

Some things include:  being told what to do; being told of all your mistakes with no tools to help you correct it; not knowing how to predict a situation (eg not being able to read your horse); not knowing how to fix things (what can I do to calm my horse down when they get agitated, for example); doing things MECHANICALLY rather than understanding them…….what others can you think of?

And what kind of things will move you to the RIGHT – -ie to a more internal locus? – knowledge, tools, techniques, knowing you have all of these – having support – knowing others who have dealt with the same situation – all of these things will increase your capacity to feel that you CAN manage things, you CAN control them – it’s just a matter of learning HOW to.

WHY does this matter?

Well, if we have an EXTERNAL focus about our confidence, it is easily knocked.  If our confidence depends on external things which we have no control over – then the slightest thing will set us back as we will not believe we have the resources to sort things out.

If we have an INTERNAL focus, then when there is a set back, instead of going “it was the wind, it’s my horse, it’s the situation” we will go “hmm, looks like I don’t know HOW to cope in the wind, or read my horse, or HOW to handle these situations….I had better find a way to learn…..”

In the first example, there is nothing you can do to change things.

In the second – well it might be a lot of effort and take some time – but it CAN be done….

Which one is better for sustainable confidence?

One last thing about this locus of control – it IS possible to be TOO internally focused!

Yes, seriously, it is – when you are TOO internally focused, you take responsibility for EVERYTHING – and this can start what is called a “neurotic spiral” — “It’s my fault I can’t read my horse, I am no good for my horse – I am a terrible horse-owner – my horse would be MUCH better off without me, I should get rid of my horses and find them better homes and give up now!”

I think we all go there now and then – the trouble is if we stay there, it is very hard to get out again and it’s a very miserable place to be – if anyone reading this is in that place, drop me an email as I can help you climb out again…..

For sustainable confidence – to be RESILIENT in the face of challenges and changes, we need to do two things:

Identify what the challenge is – and turn it into something where we can ask these question: “HOW can I manage this with confidence? What CAN I do to feel more confident here?

A recent example is a friend of mine who had her horse starter by a very good horseman, and rode happily when on the handover workshop – but then got home and realised she was VERY worried about her horse’s reactions to her now she was alone.

While she was focused on the worry and what she HADN’T got control of (eg I have no instructor here, no one to help me if things go wrong, I can’t control my horse’s excitement and energy)  she felt horrible and “stuck”.

When she refocused and asked herself – “well, I know all that but what CAN I do to feel more confident here?”  she came up with several answers:

–          I can do a few days of groundwork in the arena and field to just remind myself that I CAN do things by myself

–          I can make a point of sticking to the plans I make – -that will help my unconscious to trust me

–          I can do a lot of saddling and mounting practice with a lot of on and off so I can prove to myself my horse is ok with me on him

–          I can break things down and do them small steps at a time and check I am below a five at each stage – and check my HORSE is below a five at each stage too

–          I can use patterns to help us both relax – make things predictable but with a few obstacles now and then to keep him interested

Here’s what she said after this conversation:

“Once I had a list of things I COULD do to stay confident, it was like a weight lifting off my shoulders – instead of focusing on what I COULDN’T do, I had STACKS of things I COULD do and that changed things COMPLETELY!  Since this discussion I have been making huge progress in my confidence and Hannibal and I are back to where we were at the handover workshop – but by ourselves!”

We can’t always change the facts – what we CAN change is what we DO about the facts…..

What example do you have of things you have done to become more resilient?  To make sure the confidence you have is sustainable confidence?

Yours, in confidence






PS: some of you may know that earlier this year I published my first novel as an ebook — if you like psychological thrillers take a look

In the UK the link is:

For the US the link is:


14 thoughts on “How to be Resilient: Why can’t I STAY confident?

  1. wow, thanks for that – a definite light bulb moment occurred whilst reading that LOL I have a very sharp athletic arab who has really dented my confidence over the 4 years I’ve had him. I seem to always be picking myself up and almost getting my confidence back with him only for things to go wrong again. I’d noticed that when I ride with my mum (who is fab, by the way) my confidence seems to get lower and lower until I no longer enjoy riding Roo but when I make an effort to ride out on my own my confidence grows and grows and I feel like I can actually ride and know what I’m doing 🙂

    Seeing it in print has made it all clear – my mum (in an effort to help and encourage me to be better) is always telling me how I’m sitting (whether I’m slumping/sitting unlevel etc) and telling me to change things (move to the left of the path/slow down/speed up etc) and how I could have dealt with situations better but never says when I’m doing something right or well so I’m constantly feeling like I’m failing and the only way to deal with things safely is to be “coached” through the situation.

    When I’m on my own with Roo then we just have to make the best of whatever comes up and I realise I do have some skill and I can read my horse and we make a very good team 🙂

  2. Hi Cathy,

    We had some discussion on Trotonline a while back – sadly I had a falling out with them and have now left to set up my own forum – Equus-online (I have given you the link in my details)

    Taking responsibility for your own actions and neither projecting onto others nor taking on the world is all part of a balance in life – however I do feel that a lot of the problem comes from a failure to live in the present. Dwelling on past issues or worrying about the future rather drags us away from actually living in the present – the here and now.

    I believe horses live in the here and now and it helps tremendously if we can too – in your example above of being late for work a third approach would be just to say sorry I’m late, I’ll work later tonight … and to spend the time stuck in traffic paying attention to all the things around us that we normally whizz by in our own little time caspule. Things happen in life – why does “someone” have to be responsible for them?

    Not being driven by time has been the single biggest change I have ever made and it has paid huge dividents in terms of reducing stress and worry. So if I get to the yard and spend time talking instead of doing the jobs then there is no issue and my experience is more positive – thus I am more relaxed around my horse and she responds by being relaxed round me. Trust builds and so does our confidence in each other.


  3. Another brilliantly timed article. Thanks Cathy! Just been through a difficult 48 hours and come through the other end by working out what I can safely and confidently do with Jake rather than entering the neurotic spiral! Really helps to hear a logical explanation of why my confidence is not sustainable and how to work towards a deeper confidence that isnt only dependent on me being immediately successful in what am I trying to do with my horse. What a relief!

    • Hope you are ok after the 48 hours that sound rather stressful — and great you sidestepped the neurotic spiral….. let us know how it goes and what else I can write about to keep you going!


  4. Thanks for defining that for me. Helpful info. Upon reflection, when I began riding and had a few bad experiences, I totally lost all confidence and almost gave up. With my husband’s encouragement, however, I made it my mission to learn as much as I could about horses, their behavior, and horsemanship. And spend lots of time working with them on the ground. As I began feeling more confident and wanting to ride more, I took riding lessons, was blessed to move next door to a great riding instructor and my confidence was helped tremendously. Now, I feel like I have reached a plateau. I am knowledgable and educated, but I still struggle with my confidence – more so when I am out on the trails than in the security of an arena. Also I struggle with my confidence on a new horse for the 1st 3-5 rides. I am going to have to take a closer look at my locus of control and where this unconfidence is coming from.

    • Hi Jennifer — sounds like you have made great steps in your confidence and found some very effective strategies. To be honest, I think being a bit careful on the first 3-5 rides on a new horse is actually common sense!

      let us know what you come up with


  5. I had a rotten accident on a new mare last May which shattered my riding confidence. I now have a new boy who hasn’t put a foot wrong and I’m finding it difficult to believe that he’s not going to behave the same way as the mare did. I started riding him with my husband leading him, reminding myself of all the horses I’ve had in the past that were safe and all of my friends’ horses too who are lovely to ride…. kept reminding myself that he isn’t that mare. Funny how it only takes one to badly injure you to tar them all with the same brush! New boy has recently been diagnosed with a bit of a sore back so he’s off ridden work for the next month and with riding off the table, I have LOADS of groundwork things to do with him…. I’m so excited as it will increase our bond, hopefully. In this department there are things that I CAN and WILL do! I’m also hopeful that the ole reverse psychology kicks in – in that being told I’m not to ride him will make me want it more than anything. I DO still want to ride and I DO want to overcome my nerves… I think time will help me to trust him as he proves his worth. If he’s been sore in the back and not putting a foot wrong, then I think he’s just golden.

    • You are not alone – it’s very hard when you have had an accident for your unconscious to trust you again — so your plan to do LOTS of groundwork is a good one — get in touch when its time to ride again as there is a process you can do that will help a LOT and make sure you don’t take any short cuts!!! I use it myself on new horses and it makes a big difference to my confidence each and every time!


  6. Thanks again for another amazing blog post Cathy! I was finding what you said to be true. As I was going thru a hard time in my life, where I felt like I couldn’t control anything, I transposed that onto my relationship with my horse… She is the sweetest, gentlest mare, but in my head she was a wild mustang 🙂 when I started to move in my head to a healthier internal locus of control, everything changed… I started to see that there were things I could control!! And that anything my horse could throw at me, I more than likely had the answer for… After months of not riding, I took life by the reins literally and figuratively and have been horseback ever since!! Let me give you an example… Last week while trotting around the sand ring, the poor thing got a horsefly directly up her nose!!! She cantered sideways tossing her head and even gave a little buck!! I gently reminded her “excuse me!!! I’m up here!” and once she blew the thing out of her nose, my children and I had a good laugh!! A year ago, this would have “confirmed my worst fears” and caused me a huge setback… But not anymore… Once you appropriately change your “locus of control” you can accomplish anything!!! Keep them coming Cathy!! You’re speaking my language!! Thank you!!

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