Riding the RocketI had another blog topic planned, but then this post showed up on my daily feed, and I got to thinking.

Here’s the meat of the post that got my little grey cells popping:

I’m told, over and over, the trick is to be more confident. That solves everything, it seems. A confident skier says, ‘I have the technique, I can handle these conditions.’ A confident writer says… Well, they say something. It just that, well….

What do people mean? What is confidence, anyway?

I’m rather deliberately veering off at this point, because the post has a thing it needs to say, and says it exceptionally well and in incisive detail. And I agree with it and support it and its author, and if you have not read her work, please do try it, she’s amazing. But my riff has a somewhat different spin to it.

My thought as I read was that here is someone who leaps off the tops of mountains with boards strapped to her feet, and that’s not something I can think about doing without getting the horrors–and she’s talking about the difficulty of being confident (and the annoyance verging on outrage of being told to “just do it,” and then being cut down for doing it, which is a whole other blog entry/rant).  I did a little skiing when I was young, but I have this thing about heights, and then my brother borrowed my skis and broke them and, somewhat catastrophically, his leg, leading to the legendary family tale of the crusty ex-Army surgeon on the phone to my mother from the OR, bellowing, “What the hell were you doing feeding this kid aspirin? He’s bleeding to death on my operating table!”–wasn’t aspirin, Doc, was his not so great blood-clotting skills, and no, he didn’t bleed to death, he’s still with us, plate in leg and all. So after that, it was cross-country skiing for me, thankyouverymuch.

But then I go flying around the countryside on the backs of large flight animals with definite minds of their own. And I also write for publication, which is its own kind of crazy, especially when I’m told, repeatedly and in multiple ways, that I write good but I don’t sell good and I don’t color between the lines and the more I tried to when I was still trying, the worse I sold, so, well…why am I still here, again?

Same pretty much applies to the horses. The question I am asked most often when I tell people I have horses, and especially rare-breed horses, is, “What do you do with them? Do you show them?”

No. I do not show. I do not like to show. I tried to show and I tried to do what was expected and it just didn’t work for me.

And part of that was that showing costs a lot. A lot. But also, it requires a level of confidence about my riding skills that I have never had. I’m not your ideal picture of a rider: I’m neither tall nor slim nor long-legged. I’m not athletic, believe me. What I am is determined, but the parts of me that are left after I’ve earned a living and done my writing are not enough to make me the kind of rider that shows and wins.

Yes, I could make time for it. I could find ways to pay for it. If I really wanted to. I do with the writing.

But I have  confidence with the words (destroyed a few years ago, and that was not a happy interval, but it’s mostly gone, thank god, and I’m somewhat slowly and creakily but determinedly kicking word butt again), sometimes hard-won and often shaken, that I’ve never quite achieved with the riding.

And yet, I’m most myself when I’m on a horse. If no one’s watching. If it’s just me and the horse. I worry less about being perfect and more about staying on and keeping the horse happy. If we connect well enough, it’s great. If not, well, I’m determined. Because with all the confusion of emotions and definitions, when I’m riding, I’m happy.

Maybe I’m confident then. As long as there isn’t anybody around to judge. I know I can stick on through most things, and I have a lot of years and variety of experience to help me when things get interesting. I don’t worry about looking fat or clumsy or awkward. I just ride.

Maybe that’s confidence. Trusting that I know what to do. Trusting myself and the horse (which is usually one I’ve trained, or at least spent years riding).

And that’s another thing. The confidence to call myself a trainer. The standard I’ve held to for most of my riding life has been a really high one: the top, top trainers who live and eat and drink and breathe their art. I’ve never been able to be that, because when the sun goes down and the lights come on, the person I am closest to on that level is the writer. Riding is what I do to get myself out of my head when I’ve been nose down in writing.

Yet, by dint of having bred and raised a herd of horses, I’ve been a trainer all along. I won’t train anyone else’s horse, but I’ve certainly done what I can with mine.

I do have confidence–in the original sense of the word. Con is an intensive prefix in Latin, and fidere, the verb it’s attached to, is the word for faith (same root as fidelity). Trust. I trust, thoroughly or conclusively, that I know what I am doing. Or I’m really good at pretending, because when you’re around horses, you’d better not let them know you’re insecure. As herd animals and prey animals, they’ll take that insecurity and dial it to eleventy-hundred, and then you’re in trouble.

There’s a concept in riding called “the two minds.” It means that whatever is going on under the surface, the rider or trainer has to present a calm and focused persona when interacting with a horse. Scared? Breathe it out. Not sure what to do? Do your best, and do it with, yes, confidence. Be the leader, and the horse will follow.

Works with dogs, too. Even works with cats. And humans. Definitely humans.

Does the world try to break that confidence? All the time. But with horses at least, considered and careful confidence begets a confident horse–and the confident horse is secure enough not to be a danger to herself or me.

I’m not talking about overconfidence here. I’m certainly not talking about the kind of rider we all know, who is an “expert” and doesn’t need to be told anything about anything. That’s just the Dunning-Kruger effect on parade. Or, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know–and the less you know, the more you think you know.”

Nope; I’m talking about real confidence. Competence, actually. Knowing what you know, realizing the limits, abut also acknowledging that you have the skills to do what you set out to do. With horses, that can be a literal life-saver. In writing, it lets you (well, me) keep the words coming and trust that they’ll be good words, or at least coherent.

It’s not something that can, either judgmentally or chirpily, be imposed on anyone. You can create it in a horse or a student, or for that matter yourself, but it’s a matter of attitude rather than prescription. You have to believe in it. To trust. To have faith in the skills you’ve worked so hard to learn.

That’s the hard part.

So maybe flying off mountains or flying around on horseback is a way to build trust in the rest of life. And a way to make the writing stronger, because if you can face down that mountain or earn the trust of that horse, you’ve learned to assess your skills more fairly and maybe spend less time listening to the naysayers–whether external or (and these are often worse) internal.




Confidence — 8 Comments

  1. Yes, I think you are onto something. Competence. We know it when we feel it, or see it. And many times it has little to do with the perfect body sitting stiffly on a horse that is doing artistic evolutions. Those can be pretty, but finally, not as compelling as that rider and horse who are perfectly in tune, their bodies moving naturally and joyfully as they engage with the natural world around them.

    • And of course the part where they’re sitting stiffly isn’t right, too. They’re supposed to be quiet and in tune with the horse.

      Stiffness implies lack of confidence. Fear of something–whether it’s imperfection or going flying.

    • It’s a trend!

      I think it works for a lot of physically challenging things we do. And non-physically challenging, too. Just knowing what we know, and having a sense of both our skills and our limits.

  2. Must be the word of the day. I want for Nadii, new pup, to radiate calm confidence, with her a Trickster bits intact. For that to be so, I need a bit of it all too.

    I think that confidence is about validation from within, rather than that certification phenomenon.

  3. Fascinating, about training and riding and writing. I don’t call myself a trainer either, though I have raised three horses and saddle-trained each of them. Where am I most myself? Both places, I guess, the saddle and the chair, and confidence? It’s a chimera. I just sent a novel to my agent in which I had supreme confidence, and the first words out of her mouth were, Why did you write that? And now I have revised it, and I believe it’s better, but confidence? Nowhere in sight. I at least had the confidence to write it, and revise it, and I hope to retain the confidence to soldier on with submitting it, meanwhile working on a new book in which I have a new chimerical confidence. And so it goes.

  4. Following up on my own comment–I should say that I love my agent. My point–is this question all it takes to hollow out my “confidence”? Hell, yes!
    So what do I have actual confidence in? I know I have the ability to write very well, though I don’t always know when I’ve brought a piece to where it needs to be. I have little confidence in what my writing can do commercially; that’s something that’s in the hands of others.
    As a slow and cautious horse trainer, I live by John Lyons’ advice to “ride where you can, not where you can’t,” and to get off the horse if you feel scared. That’s kept me safe and kept me going. It’s nice to have somebody like that speak in praise of fear.
    What is the equivalent for a writer?