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Five Tips for Regaining Your Confidence After a Tough Year – with Kevin Dukes


It’s a new year. For some, the new year brings the promise of unlimited possibilities – the chance to pursue new dreams. For others, it can be difficult to find inspiration to keep going, especially following a year that brought struggles.

We spoke with leading professional horseman Kevin Dukes for tips on how to find confidence and reignite your passion in the new year following a tough one.

Ask For Help

It seems simple, but asking for help is often harder than it sounds. Not only do you need to know who to ask, but you need to be willing to accept their input and make efforts to apply it.

“You can learn something from everybody,” Dukes reminds us. “A lot of people, especially the do-it-yourself amateurs, can be intimidated by trainers and other successful amateurs and don’t want to intrude by asking for help. I would tell them to remember that we all started somewhere. Most of the people in the horse industry are more than willing to help and are happy to provide some input.”

Kevin admits that he often asks other trainers for their advice because there is always something to learn, at every level of the industry.

“What keeps me going in this is that I’ve never been able to learn it all – you never totally get it figured out. There is always something new to learn. While it can be daunting, it also keeps things interesting.”

When seeking out someone to ask for opinions or assistance, Dukes reminds us to, “be sure to vet the person that you’re asking advice from. You want to speak with someone you respect, and that has had some success. But, you also have to make sure they are someone who respects their horses. At the end of the day, you want advice from a person who has the best interest of the horse at heart.”

Fix What is Fixable

Again, it seems simple, but determining what is actually fixable takes a realistic and honest evaluation of your and your horse’s abilities.

Dukes emphasizes, “You must learn your strengths and weaknesses, both individually and as a team. Then you can develop a plan to expand on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. But, you also need to be able to accept the fact that there are some things you simply can’t fix or that your horse isn’t capable of.” 

Kevin emphasises that it is important to, “avoid putting your horse in a box. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. Let your horse tell you what their strengths are, and that may mean changing disciplines because what you want to do isn’t working for your horse.” 

He also believes that “Sometimes a bad year is just because your horse isn’t ready and they need some more time. Horses mature at different paces. While some are ready for the majors at two, most aren’t ready until they’re older. Be patient, give them time, and work on what you can.”

“Every horse is different, and the same formula doesn’t work across the board. Humans all learn and work differently, and horses are the same – they have their own personalities and feelings, so you need to factor that in.”

Ultimately, you want your horse to like (or at least not hate) their job. If your horse enjoys what they’re doing, that will help you have better objective success. And, if you focus on what they can do well, you will find they are happier, and so are you.

Be Willing to Move On if Necessary

Change is scary. And sometimes difficult years set us up to be so uncomfortable with the status quo, that we are ready and willing to make big changes. 

A difficult year might be a sign of a couple of things that require change: (1) you might need to change disciplines with your horse, (2) you might need to change trainers, or (3) you might need to change horses.

“You shouldn’t leave a barn just because you didn’t win everything. No trainer can guarantee you wins, but if you’re struggling to communicate with your horse or make any progress, it could be a sign the program isn’t right for you or that the horse isn’t right for what you want to do,” Dukes says.

Many factors should go into your decision to change things up dramatically and it’s not a decision to take lightly. If you aren’t enjoying showing and if you find yourself being more unhappy than happy, it is time to consider making a bigger change so you don’t burn out altogether.

Take Inventory of What’s Good

While success has objective markers, much of what defines success is subjective. If you have a mindset to take stock of what you love about your horse and showing, it will be much more difficult to have a “bad year.”

Dukes reminds us, “Our business is a sport of averages. If you only measure yourself with your wins, then you will find yourself very depressed and frustrated. Everyone can’t win. There are more losers in each class than winners. And even the winners don’t win every day.”

In order to foster the right mindset, Kevin believes it is important to remember why you got into the sport in the first place. “We all started this because we love horses. If you are fortunate enough to find a barn family you are able to enjoy your horse with, that’s a win. If you have a horse that likes their job and that you like riding, that’s a win.”

He encourages us to ask ourselves, “Do you love your horse? Is your horse happy? Are you happy? Do you like the classes you’re showing? Do you have something you’re really good at? Remind yourself of these things when you’re feeling down.”

The mindset of committing to enjoying your horse and learning to be a better horseman sets you up to have a great year every year. “This is a journey, and you need to keep a balance in your mind to understand the ribbon isn’t the measure of success, but the true success is whether you are enjoying the journey. If you can do that…the ribbons will come.”

Have Something to Look Forward to

The best way to turn around a dismal year is to give yourself something to look forward to. You can’t drive a car by staring in the rearview mirror, and you can’t find success with your horse in the future by dwelling on the past.

“At the end of each horse show, I evaluate each client and their horse: what they did well, what they need to improve on, and what would be a good next step for them. I think this is an important way to manage the little milestones along the journey towards accomplishing the big ones,” Dukes explains. 

Kevin thinks that we all need something to look forward to in order to avoid burnout. One way he sets up his non-pros for success is by mixing “educational shows” into the season. 

“I strongly recommend weekend schooling shows where my horses and clients can certainly have success, which helps them build confidence, but it also alleviates some pressure, so they are willing to try new things in the ring before competing at higher levels.” 

Dukes also likes to plan “destination shows” where clients can show, but also where there are fun things to do nearby, away from horses. “We like to go to shows where we can have a good time, regardless of winning. It’s like a vacation where your horse gets to come with you. If you’re having fun, you’re more likely to have success.” Vegas anyone?

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We all have bad shows, bad seasons, and even bad years. The best way to turn them around is to change what you can, accept what you can’t, and set attainable, personalized goals that allow you to stay positive in the face of adversity – your horse will thank you for it.


About the Author:  Megan Rechberg has been riding horses on and off since she was in sixth grade. She works as a full-time mom to son Jackson and daughter Sterling, a part-time litigation attorney, and social media manager for up-and-coming APHA stallions. She will be showing her yearling APHA SmoreThanA PrettyFace under the guidance of Double A Performance Horses in 2023.