Having the Confidence to Learn: why you sometimes just can’t hear the good advice

Having the Confidence to Learn: why you sometimes just can't hear the good advice

Sometimes when unconfidence fills you, it is hard to even think there is another way.  It feels like you are condemned to feel unconfident  forever, it’s just who you are….and there is no way out

And then, when you DO find something that enables you to be with your horse, be that little bit more confident, you cling to it like a lifebelt – grasping tight with your hands and heart.


And that is fine, that lifebelt has saved your confidence, got you back out and about with your horse, so that is  a GOOD thing, right?


Well yes…..and no.


I run Horse Agility days in several locations on a regular basis.  On one particular day a while ago we had a mix of old and new people.  One person, Let’s call her Sandra,  was thrilled to have loaded and brought her horse, a lovely mare, as she had recently been on a two day trailer loading course to help fix things.   Learning to use a particular form of pressure halter and using the ask and release one step at a time approach had worked there, and she was thrilled about it.

So off we went, I did the safety briefing, and a short talk on horse psychology, using approach and retreat when your horse is worried about something, circling away and coming back…

And off everyone went to play with the various obstacles.

There are many obstacles in Horse Agility – -the scariest of which for most horses is a curtain of flapping tape….

It is also the most appealing for humans, as it represents a real achievement: “I got my horse through the curtain!”

That combination represents a challenge for many people new to the sport” our instinct is to get our horse through the curtain so show how great our horsemanship or relationship is – our horse’s instinct to stay well away from that flappy, unpredictable thing and definitely not go through it.


I use the curtain on a lot of my confidence building courses not as an obstacle to overcome – but as a tool to help us build and develop our relationship with our horse – and to learn the skills of building confidence in our horses.

Sure, we could just force our horse through the curtain to prove it won’t hurt, and then do it a lot of times until our horse relaxes and doesn’t worry about it any more.  That will work.

We can also USE the curtain to prove to our horse that we will give them the time they need to think things through, that their opinions matter, that we are not going to force them to do anything they are not comfortable with – in other words we can USE the curtain to develop their trust in our leadership.


I know which horse I would rather be.


Anyhow, that is all about the HORSE’S confidence – but what does this have to do with HUMAN confidence?


Well,   a few minutes after letting everyone loose to play with the obstacles, I noticed Sandra.  Her mare was on one side of the curtain, she was on the other – and it looked like a tug of war.

Ok, she was using the “ask and release” that is advised with that particular halter, but her horse was planted, nose up in the air, and the “ask” was a very firm request.

I wandered over:  my role is not just to provide the course, but also to coach and support people in their play with the obstacles.

I said “hmmmm, how about letting her have a bit of time to think about this…”


Sandra looked at me, and then back at her horse and said “Walk on!” pulling the lead rope again, repeatedly.


I looked at the horse….she was a bit worried, not a lot, she certainly wasn’t frightened by the curtain – it was just something she didn’t really want to do – -or see a point in doing.

I said “let’s tie some of the flappy tape back and give her a clear opening to go through, that will make it easier….”

I did that.

Again I suggested Sandra give her mare a minute to think about things, and stop asking…

As soon as Sandra said ok, and stopped asking, the mare took a very small step forwards – at which point Sandra took up the rope and started asking again.

I said, you know, if we use approach and retreat, we could circle her away or back her up, and then come back again to build her confidence…

At which point Sandra said “I’m not going to let her win!”

Now, at this point in the story several thoughts may be crossing your mind.  Many of them may not be that complimentary to Sandra.

But I knew that Sandra was a person who cared very much about her horse, and her horse’s welfare.  I knew that she was usually open to having a good relationship with her horse.  I also knew, because she had told me, that she was not very confident with her horse and that she was “always working” on being confident.


I also, as mentioned before, knew she had just been on a two day course with her horse where one particular approach had helped her overcome a major problem with her horse.


And now, with the curtain, that approach was the only one she could think of using.


Sometimes, we find one thing that works, we hold onto it SO tight, there is no way we can open our hand to take hold of any other ideas – however good they are.


And this is particularly true when unconfidence is involved.


We spend so long not knowing HOW to be confident, when an idea or tool comes along that gives us that relief, we cling into it desperately to make sure it doesn’t go away again.


There is an Aesop’s fable about a monkey or boy, depending which version you read – that puts his hand in a jar to grab as many nuts as he can.  But now his hand is in a fist around the nuts, he can’t get his hand out of the jar again and is stuck.


Sandra had her hand firmly in the jar, and was so focused on holding on to that strand of confidence inside, she was not able to hear any other words that might have helped her.


There are SO many layers to this and I know I am only skipping along the surface here — so let me know if you would like a full article on any one issue I have mentioned in this blog…


So I have a question for you:

What are you holding onto so tightly?


What can you let go of that would allow room for more ideas and options for building your confidence?


How can you develop the Confidence to Learn?



Yours, in Confidence









4 thoughts on “Having the Confidence to Learn: why you sometimes just can’t hear the good advice

  1. Very interesting. This has given me much to think about, but it is hard sometimes to let go and think about something in a wider way.

  2. This is one of the most profound of your pieces yet Cathy. I love it and see my fears and mistakes and some solutions in it so clearly. Thank you so much. One idea perhaps to develop: How to develop content and process for a portfolio of approaches instead of clinging to a handful of “these are the nuts!” This piece reminds me of a very wise, kind, and generous dog and horse trainer and human teacher I was fortunate enough to meet this spring. She applies multiple approaches to training with nimble mental agility, impeccable timing and ability to communicate much of the fundamentals to this student. I’m sending her this piece as she will surely relate to and appreciate your insights.

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