How I Lost My Confidence (and got it back again)

When you make your living from horses it’s quite hard to admit you’ve lost your confidence. Therefore, when it happened to me, I didn’t tell anyone. Until – when trying out horses in Portugal – I was so absolutely terrified that I started crying in front of everyone, and finally blubbed, ‘I think I’ve lost my nerve (suck in snot, hyperventilate)’. Thankfully, even slightly bemused Portuguese men can be kind to you and help you slide off the side of your horse and pat you awkwardly on the back.

I think we assume you lose your confidence because you fell off. Or your horse bolted. Or you tripped while galloping. I lost my confidence because people I loved died – quite a few of them in quick succession. I didn’t have any idea that totally non- horse related issues could show up in the thing I love doing the most. I assumed riding would help me deal with the sadness.

It was a total surprise and crept up on me in the same way that summer insidiously becomes winter. It came to a massive, embarrassing and public crescendo in Portugal, but it had been poking its toe in the side door for a while.

As the result of conversations with a few people it seems this phenomenon is more common than we realise. And no one really talks about it. Trauma of any description can rear it’s ugly head in the most unexpected of places. When the things you have come to rely on get torn away –  this can include your beliefs about how the world works – the echos can be felt throughout your whole life. It can even show up in the things you love doing best. I wish someone had primed me for this possibility. I also wish I hadn’t felt so embarrassed that I could have spoken to someone about it.

However, not wanting to let the cat out of the duvet, I mean bag, I basically hunkered down and carried on. It was a pretty miserable few months. Oh, and in this space of time my sweetest, kindest horse died.

So, I had to use what I had to see if I could claw my way back out of this hole – and what I had was Des. Those of you’ve who’ve seen some of Des’s manoeuvres know that he wouldn’t be your first choice as a ‘confidence giver’, but he was the last man standing, and also weirdly appears to be one of my limbs. A few people have asked if I’d sell him as he can be so tricky, but the words cannot alight on my brain. It’s like asking if I’d like to stop breathing – it doesn’t compute.

Therefore, with Des as he is (quite bullfighty most of the time) and me in the state I discovered I was in, I did what I could. Sometimes this meant leading him for most of a hack, getting on for a few strides and getting off again. Sometimes I asked Adam to come out on foot with us. This went on for several months until one day I was riding for longer and walking less. And then without really quite realising how, I was eventually back to galloping across the moor and actually looking forward to riding my horse again. There wasn’t a huge breakthrough or marvellous revelation, it just slowly got better. It took months as my brain and heart started to recover a little. I look back on that time and am grateful for the understanding it gave me about the experience of losing ones confidence. I hope my students might benefit from that pretty tricky time in my life and that my experience might help someone else to voice how they’re feeling.

It was world mental health day this week. I think everyone is much more aware that looking after your brain is as important as looking after your body – in fact the two are really inseparable. I hope that one day the horse world might extend the same compassion to humans that it purports to have for horses. Humans need softness and kindness and empathy too. Sometimes we get spooked and need someone to scratch our mane and tell us it’s OK. to edit.