The Confidence-Control Conundrum: how our need to be “in control” can make it hard to build true confidence

The Confidence – Control Conundrum: or, how our need to be “in control” can be the biggest problem with building our confidence


It’s counterintuitive really – for me to say that needing to be in control is a problem with confidence.  And how us needing to be in control can actually STOP us building sustainable confidence

After all, Aren’t I the one who keeps going on about knowing what you are doing, understanding your horse, knowing yourself – self awareness as a prerequisite for self management and all that?

So why am I now in this article talking about control being a BAD thing for confidence?


Well, it’s not so much the control itself – it’s about our NEED TO BE IN CONTROL….


Of course, knowing what we are doing when we ride will help us feel confident.  And being able to read our horses so we can anticipate what they will do before they do it – that’s a great confidence booster.  These things can GIVE us a feeling of control….

But if every time we interact with our horses, we feel we NEED to be in control – then we are missing a huge part of the possibilities of our relationship with our horses and, more to the point when we are talking about confidence – we are taking away THEIR opportunity to develop their OWN confidence…..


Recently as some of you may know from reading the Coblet Confidence Chronicles on my facebook pages (  I have been working with my 15.3 4 year old Gypsy Cob.

Coblet came to me as a horse that was going to be put down if he didn’t find a “training” home as he was so scared of ropes his owner feared for his and any human’s safety if he was just sold on.

As an example of how fearful he was, when a pony in the 5 acre field was running with a rope trailing from her halter, Coblet was so terrified he smashed THROUGH the fence to get out of the field and run away from the trailing rope.

This wasn’t just an ordinary fear of a trailing rope – if you left a rope coiled up near the hay or food – Coblet would not eat. For days.  This was genuine, deep seated fear.

Now I have basically left him to be a horse for the first few months he was with me – I knew of one traumatic incident ( incolving electric tape trailing behind him) that had happened – and another more recent one where a dropped rope had caused him to panic and crach into a fence resulting in a bad cut above his eye – so I knew he had genuine reasons for his fear and that he was probably more like a horse with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)  then a horse who was just “unconfident around ropes”.  This was not going to be a quick fix.

For the first few months I focused on creating a relationship with him – he would follow me when I was cleaning the field, and I would make a fuss of him, and built up to asking him to move his shoulders and hind quarters from pressure. The first time I did this, and put pressure on his shoulder – he panicked and ran off – but over time, and with the realisation that treats would come for trying, he ended up able to do 360 degree turns on the hind and front ends with sensitive handling.  Pretty good.

What I found interesting about all this though, was how I felt about not having a rope on him.

Not having any control.

Now I have always prided myself on working WITH horses, doing things WITH them and FOR them, not TO them – -and yet I found myself feeling uneasy and, yes, uncomfortable without a rope on him to “make sure” I got a good result.

And this is what started my recent exploration of control, our need for it – and how that affects our confidence.

In a way it is closely related to the recent article on Mechanical Confidence – -learning something by rote, without understanding 0 can only give us a mechanical confidence that works as long as the situation stays the same, but falls apart when things change…..

And I talked about how true confidence was being able to respond to the horse in front of you, to try new things and just “see what happens”….

And several of you wrote to me saying that was easier said than done – because if you do something without knowing what “should” happen – how can you control it?  How can you know it’s right?  How can you make sure your horse “does it right”?


Here’s a thought – what if your horse “does it wrong”…..why does that matter?


Sure, sometimes it matters – if turning left means going over a cliff edge and staying straight means we are safe – then having control of what my horse does MATTERS – and I will amke sure we stay straight!

BUT – in 99% of training situations, I can set it up so if the horse does what I ask, or what he THINKS I ask – I can handle it.  I don’t need to control every step, every microsecond of my horse’s movements

I don’t need to have a perfect “send away” on my circling, the perfect movement on my lunging…..

If I look for perfection, then I will only see failure, what is MISSING – and the tempataio will be there to use gadgets and techniques to fill those gaps.

Almost everyone I know who uses pessoas, sidereins, draw reins, martingales – which may all have their place with certain horses, is using it simply to control particular horse behaviours.

Nothing wrong with that, we might think – after all, if we know we are controlling our horse – then surely we will feel confident – right?


And yet……and yet we often DON’T feel confident.

We can see we have control – and yet we DON’T have the level of confidence we think should go along with that.



Because control like this only HIDES the issue – and our unconscious knows the issue is still there.


Today I was playing with Sovereign – and he appears to me as if he has had a lot of artificial “help” balancing himself on the ground – when circling he leans heavily on the halter and, when not “allowed” to lean (by moving with him so the halter is not reliable to lean on) – he panicked.  By establishing “control” using artificial means, his trainers have taken away his ability to control himself.

Which means, as long as I hold him up – he will do well.  But that moment when I do NOT hold him up?  He will lose control of himself – and that will not be good.

Just as with Coblet where I am working to have HIM control his confidence with ropes, and not have his confidence reliant on ME being there or having control, with Sovereign I need HIM to have control of his balance, his movements and his emotions – because only then can I trust that he will be able to truly listen to what I am asking of him, and only then can we have the partnership that leads to true confidence.


So, the first part of the confidence-control conundrum is that I need my HORSE to have control of HIMSELF or HERSELF…..and not be reliant on me for that physical and emotional control…..this is what I work on in my ground and ridden work…..

With Tia, in the work we did with her defensiveness about being trimmed, we gave HER control of the communication by teaching her that head down meant “stop” and that SHE could control the pace of things – this increased her confidence, her trimmer’s confidence – and our confidence in her.


The second part of the confidence-control conundrum – is about US when we play with our horses.

If we feel we have to control every split second of every moemtn we are with our horses – where is the room for them to increase their self confidence – and wehre is the orom for US to develop ur ability to “see what happens”?

In each of your sessions with your horse, build in some time where you simply say – “go over there (eg to those barrels) and do something…..anything…..” and reward (with praise, scratches, treats – whatever you usually reward with) ANY try your horse makes to do something.

With one horse I was working with, she went to the barrels and waited for us to tell her what to do.  As we waited, she kicked one of the barrels in frustration – and we rewarded her.

You could see her brain working on that…..

We sent her to the barrels again – she kicked again – but we didn’t reward it – we said “thank you, but you’ve already done that – what else can you do?”

After a few minutes she kicked the barrel, then put her foot OVER it – we rewarded that….

Each time she went to the barrels we were looking for something NEW to reward – and the aim of this exercise was for her to realise that ANYTHING she did was good, that we WANTED her to think for herself – and that WE were not going to micromanage…..


How does this “giving up of control” build our human confidence?


Well it doesn’t – directly.  But indirectly it has a HUGE effect – try it and see!


First, we learn to let go of our own ideas of what our horse will do or should do with a barrel of tyre or box – and allows us to take a breath and truly observe our horse – for the individuals they really are instead of just projections of our own will and desire….

This understanding of character is part of getting to know them – and that leads to TRUST

And trust – well that just ends up leading to confidence.


My pony Bella – she is sharp, fast – turns on a blade of grass.  I am confident that I know how to progress with riding her – why?  I have never ridden a pony like her before and believe me, it feels odd when you are 5 ft 8 to be sat on a 13.1 pony

I am confident because I TRUST her – and so I can sit there with a loose rein even though she is fidgeting;  I can sit there with a loose rein as she walks backwards – and I can just sit, relaxed, breathing until she relaxes too……

Trust builds confidence – and if you are too focused on controlling something or someone, you can’t build trust in them.


Sure, get enough control that you can be SAFE with your horse – that will build your first level of confidence and is an essential foundation — but once you have that, well then to get to the next level, play the “giving up control” game and see what happens….


Yours, in confidence










15 thoughts on “The Confidence-Control Conundrum: how our need to be “in control” can make it hard to build true confidence

    • Hi Kris – thanks for the comment Kris — and wow, a lovely comment! I wish you were closer as I am sure we would have some great inspiring conversations if you were closer….. x let me know how things go!


  1. This is great and so true with some horses. I found almost from the start of working with my mare, also wary of ropes, that I got progress at liberty – I was already sure of my safety as we had a trusting relationship – I had been advised to work on-line with her but it just wasn’t right for her, so glad I listened to my own instincts and thanks Cathy for an interesting blog.

    • Really glad they are helping you — coming back to riding after an accident can be a challenging time, but as long as you take care of your confidence and listen to your unconscious you will be fine

      let us know how it goes!


  2. “If I look for perfection, then I will only see failure, what is MISSING” THIS is worth making one of those little picture things to post on FB. THIS is an incredibly powerful statement. Thanks for holding up the mirror. I’m a recovering perfectionist. 🙂

    • Thanks Kathy — me too!!! I think that drive for perfectionism is what makes us good at what we do, and yet challenges us every day with our learning and activities to keep that open mind and be able to accept what is offered without being blinkered by what we want….


    • You are right — it IS hard to trust instincts — one way to check your instincts and build confidence in them is to go WATCH as many other horse people as you can – -by seeing what they do and sensing how you feel about it — and playing the game of “guess what I would do in this situation” you can get a really good perspective on your instincts as well as learning new ideas


  3. i enjoyed the article and think that as long as everything is safe which you too stress it is an interesting concept. I too like a partnership not a dictatorship . I very much like my horses to show and develope their personality traininshould be fun for both of you

  4. Wow! Wonderful article! I have just discovered this blog, and I can’t wait to read the rest of it! I’ve been working on confidence for both my horse and myself for awhile (both of us can fake it really well, but we both have some unconfidence deep down that keeps us from moving forward sometimes). I’m also a hardcore–hopefully recovering–perfectionist, with all the attendant control issues that come from that, so this article rings true on a number of levels, and I am fascinated by the connection between the two. Thanks for a provocative article, the specific suggestions, and the very life-embracing conclusions.

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