Nine Mental Skills for the Successful Equestrian By: Laura King

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Imagine, for a moment, that you are a high level dressage ride interviewing a potential trainer. You might ask them, “What will you do as my trainer?”
What if they answered you like this: “First of all, when you sit in the saddle, I’m going to say, ‘You look terrible! Can’t you even sit properly in the saddle?’ And then if you miss a transition, I’ll say, ‘That move was terrible! How could you miss that transition? You jerk!’ If you forget a movement, or mess up a lead, I’m going to really be harsh. ‘You can’t even ride!’ I’ll yell, ‘Why don’t you give up?’ Then, at night, I’ll come to your bedroom just before you fall asleep and remind you of all the mistakes you made that day in the ring. The last voice you hear as you’re falling asleep will be mine, saying, ‘You’re an appalling excuse of an equestrian!'”
Would you hire them? Of course not! You would walk out and they would never see you again.

In my years of experience in the equestrian world, I’ve noticed that the most successful trainers at the higher levels of competition – the ones with the longest tenure with riders – are the ones who know how to do exactly the opposite of what I just described. They have a knack for giving the rider words of encouragement that are framed in such a way that they find them credible. In other words, they aren’t going to give false flattery, but if the rider needs to hear something positive, the good trainer gives them what they need.

But whose voice are you actually really hearing, whether training or competing? It’s not your trainer’s voice. It’s the voice inside of your own head, the voice you use to talk to yourself. How do you talk to yourself when you are riding?

The subconscious mind does not judge the input we give it. It does not discriminate when it gets input from the conscious mind. If you’re telling yourself that you are a terrible excuse for a dressage rider, your subconscious will start to believe it completely. If you talk to yourself in this way, it’s like filling a backpack with heavy rocks and bricks and wearing it when you ride. No one would intentionally hamper their performance in this way, and I am sure you wouldn’t either.

I’ve been around horses and equestrians most of my life. My daughter rode, and I remember when she first started jumping. I always gave her words of encouragement, like most parents and even the trainers of these young children. If I asked you right now, “Would you berate your child who was learning to ride and chipped a fence, or got a wrong lead?” No! You would probably be hurt by that suggestion. I have heard many parents saying things like, “You can make that fence, honey. You are a good rider.”

Most people realize that they need to calm down and speak patiently and kindly to their children if the child has misbehaved. Yet they will unload all their anger and frustration on themselves. Telling themselves how terrible they are as a rider. In fact, they think it’s all right, even a show of strength, to be tough on themselves. But it’s not all right. In fact, it is actually counterproductive.

Learn to talk to yourself like you would your own child. It is fine to review your performance after a competition briefly, and determine some areas you want to improve – the areas that were not as good as you had wanted. While in the ring, however, your inner voice should be the one saying, “You can remember all of your moves, and make each transition easily, honey. You’re a good dressage rider.”
Self-talk is one of nine mental skills of successful equestrian. Is it enough? No. But it is a start. If you want to truly be the best equestrian you can be you also need to understand the mindset of the successful athlete. These nine mental skills are the most important skill set you can learn to be your best.

1. Attitude – First and foremost, attitude is a choice. And choosing an attitude that is predominantly positive is vital to all aspects of riding. Remember:

  • Riding is an opportunity to compete against yourself and to learn from your successes and failures.
  • To pursue excellence, not perfection, and to recognize that they, as well as your as your trainer, teammates, officials and others are not perfect either.
  •  To respect your sport, your horse, other participants, your trainer, officials and yourself.
  • To maintain balance and perspective between riding and the rest of your life.

2. Motivation – Why are you competing? Successful riders:

  • Are aware of the rewards and benefits they expect to achieve through participation in a competition.
  • Are able to persevere through difficult times and difficult tasks, even when the rewards and benefits are not immediately forthcoming.
  • Most importantly, realize that many of the benefits come from your participation, not the outcome.

3. Goals and Commitment – Setting goals, both long-term and short-term, is important for improving. It’s important to:

  • Make sure your goals are realistic, measurable, and have a timeline.
  • Be objective about your current performance level and develop detailed plans for attaining your goals.
  • Be highly committed to your goals and willing to carry out the daily demands of your training programs.

4. People Skills – It’s easy to forget that you are a part of a larger system that includes family, friends, other participants, trainers, and others. Realizing this is so important so you can:

  • Communicate your thoughts, feelings, and needs to these people, when needed, and listen to them as well.
  • Deal with conflict, other riders and with other people when they are negative or oppositional.

5. Self-Talk – Earlier in this article, I suggested that you talk to yourself as if you were your own child. What if you simply talk to yourself like you are your own best friend? Most of us are encouraging to our best friend, so this might be easier, especially for younger riders. Encourage yourself:

  • To maintain your self-confidence through difficult times with realistic, positive self-talk.
  • To stop negative thoughts, and use positive self-talk to regulate your internal dialogue, your feelings and behaviors while competing.

7. Dealing Effectively with Anxiety – The best riders know that anxiety is just a part of competing. Realize that:

  • Some degree of anxiety and the heightened awareness of this state may help you perform well.
  • You can also learn to reduce the anxiety if it becomes too strong, without losing your focus.

8. Dealing Effectively with Emotions – Strong emotions are part of the experience of competing. To be the best rider you can be:

  • Accept that excitement, anger, and disappointment are human responses to life events, and are a part of the competitive equestrian experience.
  • Learn to mentally step back from the emotion in order to evaluate the feedback from your performance; and to use this to improve, rather than interfere, with high level performance.

9. Concentration – Knowing your routine is an absolute when you are a rider. How many times have you seen a rider who performs extremely well in the practice ring go into a competition and forget a transition? Is this you? To be your best:

  • Learn how to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether it is from your personal life or something happening during the competition (crowd noise, an old trainer who is in the audience, etc.).
  • Learn to regain your focus when concentration is lost while competing.
  • Stay in the moment, without regard to the past or anticipated future events.

These nine mental skills can be tough to master unless you are consistent. The fastest way to make the change is with hypnosis and NLP techniques. Learn more with me, Seven Mental Keys to Success Clinics for Equestrians Online visit

Laura King will be teaching a Sports Hypnosis Certification in Marlborough, MA, August 9-10, 2017 at the National Guild of Hypnotists (NGH) convention. For more information go to to contact.

Laura King
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