Can changing the way you think change the way you ride?

In a word, YES.

When you train mentally, you are engaging the newest part of your brain, the frontal cortex. This part is responsible for higher order functions like problem solving and managing your thoughts and actions in accordance with your goals.

Navy seals use sport psychology research to instruct their training. Recruits are routinely placed in fear activating situations and trained to override that primitive response with quick assessment from the thinking part of their brain. These guys need to be able to think under pressure, because its life or death.

You, on the other hand, need to think under pressure to control your performance. Different stakes, but know that the same part of your brain is being trained as the toughest men on earth.

If that doesn’t motivate you to improve your mental game, consider this: you’re taking it to the barn. Your brain accompanies you each and every time. And each day you are training your physical skill and mental responses to different situations. So if every time you make a mistake you beat yourself up realize you are training a response. And especially realize you are training a response that will be extremely ineffective for your performance.

And let’s not forget someone else is getting trained through the pattern of your responses: your horse. Your teammate continually responds to your mindset. It’s a big responsibility you have as the “team lead”.

So why leave your brain training up to chance? Instead, be deliberate about how you are training your mind so you can maximize your riding pleasure and performance.

Don’t let your mind ride unsupervised!

Michael Phelps’ victory over Chad Le Clos in the 200m butterfly at the Rio Olympics was truly something to witness.

First, we got a glimpse behind the scenes in the ready room.  Swimmers engaged in final preparations.  Here we see Le Clos air boxing, shuffling about in front of Phelps like a gorilla beating its hairy chest.  Dominance.

Pan to a decidedly somber Phelps, or what some have referred to as the “death stare”.  One thing is certain; he’s not reacting to Le Clos’ show.  He appears to be elsewhere, his focus deeply internal.

When the race unfolds, you can’t help but wonder how each swimmer’s pre-swim setup impacted the ensuing outcome.

Phelps crushes his swim to win the gold, looking strong and targeted.  Le Clos on the other hand, misses the podium altogether.  And what do we notice about his last length?  He turns his head repeatedly to check on Phelps.  With each glance it is clear he is losing ground.  With each attempt to track his opponent we have to wonder what the internal dialogue was that accompanied the action. “I’m losing him”, “I wonder if I can make this up”.

All conjecture of course but at least somewhat likely.  We have to make meaning of our experiences.  Make sense of them by creating stories in our minds.  If Le Clos had swam with his head clearly in his own performance, would the outcome have been different?  We will never know.  However, there is still an interesting lesson to note.  As human beings, we are tempted from time to time to check out what the competition is doing.  Does it really serve us?  Or, as it might have done to Le Clos, cost us physical and mental energy that would be better served directed toward our own goals?

Not that you are likely to see overt displays of physical intimidation at your local horse show.  You wouldn’t expect your competition to strut or air box while you stand on deck.  However, a form of  psyching out does occur in the equestrian world.

“Did you see that six stride?  Watch out it will be hard for your horse.”

“I don’t think this judge is too fond of Greys”(And guess who you are sitting on).

Like Phelps, you’ll have to decide: will you keep your mind in your own lane? Or, in equestrian terms, on your own horse?

Even in the course of your regular day you are likely using cues.  Maybe you’re getting ready for a big date and a certain kind of music helps you feel confident and self assured.  Or you’re giving a big speech and a visual image relating to your topic adds passion to your words.

Cues are kind of like keys.  They open doors to past experiences, feeling states and knowledge.  You know how easy it is for people that know you well to find your sensitive buttons?  Well, you can just as easily find the buttons within yourself that bring forward good things about you and your sport.

When I was competing, I needed a cue to help me remain light in mood and responsive to my horse.  One day it just kind of came to me.  The song “I’m alright” from the movie Caddyshack.  When I recalled it, I could feel my mood shift.  It made me smile, I thought of nothing but that silly dancing gopher at the end of the movie, and my negative judgmental thoughts seemed to fade.  I knew had found my ‘perspective button’.  This cue was especially helpful to me when I was becoming too intense and thinking too much.  One athlete’s cue may seem nonsensical to others (as I am sure mine was) but what really matters is the impact.

I recently worked with a rider who was having difficulty being assertive with her horse without being fearful and aggressive.  When I asked her if she had ever felt calm and assertive in a relationship setting she immediately knew.  She began to tell me how she needed to cultivate this approach in working with special needs students on art projects.  She now uses this picture of herself as a cue for how she wants to be in relationship with her horse, whose personality requires a firm, clear leader.

So…how can you find your own cues?

It’s definitely a trial and error process.  You often have to try them on, see them in action, to assess their impact on your personal psyche. 

To begin with, you will want to assess what kind of outcome you want, then test to see what kind of resonance the cue holds for you.  If you want levity, then does the phrase or word make you laugh inside or out?  If you want power, do the words make your adrenaline soar?  Your body will tell you what words or combination works. 

Try it out and write in with your results, or if you already have a powerful cue story to share, you can do that too!

ONE:  Choose “do” words:  Ella, an amateur rider trying desperately to conquer her nerves before her first competition, knows this phenomenon all too well.  “I knew what I had to do, I had to avoid letting my nervousness effect my body so my horse wouldn’t feel it.  So I kept repeating to myself, ‘don’t grab, don’t stiffen.’  But the harder I tried, the worse it became.  Pretty soon my body was buzzing with tension.”

Why did Ella’s efforts result in even more tension? Our brains simply cannot process what “don’t” looks like.  So when you say to yourself “don’t be nervous and freeze”, your mind struggles to image what you want.  It does some gymnastics and gyrations trying to conceive of what you mean, and in the meantime your head gets filled with images of “nervous” and “freeze”.

To counteract this effect, choose “do words” instead of don’ts.  If you want relaxation, think of words like ‘loose’, ‘fluid’ or ‘supple’.  You can also develop short, directive phrases that inform your focus, like ‘soft hands’, ‘feeling body’ or ‘eyes forward, receive in relaxation’.

As an exercise, think of all the times in your riding you tell yourself not to do something.  Write all the statements out so you can see them clearly.  Now take each one and turn the statement into “do language”.  Make sure they are clear and concise, before taking your next step of consciously applying the statements next time that situation presents itself.  If you persist in this, you will likely notice a difference in both your tension levels and attitude. 

TWO:  Look for meaning:  Ultimately, what gives the words or phrases you choose in your riding real punch is their meaning.  Not their overall meaning, but their meaning to you specifically.  You might think the word ‘relax’ is a great key word to use in competition but it fails to loosen your tense muscles.  Your friend uses the phrase “soft is supple, supple is soft” but it leaves you cold.  How can you find your own words?

It’s definitely a trial and error process.  You often have to try them on, see them in action, to assess their impact on your personal psyche.  Key words and phrases are just that:  keys.  They open doors to past experiences and feeling states.  You know how easy it is for people that know you well to find your sensitive buttons?  Well, you can just as easily find the buttons within yourself that bring forward good things about your riding.

Canadian rider Joanne Uhrig relies on two key words that hold a lot of meaning for her:  ride and soften.  She uses them when she feels her horse becoming powerful and herself losing the connection.  They may seem like everyday words to others, but to her they are large and powerful in her mind, like directions in capital letters.

To ensure your programming success, assess what kind of outcome you want, then test to see what kind of resonance the words hold for you.  If you want levity, then does the phrase or word make you laugh inside or out?  If you want power, do the words make your adrenaline soar?  Your body will tell you what words or combination works.

THREE:  Keep it short, but descriptive:  When utilizing key words or phrases, short is best, especially in competition.  You simply do not have time to go through a detailed set of instructions.  As well, too much analytical thinking (left brain thinking) will serve to take you out of the moment.  And since dressage is about relationship and conversation, the ‘here and now’ is the only place you want to be.

Want more training on how to be more positive and productive rider?  Try The Confidence Factor or The Resilient Rider Online Course.  Now 40% off at!

1.    Get to know your “internal alarmist”
You can think of your fear as being driven by an internal alarmist.  This little creature whispers things in your ear that make your worry spin out of control.  It’s a well-meaning sort of voice; it wants you to succeed after all.  However, it’s also extremely fearful and wants you to avoid disaster at all costs.  Internal alarmists are usually over reacting troublemakers.  You’re trying to focus on your job, and they keep taking you further away from it.  How will you respond to it?  Try reassuring and soothing this part of yourself instead of trying to ignore it. 

2.    Get perspective and support
Because high stress situations have a way of distorting your thinking, it’s important to look for and get to the truth of the matter.  Look around you, are there people you trust to give you the straight goods?  Maybe this is a coach, parent or stable-mate.  These people can act as “alarm consultants” to your panic.  They can help you gauge the real size of a threat, and figure out how you can approach it.  Kind of talk you down until you can think clearly and formulate your approach.

3.    Abandon perfection
Because perfection is an impossible construct to define, by its nature it creates uncertainty.  Your mind does not really know what it is aiming for, only that the bar is high and the pressure is on. To reduce this experience of pressure, you are going to have to redefine your target.  Abandon the word perfect and look for alternatives.  How about competency?  How about effectiveness?  Then get more specific than this.  What is a competent body position and what can I do to attain this?  Do this and your mind (and the rest of you) will have a much easier time conceiving of what you want.

4.    Cultivate your rational mind
Once you have found out what it is you fear- go beyond the alarm and look at the situation without all the emotional cloud.  Name your fear.  Say, “I know what that alarm is, that means I am feeling afraid of failing”.  Calling it what it is helps you organize your thoughts and set up an approach of problem solving.  Then be ready with your “replacement thoughts”.  These are the directions you want your mind to follow instead of the scary chatter circulating in your head.  For example:  “Focus on the small things, focus on my task, focus on my horse.”  “Everyone wants me to do well, they are behind me.” “All my training and hard work went into this, now I get to enjoy it!”

Remember dealing with your fears is not a one shot deal.  You will have to decide on a plan, and repeat and repeat.  If you do this, you’ll find that internal alarmist of yours gets shrunk back down to the size it was meant to be.

Want more confidence? Try the Confidence Factor Online course or Riding Through Fear.    

You’re involved in a sport that demands effective teamwork. For your part, why not make yourself the best, most likeable rider you can be? Train yourself to be wise in the ways of partnership, your horse will thank you.
Luck is not a strategy.  There is power in planning.

There is one thing goals do very well that is often forgotten: they calm people- and horses. For riders, the organization of thought toward a goal produces a focus. A focus begins to eliminate unnecessary distraction and channels your effort. Simplifies things. When things are clearer, we feel more at ease. Same for horses. When they know they are being asked to do something and that instruction is clear (aid applied in the same way, repetition until success) they relax. This relaxed and purposeful state is of course conducive to the growth of confidence within your team.

So forget luck, put trust in your goals instead.

PictureOwn your ride
How about owning your ride, right where it is in its development- right now.  You don't have to apologize for being in learning mode, because everyone is right there with you.

Some are learning to steer, some to post.  Others how to ride a 1.40 meter oxer off a tight turn.  Maybe you’re trying to master focusing on your ride while listening to instructions from your coach.

These are all great goals.  Honorable goals.

Interestingly, most riders would not admonish their horses for being where they are in their development.  It’s not right or wrong, it just is.

So how about letting yourself be- just where you are.  Then take that extra step of honoring where you are- your horse will thank you.

For more confidence tips:  The Confidence Factor Online Course

One of the challenges of fear is how it can leave you frozen and literally stop your ride.  Your horse wonders where you went and either takes over or takes advantage.

Here are five ways to take your ride back:
ONE:  Change your focus:  Get “task oriented” - direct your inner talk to physical instructions that relate to what you are about to do.  (pace, soft hands, deep corner, forward ride).  Nothing dissipates nerves like action, so talk yourself into some.

TWO:  Change your usual response. How do you usually respond to your fear?  Giving up?  Worry? Remember that the changes in your body are actually there to assist you.  Embrace the changes, remind yourself you are becoming sharper and stronger.

THREE:  Assume a physically confident position:  If you’re not feeling confident, use your body to help get you there.  Changing your body’s position can help you get in touch with other aspects of your confident self.  Square your shoulders, bring your chest out and sit tall.  Good equitation is more than a physical ideal, it's a mental modifier.

FOUR:  Choose your self-talk carefully.  I call this the “purple cow” principle.  Don’t think about purple cows?  You just did.  Tell yourself “don’t think about being nervous.”  Now you have.  Thinking in ‘don't’s does not work.  You have to change your dialogue into “dos” like “do take a deep breath”, “do remember how well prepared you are”.

FIVE:  Consider modifying your target.  Perfectionists often create their own stress by falling into the expectation trap. Unrealistic expectations mean for ongoing anxiety.  Turn your target from being an expectation into a goal.  A process goal that focuses on elements of your ride that you can control. “I expect I will place top three today” becomes “I will focus on consistent pace today”.


Horses and horse sport have captivated us for many years.  The horse is mysterious, intelligent and wise in a way we struggle to comprehend.  Its no wonder we took up the challenge of partnering with them for competition.  This at least dates back to 680 BC when horses were part of the newly founded Olympic Games in Athens. This challenge demands much from its rider, who must be steeped in the art of his or her own psychology.  And more and more, it also means being savvy to the psychology of the horse.

Mind connects to body 
As with other team sports, how you think effects both yourself and your teammate.  It dictates your confidence, your ability to focus and problem solve.  Even though horse sport entails being paired with a partner of a different species, your thinking style holds no less weight.  As a rider, your thoughts are translated into behavior and non-verbal communication.  The psychology of horse sport means knowing and using this fact to your advantage.

Thoughts connect to emotion 
John Lyons once commented:  "There are only two emotions that belong on the saddle; one is a sense of humour and the other is patience."  Strong emotions are a part of life and a part of competition.  But John is right- many do not belong in the saddle any more than they belong in any productive conversations we hope to have with each other. 

The same issues that plague riders off horseback have a nasty way of following them to the barn.  Just as an artist reveals part of their inner nature in their work, the way in which you go about creating a relationship with your horse can say a lot about you.  Anger management, passivity, avoidance, uncertainty - chances are if one of these or something else is part of your style, it will show up in some way in the manner in which you approach your horse. 

Body connects to horse
All sports are about the power of the body, some more about the finesse.  The latter is true of horse sport.  Psychologically minded riders know how to regulate the state of their body. It is the equivalent of practicing your diction in order to communicate distinctly with other people.  Regulation involves knowing how to clear your body of tension through relaxation practice. Real relaxation involves a different physiological state characterized by a reduction in heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, analytical thinking, and skeletal muscle tension.

Learning to speak horse
Imagine you found yourself in a foreign country surrounded by unfamiliar people and customs.  You would have to find a way to bridge this gap if you wanted to get around.  You may take to learning a few words and phrases of the new language, or use gestures and other body language to make your needs understood.  When it comes to horses, you must create a shared language of pressure and release.  The language you seek to develop is based on the way you use your body and energy.  In other words, since your equine buddy cannot pick up an English language course at the local rural college, you have to step into his world and learn a little about speaking horse.

Yes, you are the leader in this joint venture but that doesn’t mean you get to forget to listen respectfully.  A smart manager knows that employees are vital to the running of their company, and will actively listen to their opinions.  You should consider doing the same for your teammate.   Sometimes we don’t listen by jumping in (repeatedly asking and asking for a movement without waiting to see what the horse’s response is), or judging (your focus is what is right or wrong, not on the process of the conversation.  An example of the latter would be the perfectionist rider who gets so wrapped up in things being “right” they forget to attend to their horse’s needs. 

So how can you, a human being, partner and communicate with this powerful animal to achieve a desired goal?  This is the true gift and test of the psychology of horse sport.  Are you up for the challenge?