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Ride Big from Horse and Rider Books
Ride Big from Horse and Rider Books

In this excerpt from RIDE BIG, human performance coach John Haime describes how confidence is a choice, and how it impacts whether we ride big or small.


Without confidence, achievement in competition is unattainable. When pressure is greatest, confidence is best tested.


“Riding Big” has nothing to do with riding a small pony or a big Warmblood. And no, it’s not about a long or short stride, or competing in a big or small competition.

When I refer to Riding Big and riding small, I am often asked where this idea of “big” and “small” came from. In 2018, I was sitting with some riders at the edge of the international ring in Wellington, Florida, watching a Grand Prix show jumping class. As the competitors completed their rounds, one of the riders at my table asked me what I thought about each rider and how he or she rode. I explained that when I watch a class, I quickly assess all the riders by their body language entering the ring, how they approach the first fence, the level of risk they are prepared to take throughout the course, the quality of the rollbacks, their body posture and how it changes through the round, how they seem to handle early difficulties.

Watching the riders, it was clear to me that they entered the ring looking “big” or “small” and would either grow—or shrink—in the saddle from the time they enter the ring to the time they depart. The competitors were either riding confidently, and trying to win the class, or they were tentative, and trying not to lose the class. It was a simple way to explain whether the riders were riding with confidence or not. The people at the table easily understood this idea, liked the simplicity, and we had fun assessing whether each rider was Riding Big or riding small.


Equestrian athletes who Ride Big are riders who:

  • know they can do it in a competitive environment
  • maximize their abilities
  • embrace calculated risk
  • are filled with joy and excitement in pressure situations
  • are committed to their process
  • are in the moment
  • are trying to win

A rider who Rides Big grows in the saddle.

At the opposite end of the equestrian spectrum are riders who “ride small.” These are riders who:

  • are filled with doubt—they aren’t sure they can do it
  • use a fraction of their abilities
  • play it safe
  • are hesitant in pressure situations
  • ride on either side of the present moment
  • are distracted by the outcome
  • are trying not to lose instead of trying to win

A rider who rides small shrinks in the saddle.

Which rider are you? Do you Ride Big or ride small?

Maybe you are a combination of the two but still falling short of where you’d like to go, or not quite getting what you want from the sport.

The objective of Ride Big is to help you achieve more and enjoy the sport more. And, as a bonus, developing confidence in yourself and your horse can help you build confidence in all areas of your life.


Let’s do a little check-in on your confidence. The questions below a good starting point to gauge where you are with your confidence. If you can answer “yes” to at least 15 of these questions, you are likely confident and Riding Big. If you have between 10 and 13 positive responses, you might be shrinking in the saddle, and your confidence is lacking. Fewer than that and you are riding small, have some work to do, and need to build up your confidence.

No matter what your score on the quiz, there are many strategies and exercises that can help you gain more confidence and Ride Bigger.


Answer each question “yes” or “no.”

1. I feel confident and self-assured about my riding skills and abilities.
2. I clearly understand all my strengths and limitations when competing.
3. I am always aware of how my emotions are impacting my performance.
4. My internal voice is positive and does not create doubt before I compete.
5. I am my own best friend before competition. I always treat myself well.
6. I don’t worry about the results of the competition. I am only focused on my process of doing it.
7. It is easy for me to take some risk in competition to try to win.
8. I believe I can win when I compete.
9. I have a defined plan with steps and actions that helps me believe in what I want to achieve.
10. When I make a mistake in competition, I don’t dwell on it.
11. After I compete, I reflect more on the positive parts of my performance than my mistakes.
12. I tend not to focus on other riders’ accomplishments.
13. I look at failure as an opportunity to grow.
14. I rarely feel anxious or scared when I compete.
15. I prepare well for competition and always test my training beforehand.
16. I perform better in competition than in training.
17. I never feel low when I see how other riders are doing on social media.
18. I enjoy pressure–I feel it gives meaning to my riding.
19. I always pursue excellence over perfection. I know the difference.

Illustration courtesy of John Haime.


The word “confidence” is frequently used in our everyday lives and often revered as the secret weapon in any performance endeavor. It can be the X factor in how well you perform as an equestrian athlete. The Cambridge Dictionary defines confidence as “the quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future.”

In my experience, when you boil it all down to its simplest form, confidence is really about “knowing.” No matter what the situation, competitive environment, or degree of pressure, you know in the depths of your heart you can do it and can have the performance you envision. Authentically knowing you can do it fuels the game-changing quality of confidence. So, let’s agree that “knowing” is a simple definition of confidence.


Proactive confidence is a decision that you will be sustainably confident from all the great, positive experiences you’ve had in your riding life, all the training you have done, all the help from coaches, supporters, and general success at a variety of levels. These experiences, support system, and successes are the foundation of your belief in your abilities. Proactive confidence is the choice you make to rely on a solid foundation no matter what happens. With proactive confidence, your belief in yourself does not disappear and is not shaken by small periods of less-than-ideal performance. The focus is on the all the positives and all the great things you’ve already done. Your proactive confidence should be a wall of “knowing” and belief that cannot be penetrated by short down cycles.


Many equestrian athletes get caught up in what I call reactive confidence—deciding that one small collection of challenging circumstances will overcome all their successes and create a noticeable crack in their “foundation” of confidence.

A young rider once called and explained to me that she was upset that her confidence suffered as a result of not achieving short-term results—in her case, not winning a class for a few weeks. By choosing to make recent, short-term results the foundation of her confidence, this rider decided to only focus on the small picture and forget about all the great results she’d had over a longer period.

I often hear how a rider has lost confidence after a month, a week, or even just a day of so-so riding. These riders let a few mistakes suddenly become the basis for their confidence and tend to allow others to have an impact on their confidence in a negative way. So, for my young rider client, and all the other riders I hear from who have “lost their confidence,” the truth is, you really haven’t lost it at all. You chose to lose it by allowing the short “down cycles” of the sport to be the basis for your confidence.

Remember that anything that involves performance goes in cycles, and there will be ups and downs. This is important to understand, because confidence is built in steps over time, and will last through those small down cycles in your performance if you choose to be proactive with your confidence.

This excerpt from RIDE BIG by John Haime is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. For more information or to order the book visit the Trafalgar Square Books website at

Print: Print edition
Kindle: Kindle edition
Audiobook: Audiobook

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