March 1, 2016
Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy
Winning The Mental Game
Every equestrian is an athlete and we have a four-legged, thinking, emotional, reactive partner who is very much affected by our mental state. While sports psychology is very important to all athletes in every kind of sport, I think that equestrians take it to a whole new level.
We all know that horses can sense our emotional state. When a rider is nervous, their horse is going to react usually for the worse. If a rider is tense, they’re going to reflect that body language in their movement. If the rider is too intense and too wound up with a desire to win, their horse may over perform as well.
As a person who actively competes in equestrian sports, specifically reining, I’ve recognized when my mood or state of mental preparedness has positively or negatively affected my performance in the show arena. I’ve worked hard over the years to understand what I need to do to prepare myself mentally to perform my best in front of the judges. Different athletes use different techniques to prepare, but I’d like to share my approach in an effort to help you achieve your showing goals.
My favorite quote in all sports psychology came from Reggie Jackson, Mr. October himself. After hitting three consecutive home runs, on three first pitches, thrown by three different pitchers at Yankee Stadium in game six of the 1977 World Series he was asked the obvious, “How did you do it?”
To paraphrase his response, Mr. Jackson explained that it didn’t matter how far down his team was. He would count how many batters were left before he could bat. If he could get up to the plate, he knew that he could keep his team in the game.
He never questioned his ability. He deeply understood and believed himself to be great and capable. This confidence and trust in himself translated into huge success.
Moreover, I’d argue he was clearly in “the zone”; the mental state in which athletes perform at their best. Basketball fans watched Michael Jordan do it time and time again as he shattered records. It’s a mental state in which the athlete slips into hyper-awareness yet is still relaxed, incredibly focused and physically keen, thus able to perform incredible feats under enormous pressure.
There have been times when showing a horse that I felt this sort of relaxed yet razor sharp awareness. I performed at my best and my steed did as well. I was completely focused and felt like I would win no matter what. While in this mental state, my horse and I usually did accomplish whatever goal I had set for us.
In contrast, there have been times when I felt like I couldn’t get anything done in the show pen. As the joke goes, “I couldn’t find my nose with both hands.” My energy and focus may have been too low so my horse and I didn’t “fire” when we needed to. I may have tried too hard to force maneuvers to happen which actually caused the opposite to occur. So how can one slip into the zone?
First, understand your limits and your horse’s abilities. If you’re new to a discipline, don’t pressure yourself to be the greatest ever. Try to be realistic in your self-assessment. Talk to your trainer about what you can accomplish. Some people just lack a certain amount of inherent feel and/or talent for riding a horse. That doesn’t mean that they won’t achieve success or that they shouldn’t compete. It just means that they may not ever be capable of winning world titles or making the Olympic team. That person may be able to have a tremendous amount of fun winning at local events or even qualifying to compete at bigger shows. If they place too much pressure on themselves to succeed at an impossible level, they are guaranteed to fail and will experience a tremendous amount of anxiety associated with this unattainable goal. Moreover, the sport that they choose to do will suddenly stop becoming fun and then they’re guaranteed to fail.
I also try to have a clear understanding of what my horse is capable of achieving. If I’m showing a horse with limited abilities, I won’t enter him in an event in which he has no chance of placing. Here too, trying to force a round peg in a square hole, guarantees failure.
So when I’m preparing for a major event and I have the animal capable of scoring high enough to win, I follow a few simple steps in preparation. I remind myself that both my horse and I are capable of winning. Words have power. I also know the countless hour of training I’ve put in at home. I have to truly believe and accept that this horse and I can win. If I second-guess this, I am greatly reducing my chances for success.
The night before I show, I spend hours sitting quietly visualizing my pattern. I work through the entire routine. I imagine myself arriving at the show. I saddle my horse. I think about the warm-up arena. I feel the temperature, and I even think about the smells. I try to make the experience as real as possible. Then, I execute the run dozens of time. I feel what is happening rather than watching myself show. I see the judges, and I hear the crowd. I also prepare for mishaps and try to adjust for these possible accidents – a stumble, a horse leaning, a spooky trash can by the entry gate, etc. I’ve run the pattern so many times in my head the night before, I am completely comfortable and confident when the time actually comes to show.
Mental preparation is as important as practicing at home. If you struggle with nerves or focus, you will limit what you can achieve in the show pen and may never achieve your goals. Find your own way to becoming a focused, confident rider. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, but the will to win is everything.”
I highly recommend taking a look at some articles written in sportpsychologytoday.com. This may help your mental game in the show pen become as sharp as your practice at home. Also – feel free to check out this video of Hollywood Downtown and me winning the AQHA Junior Reining World Championship. It was an incredibly strong year, with some of the industry’s greats competing in the class.