Raising Confident Girls

Photo by  Alden Corrigan

What is it about girls and horses?  Why are girls—and women—so passionate about riding?

Because on the back of a horse we are powerful, effective, and full of ourselves. We are leaders.

There are lots of other reasons too, of course.  But considering the gender gap in confidence, horses can play a vital role in developing women’s self esteem and leadership skills. 

Fact: Girls experience a dramatic drop-off in confidence by the age of 14.  And, regardless of competence, the gender gap in confidence extends well into adulthood.  This data, from The Confidence Code (Shipman, Kay and Riley, 2018) as reported in The Atlantic highlights the fact that both girls and women have a much harder time ‘going for it’ than boys and men.  One reason for the gender difference is that women tend to be ruminators—we dwell on negative feelings or perceived mistakes—rendering us more cautious than men.  Women focus on perfection as a goal and aim to be pleasing to others—and tend to be rewarded by society for these traits. 

Cautiousness, perfectionism, carefulness—those female tendencies decrease our willingness to take risks.

Does your investment advisor tell you, ‘no risk, no reward?’ Well, that is true in life too.  If we aren’t willing to risk, to try new things, to get back on our horse after a fall, we aren’t going to grow—in life or in the saddle. 

Why am I talking about this?  In part because of my personal experience. I am grateful to horses for life-long lessons learned at the barn.  As a teen, horses were essential to my self esteem.  I was shy, afraid of being wrong or making someone upset. I walked a constricted path of always doing the ‘right’ thing, putting others first, and not speaking my mind. I was lucky enough to have horses fall into my life when my dad purchased a run-down farm that was home to a few old ponies and a donkey. I quickly devoted myself to these animals, who needed a lot of remedial care.  My dad wanted to nothing to do with them, and we fought fierce battles about what they needed.  Of course I did not know at the time that I was learning to speak my mind, defend my point of view (tough when your dad is a top litigator), and demand to be heard. I was in effect telling him and my mom what I needed.  I became an advocate for them, but more importantly for myself.  As years went by and I developed into an 'A’ show rider, I learned bucket-loads about being vulnerable in front of a group, going after what I really wanted, dusting off after mistakes, and needing to take continual risks to improve.

My story is not unique.  Horsewomen of all stripes will tell you that the most important lessons they learn from their horses are not about riding, but rather, about how to live their lives more fully and confidently.  

While in life, women often defer to men to make decisions, or are timid about making their wishes known, we all know that when you’re cantering toward the triple combination, there is no room for deference.  If you’re doing tempi changes, you’re the only one who is counting. You make the decision, give the command, and go with it. If your decision is wrong, you take responsibility, make adjustments, and try it again. Talk about a recipe for building confidence.

In her must-read book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007), Carol Dweck maintains that the “passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it—especially when it’s not going well—is the hallmark of a growth mindset…”.  The growth mindset is one of becoming, rather than of perfection.  It’s one where effort, trial and error, perseverance, and improvement are valued—not some static notion of an ideal.  

Whew, I wish I had known this early on.  My girlish idea was that perfection was the route to success—but it’s actually the opposite!  Perfection as the standard is constricting, not to mention painful. A friend of mine likes to say, ‘go out and make different mistakes today!’ What a concept—pushing yourself past your comfort zone, wading into uncharted waters, and learning from what goes wrong. 

If the only way to get good at something is to try it, fail, and do it again, then those who won’t do it without already being perfect really lose out.

As we all know, there is no place for timidity or deference at the barn. What a relief! And what a huge opportunity we have as horsewomen (and girls!) to develop our confidence, relish our effectiveness, and become leaders. 

Want to raise your confidence level—in or out of the saddle?  Want to support your daughter in going after her goals and becoming a leader? Stay tuned for strategies that will open doors.  Or, be in touch!

I’m devoted to helping girls and women reach their full potential, and I would be honored to help you, too.

Go for it!

Darby