Get Your Mind Right

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By Sally O’Dwyer

This show season I have had some great rides and some lousy ones, with the variable being my mindset. Mental and physical abilities are interconnected, and by focusing on the “right things”, I can stay calm, and even enjoy my ride!

“Mental steps are not necessarily hard to implement; it is just that there is often a lack of knowledge and planning on how to bring fundamental mental preparation steps together to support both horse and rider to really be at their best” -Tara Costello, M.A., Mental Performance Consultant

Improve your competition mindset.

Experience is a garden where confidence grows.  It takes many times down centerline for riders to learn to manage their nerves, recover from an error, stay in the moment, and to focus. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Professionals have hundreds of tests under their belts. It’s no wonder they know what they are doing.  Competing helps us to realize that we are not competing against perfection, because no one is perfect. Learning the intricacies of a test can take years. Professional training is a must, or you will end up a victim of not knowing what you don’t know. 

Dump the schooling mindset at competitions. There is a huge difference between competing and schooling.  A schooling mindset is analytical, critical, and used during practice and training.  At competitions, trust in what you have learned, and do that.  It’s not time to try something new.  At one show, I tried to work on keeping “my hands in the box” in front of me—even though I hadn’t practiced this much at home.  The result was a disaster because my horse felt trapped and bolted.

Progress is made in small gains, not big ones.  Goals are stepping stones that build upon one another over time. If performing a polished test is not in the immediate horizon, a reasonable goal might be to perform a solid walk-canter transition.  Once that goal is accomplished, set another. As each small goal is accomplished, the rider becomes more relaxed and confident. 

Nothing great can happen without focus.   The best weapon against stress and anxiety is the ability to choose what to think.  By focusing on supporting and preparing your horse for each movement during a competition, you will become less self-conscious and nervous. This selective attention will help you from over-thinking and diminish your fears.

Max Gahwyler, in his book “the Competitive Edge”, says that great competitors “really ride every step of the test, practically carrying his horse on a silver platter throughout the movement.  He is supportive like a nursemaid supporting the first step of an infant. He never puts his horse in a position the horse cannot handle confidentially.”

Be attuned and organized, checking-in continually with your horse thinking,

Are you with me?

Are you supple?       

Are you balanced?

Are you in front of my leg?

Are you doing okay?

You may want to use some shorter, key words as you ride to help you stay mentally aware, such as “supple’, “ride every step”. “rhythm”, “checking in.”  As you ride, think about the training scale, and check your rhythm, connection, and impulsion.

Focus on remaining calm and using the softest of aids. Don’t be in a rush, take your time, and breathe.  As you ride, perform quick body inventories—from head to toe to be sure you aren’t holding tension. Think about allowing your legs to hang softly, keeping your hands and eyes soft, and sit relaxed and deep in the saddle.  

Know what horse you have that day.  Be able to adjust your mindset to accommodate that.  Is your horse spooky, full of energy, or perhaps tired?

Don’t attempt more than you are ready for.  Amateurs tend to think that they should move up a level every year and get caught up riding levels that they do not yet possess the skills to perform, which leads to stress and frustration. Janet Foy recommends that riders perform at a level where the movements are “moderately easy for the rider to perform.”

Don’t let mistakes derail you.  Dressage trainer Sue Martin recommends thinking ahead by first visualizing the perfect ride in your mind.  Then, go back through the test and visualize what the horse might throw at you and what your will do to remedy that problem, just in case something does go wrong.  Don’t ride defensively but be prepared.  I have frozen up during a test when something went wrong, only to find things go “wronger” due to my inability to react properly.

 “If you make a mistake or your horse fails to respond in the way you intended, try to keep your seat and position consistent and move on. If you pick up a wrong lead, correct it as soon as possible but not in a panicked manner.  If your horse does something well, reward with a touch on the neck without taking your hand off the rein.” -Sue Martin

Review and reflect on your performance. How did it go, what did you learn, and how can you do better next time?  Have someone video you so you can review yourself and better understand the judges’ comments. Look for what you did right, instead of dwelling on errors. Did you accomplish your goal?  What will your next milestone be?

Celebrate your gains, no matter how small. There is always tomorrow. Your calendar is full of next times.  Don’t ever quit.There is magic in perseverance. 

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