Self-doubt and Second-guessing

By Terry Golson

We all do it. We question whether we’re doing right by our horses. We question whether we’re riding them in a way that’s fair to them. We worry that their lack of physical perfection is due to something we’ve done, or haven’t done. We agonize over any pain or momentary hitch in stride. We’re unsure whether we’re asking too much of them, or not enough.

We are equestrians. We are filled with self-doubt and second-guessing.

My horse isn’t lame. He’s not grumpy in his work. There’s nothing wrong. And yet there is.

Tonka has no oomph from behind. This was his canter at a recent dressage show. Tonka sort of gallumped along. Pretty, but slow. He even broke stride as if he couldn’t keep going.


Once in awhile Tonka drags a right hind leg. His left hock doesn’t have a lot of articulation. He does a bunny hop step before picking up the left lead canter. Nothing awful. But not perfect. If I held myself to the same standards that I expect of my horse, I’d be at the doctor’s office on a daily basis.

Still, perhaps there was something I missed.

Now that Tonka is in Maine, we have a new veterinarian, Monika. On Monday, I had her out to take a look at Tonka.

Monika did a flexion test.

She watched him go, both on the lead line, and under saddle.

She agreed. Tonka isn’t lame, and yet… Although his footfalls are even enough, the top of his butt rolls as if he’s avoiding something.

I wasn’t worrying for nothing. Tonka has a history. Neck pain. Back pain. SI pain. He’s been to the veterinary hospital. Had injections. Went through rehab, with me as his physical therapist. Tonka is better now. Just pokey behind. Maybe if I wasn’t so tuned into him, I wouldn’t have had Monika out at all. But, the last time that Tonka was going really well, his back seized up in a lesson and we had months of slow rehab to get him back to where I could resume basic dressage work. If I pushed him to be more athletic for the dressage show I wanted to enter in two weeks, would his SI joint make him lame again?

Monika thought that Tonka’s SI seemed fine, but the stifles looked iffy. We decided to take x-rays; they were clean. It was worth the $ to know that I haven’t been riding a horse with painful joints. So, guilt removed. Sort of.

The other good news is that Tonka’s back is fine. No pain there! Tonka had a year when this wasn’t the case. A change of saddles helped with that, as well as exercises to strengthen his top line. His back is now strong.

Monika and I discussed how Tonka seems to peter out, especially at shows. The previous week, at a clinic, I asked my trainer if I had inadvertently trained Tonka to go slowly at shows. Was I riding him in a way to cause that? Self-doubt. He adamantly said no – and he’s a very demanding dressage master who would not mince words if that was the case. He thought that Tonka likely needed a very short warm-up. Monika thought that perhaps there was something metabolic going on. He might be one of those horses that needs additional supplements in order to metabolize Vitamin E. Or maybe there’s something else. Blood work was done.

Monika and I discussed whether Tonka isn’t built to do this dressage stuff that requires such engaged movement. Tonka is more Quarter Horse than Oldenburg. Maybe it simply isn’t his cup of tea. Which brought out my second-guessing full-force! Maybe I like dressage but my horse doesn’t. I love how it fine-tunes our communication. I like how it gets us both to flow in unison. I like the athleticism that I feel under me. But maybe that’s purely selfish on my part. Maybe my good American Paint Horse would be better off if we didn’t do that. When I came home from the appointment with Monika, I watched videos of Tonka and me in dressage tests. I looked for signs of misery. I didn’t see them. He looks enthusiastic in the ring. Afterwards there’s a look of accomplishment on both of our faces. (I do believe that like us, animals feel the thrill of achievement. Also, there’s the satisfaction that comes from finishing a physical challenge.) Besides, Tonka wasn’t always pokey in those videos; there were moments when I saw him moving like a fancy dressage horse, and I have the blue ribbons to confirm that assessment.


The best that Monika and I could come up with is that over the course of the two years when Tonka did have recurrent pain, that he learned to protect himself by going short behind. In some ways, I’ve encouraged that. More often than not, when he feels out-of-balance, or I feel his nose go up and his back sink, I slow him down. Doing this, his legs get in sync, and he doesn’t crow-hop, but his back remains hollow and his loin remains tight.

Self-doubt. Has how I’ve been riding exacerbated this problem?

I slept badly on Monday night, hashing over how I’d been riding Tonka ever since his physical issues crept up in January of 2017. In trying not to push so hard as to cause him pain, I’ve actually compromised having him go forward in an ergonomically correct way. I’ve lost the oomph in exchange for safe and pokey, which, in the end, isn’t healthy or fun for either of us. I’ve been micromanaging every stride, (something dressage riders are wont to do, even when we know it’s wrong) so that instead of encouraging Tonka to take ownership of, and enjoy his movement, he didn’t want to move much at all. I don’t blame him.

I had a bad night, mired in self-doubt, but by morning I had climbed out of that hole. I came up with a plan. On Tuesday, I rode Tonka forward. I ignored the nose in the air. I ignored the hollow back. I held the reins with soft yet firm contact, so that when he was ready, he could take it. Once around the ring. Twice. Choppy strides. Too fast. Too slow. And then, it all came together. Tonka figured out how to move so that he felt good. It was his idea; I just created the channel so that he could find it. The contact felt like an elastic band that we were both springing towards. He lost it on the corners, but found it again on the straightaway. It’ll take time to get consistency, but that’s okay. The first rung on the dressage training ladder, the base of that pyramid, is rhythm. Tonka owned it. Judging by the perky ears, the relaxed neck, and the sparkling eyes, he also enjoyed it.

But, trotting around the arena with rhythm isn’t going to entirely fix this pokey problem. During the last two years, although I’ve kept Tonka in work, I haven’t done enough to strengthen those stifles. They’re the weak link in an otherwise fit and healthy horse. To keep with my plan to get Tonka to move correctly – so that he thinks it’s his idea and not something that I micromanage – I’ll be getting him out of the ring. Today we went to Kim’s farm and rode in her fields where there are hills to get strong on and the footing is perfect, springy grass. I let Tonka know, using legs and seat, that this was not a time to be lazy. He marched on, forward but not rushed. Then we trotted. Tonka started out hollow and short behind so I asked him to go bigger, to find the stride, and he did. His nose came down, his spine came up, his hind legs reached underneath his belly. Then I asked him to canter, and he did a round leap of a buck, which is his way of saying he’s worried. Then he cantered, but the confidence and cadence that he had at the trot wasn’t there. Cantering on ground that sloped slightly up and down was both physically and mentally challenging for him. At his first footfall on a slight rise in the path, Tonka said that he’d rather go at a careful and pokey trot. With a slight squeeze of my leg, I said Go. You can do this. He did, and he concluded that it didn’t hurt. Tonka’s not yet enthusiastic about cantering in a field, but he’s willing to try. I’ve a feeling that soon enough, he’s going to realize that this not only feels good, but that it’s fun!


There are other thing to do to complete this movement puzzle for Tonka. We’re now at a hunter/jumper barn, where there are always poles set out in the ring, and a trainer to help us do gymnastic exercises over them. After each lesson, the improvement in Tonka’s way of going is immediate and lasting. Notice on this video that on the 7th stride Tonka lifts up his forehand a bit. It’s subtle, but it’s a very big deal. This is his decision. My job is to create situations where he’ll keep making these good choices about how to move.


I’ve decided that for now I’ll put aside showing in the dressage ring because I don’t want to compromise the rhythm we’re finding in order to do the patterns of the test (which requires tighter circles than we’re capable of doing in cadence right now.) Maybe this fall we’ll get back to dressage competition. Or maybe, by then, Tonka will be jumping cross-rails and we’ll enter a little jumper schooling show. We’ll see!

Have you gone through self-doubt and second-guessing with your horse? Were you able to turn it into productive problem-solving? Tell me in the comments!

13 thoughts on “Self-doubt and Second-guessing

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I think it’s okay to tell ourselves that the answers to the questions can change daily. What matters is listening and adjusting in the moment.

  • Shannon

    I have a similar journey. My mare has come a long way in the three years I’ve had her, but it took a lot of work and trial-and-error to get her where she is now. We are hoping to compete in our first rated dressage show in September and I’m hoping to do baby eventing next year. I have had many moments of questioning and doubts, and almost sold her in the first year of owning her, thinking I couldn’t handle her (she had some issues and would bolt when she panicked, plus was a bear to get the bridle on she was so head shy).

    With time and consistency and much positive reinforcement training she is now a steady eddie trail horse and making strides in beginning to trust the contact for dressage. We are just starting to jump little two foot jumps and she is building strength and stamina. I’m lucky in that I’ve been boarding in a place with access to orchards and a large chunk of hilly galloping land. One of our favorite things to do is to ride the orchards and to gallop. It took a while, but she can canter downhill and maintain her balance now. She looks entirely different in her topline than she did when I got her, and she is moving far better.

    It’s been fun watching your journey with Tonka because it’s got so many similarities to mine with my Lexi. I bet the hill work and cavaletti will really help Tonka, and I bet he’ll love it.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      You are persistent and it’s paid off! I think if you didn’t have the goals that you have, a little dressage show, a little jumping, you wouldn’t have made as much progress as you have. I hope that Tonka and I will be able to gallop through orchards, too. Well done!

  • Tracy

    I’m relieved to read that you are considering that perhaps dressage may just not be what this horse’s body can handle. I’m the first one to raise my own hand and acknowledge that we humans are capable of an astounding amount of rationalization to give ourselves permission to keep pushing to get an outcome we want. But this lovely boy has been telling you for several years now that he just isn’t up to what is an incredibly demanding sport, even at the lower or intermediate levels. It’s so much easier to see when one’s involvement is only reading post after post of injury after injury, and not to have experienced firsthand those beautiful moments when it does work, when he does feel good, and when that perfect connection is very much alive. But would it be better —kinder, certainly— to allow him to stay sound and pain free indefinitely rather than keep training him through soundness and right into injury, over and over? I don’t know the answer, but have no doubt you will do right by your lovely boy.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Hi Tracy- You saw Tonka go at the beginning of his (at the time) undiagnosed neck pain situation induced by those too high hay feeders. If I had concluded that it was the dressage back then, by now he’d likely be unridable. When his SI flared up to it’s worst, I was side-lined with a broken foot. He had 6 weeks off. When I finally got back on, he was worse than before. So, a life of ease isn’t good for him either. I don’t think that the lower level dressage caused these pain issues. In fact, it’s helped to get him moving correctly again. When Tonka is feeling well the dressage helps to balance his body and build muscles where he needs them. Last year, we won our first level class at a competitive show, and I wasn’t forcing Tonka to do any of the moves. He was into it. Veterinarians and trainers have told me that with his build first level should be easy, and that he would top off at 2nd level. I’ve always thought we’d stop at first 3. (Which doesn’t even require collection.) The SI issue that flared up last fall occurred a few days after I went on a long trail ride. It might have been that which exacerbated the underlying weakness. Right now, other than the pokey canter, he feels good and sound. Despite toe-dragging at the canter at the last dressage show, we both had a good time. Saw new things. Successfully tackled a challenge. Riding the hills at Kim’s also makes him pokey at the canter. But that doesn’t mean that I should stop doing them. The fitter he is, the better he’ll feel – unfortunately, that doesn’t come without effort. (I should take my own advice.) A life of leisure would bore the both of us! But… what an active life with Tonka looks like keeps evolving. I’ll keep asking questions of him and trying to come up with the right answers 🙂

      • Maryanne

        I think getting him out on the trail more, as you are doing, is a step to having him more balanced and happy. I’ve found it is never just one thing, everything is connected.

        Maybe he has lost a bit of connection to himself with all the training to connect with you, he has forgotten how to just be a horse, so to speak. Horses are herd animals and having just moved, has he been able to bond at his new stable? The internal is connected to the external and vice-versa.

        Not criticizing your care, he hit the jackpot with you! I see it as finding a healthy balance between performing and free time and that is between you and Tonka to figure out and I think you are already on your way!

        • Terry Golson Post author

          I absolutely agree that more trail riding would be good. I wish I could! This springtime, the trails off of the farm were under water. After that, walking into the woods was like hitting a dank blanket of mosquitos. Now the deer flies are keeping us out. Which is why having a place like Kim’s to ride – a high field in the open – is a godsend. I drove 40 minutes today to check out a trail that I heard about. Parking for a horse trailer, horse friendly trails. But the access road was a locked gate. Glad I didn’t trailer Tonka there before checking it out!
          I also agree that horses need to be horses. Don’t worry about Tonka 🙂 He settled in and made friends before I did! He gets turned out on grass next to horses he gets along with, and he has an in/out stall at all other times. The boarding barn has paths around the paddocks and a small field to ride in. We do lots of on the buckle riding out there.

      • Tracy

        There are a lot of options somewhere between competitive dressage and a life of ease, too. He’s lucky to be yours…so many riders would ‘demand’ he push through pain, or worse, attribute any reluctance to a ‘lack of respect’ for his rider! :::snort::: Whatever the right answer is, I know you’ll find it!

  • Lyn Clough

    Thanks for really good info on chickens. 4 of my girls are 12+. Doing something right i guess but always looking for expert advice. Theres always something with the girls

  • John Schaller

    There’s one horse I ride regularly with a very long neck and downhill build, whose default after a long layoff was to go like a giraffe. Encouraging him into going long and low I initially had misgivings about, but just decided to trust the process. It quickly became apparent that the stretching actually was rewarding to him in addition to the conditioning benefits.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I’m sure that when he was relieved when he realized that going in a nice arc and stretch was more comfortable than a hollow back. As a rider, it’s difficult to get them there correctly and not pull them in. Good for you to trust the process!

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