Why the Rider’s Mental Game Matters
With all the preparation we are doing in order to get our horses ready, it is easy to overlook the single aspect that makes all the difference: our mental well-being. We can do all the conditioning in the world but if our brain is not ready, then the results simply will not come.
Sports psychology has started to become increasingly more important in equine sport. Before, it was considered that horseback riding was only for the brave, meaning that there was little emphasis on mental game, and many people believed that they were simply not good enough. However, as more professional equestrians started to seek psychological help, the concept became more normalized, yet not the most common practice in the horse world. In recent years, equestrian teams all around the world have started to use sport psychologists to help their team. Namely for reasons such as anxiety (e.g. fear of failure and overthinking), or even other issues not pertaining to the horse world. Getting help from a sport psychologist can benefit anyone, no matter the level of their riding career
Mental games should come into play well before the competition starts. One of the most used and trusted techniques among top riders (such as McLain Ward and Richard Spooner) is visualization. The key to visualization is practice. This means using the technique everyday, so that during competition, you are able to do it with ease. In order to practice this technique, one must find a quiet spot and create a mental idea (as if through their own eyes) of how they will ride the course/test (Salem). The idea is to make the picture as realistic as possible, taking your horse’s habits into consideration. If your horse has a tendency to look at a certain type of filler, imagine how you will ride up to the jump more defensively in order to prevent a stop/run out. Ideally, the mental image should transfer into a sort of kinesthetic feel which makes you feel as if you have already done the course/test and are fully prepared for what is to come. This is why riders should try to visualize before every ride, even if it is just a flatwork session. The technique will look different for everyone, and will require a little bit of trial and error.
A mentally strong rider also has sound preparation. This means riding out many tests and courses while you’re at home, practicing all the different scenarios that may happen at the show, and disciplining yourself into following good habits. After a practice, journal the feelings you had after the ride and what went wrong/what felt good. This way, you can backtrack and progress from there. Don’t ignore the good rides and instead repeat those experiences in your head by asking yourself the following questions: “What did I feel? Did I use positive self-talk?” Additionally, it is critical to remember that failure is part of the road to success, and the difference between the people that have succeeded and those who have not is whether you see failure as growth or not (Paterakis). Use your “bad” rides as an opportunity to reflect, and think about them as “homework.” Besides thinking differently, another technique that may help is watching the best riders and visualizing yourself riding the course. Practice using visualization in your daily life and make it a habit. Making a mental habit is just like practicing any other skill: consistency is key.
Remember that time is one of the most important elements of building a strong mind. Just like building muscles in the gym, building “mental muscle” takes time and patience. A rider trying to build back confidence after a setback will need time. This is due to the fact that the brain will literally need to make new neural connections in order to be comfortable with the experience in the future. At the end of the day, every human has fears, and fears will never go away. As a matter of fact, they never should because they are a vital part to human survival. Instead, we should find ways to stay powerful even when we feel fear. Certain psychologists use biofeedback in order to gain a deeper understanding about an athlete's fear. By looking at heart and respiration rates, a psychologist can find out what triggers the reaction and what techniques work best to calm the athlete.
Horseback riders deal with live creatures, and fear response and frustrations can cause
one to revert back to behaviors seen in children. This is useless in the competition ring, so it is vital to do the correct preparation in order to avoid reverting to these behaviors. A pre-ride checklist can help one feel more prepared and in control of what they are doing (Salem). This helps because the body is able to make an imagined occurrence feel real. It is however important to consider when you may need external help. There are online resources out there which can help you take control of your mind. These include guided meditations, masterclasses, and online sports psychologists (with whom you can video call with). When looking for a sports psychologist, avoid getting too caught up into credentials and licensing as there are many valid professionals who are considered performance coaches or even simply practitioners. Instead, look for professionals who have experience working with equestrians.
Amazing changes can occur once one starts to bring their focus onto the mental game. Besides improving your riding skills, it can also help improve the quality of your day to day life. Sure, it may be an investment of time and possibly even finances, but considering the fact that you go everywhere with your mind, you will see positive changes everywhere.
Paterakis, Annette. “The Equestrian Mental Coach: How to Let Go of Self-Criticism and Improve Your Mental Game.” Equestrian Sport, World of Showjumping AS, 15 Apr. 2021, www.worldofshowjumping.com/en/Exclusives/WoSJ-Focus/The-Equestrian-Mental-Coach -How-to-let-go-of-self-criticism-and-improve-your-mental-game.html.