Get in the Mental Game for Riding

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Heels down. Shoulders Back. Eyes Up. We can likely all recite the classic ways to improve riding. But one important body part often gets overlooked—the brain. While controlling a 1,500-pound animal is second nature to most riders, controlling anxious thoughts takes a whole different skillset. Here, we spoke to top equine mental skills coaches to understand how to get and keep your mind in the game.

MOTIVE AND MOTIVATION
Before you can come up with psych-yourself-up solutions, you need to get introspective. Ask yourself a bunch of questions, says Mental Skills Coach for Athletes Lynda Lahman, who has clients that compete on the national level. “Do I ride because I love it? Do I ride because I want ribbons? Do I ride because I want to be a better rider? Do I ride because I love the connection with the horse?” she questions. When things go south, this reminder can bring you back to reality. “If you have a lousy show, you can think, ‘Wait a minute, I’m out here because I want to be a better rider. What can I learn from that show?’ It’s a great reset when things go wrong.”

In general, riders face mental roadblocks both performance-based and overall—two top anxiety-inducing fears are falling off or riding a horse that behaves badly. According to Equestrian Mental Skills Coach Tonya Johnston (whose advice definitely works on herself—she placed third at this year’s Ariat National Adult Medal Finals) riders don’t give themselves enough credit. “The tendency is to be overly critical of oneself. I don’t think that does a whole lot of service to you as a rider or an athlete,” she says. “Obviously you want to know what things you’re working on and what your challenges are, but that’s all you [should] do—frame them as challenges. The critical analysis and the evaluation that can so quickly happen is a really big hurdle for folks.”

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TRAIN YOUR BRAIN
In our success-oriented culture, mistakes get all the press: think of a model stumbling on the runway or politician stumbling on her words. “We remember things that are emotionally charged, both positive and negative. Often, the negative emotions win,” Johnston says. That’s when you say hello to that familiar stomach-sinking feeling after chipping the single oxer while leading the class. “That’s the memory you drive home with, as opposed to the other round where you actually rode super,” she continues. Luckily (and unluckily, in some cases), the mind is pretty easy to control. “We can really manage and decide what we play [in our minds]. If our minds are available to us to replay experiences use the good ones and understand them and get into them,” Johnston says.

One way to psych yourself up—not out— is to embrace the worry. “Can you create room for that anxiety? Instead of trying to make it go away—because everyone wants it to stop—can you find a place for it to just ride along with you?” Lahman questions. “Then you can bring your attention to ‘What is it I’m supposed to be doing right now? How can I get reconnected to my horse?’ Each rider will have a unique way of doing that.”

To calm the querulous feelings, it can help to have a kind of worry mantra—a specific word you say silently or audibly while riding. “One rider might use the word ‘forward.’ Noticing her body position, once she uses the word forward, she can focus on that, and everything else works [out]. Forward is an action to [that rider]. ‘Hands’ is an action—where are my hands? ‘Knees’ is an action— how are my knees? All of these are designed to put [a rider] back in partnership with their horse.” A rider might only need to say the word when they’re about to enter the ring, but if things go awry somewhere after that, the same word can bring them right back.

Lahman’s favorite exercise to train riders’ brains doesn’t require them to even step foot in a barn: all they need is a toothbrush. Yes, a toothbrush. “Every day, you brush your teeth twice a day,” she points out. “Pay attention to brushing your teeth. It’s fascinating what people learn in that process. In the morning, when you’re brushing your teeth, you’re plotting out your day. At night, you’re reviewing your day. You’re everywhere but brushing your teeth. It’s a perfect meditation because it’s a very specific action, and you’re doing it twice a day. The more people do that, the more they learn, when their mind goes offline, how to bring it back right away.” Enamel health aside, when riders practice bringing themselves back in the moment on a regular basis, they’ll find themselves starting to apply it to other situations (hint, hint: like on a horse).

HELP WANTED
There are times, though, that no amount of self-talk or toothbrush trickery will soothe an anxious mind. That’s when it might be wise to make a call—to a doctor or mental skills coach. “If you feel like you’ve really addressed things from a physical place—you have good ground help, your horse is sound— and still feel like you’re not accomplishing things that feel really realistic, it’s definitely a good time [to seek help],” Johnston says. “Or, if things are constantly happening that are unexpected and really out of the blue, like one day you feel amazing and the next day you don’t and you have no idea why, that’s a good reason [to seek help], too.”

Seeking help isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair. “If you want to just be a recreational rider and you enjoy it and there’s nothing really going on, great. If something pops up and you feel some anxiety, it might be worth it to have a session or two just to talk to somebody in general,” Lahman says. “If you’re really looking to compete at the highest levels, then adding [sports psychology] to the toolkit is worth considering. Rather than adding it as crisis work, add it as just part of the process all the way along.”

When the anxiety is rooted in a traumatic fall or experience, Lahman especially encourages riders to reach out to a pro. It’s not as simple as the old idiom about getting back in the saddle. “If, when you get around the horse, or when you get on the horse, you really do feel yourself getting extremely anxious, and you’re riding to not fall, then you may need to do some therapy to get over that. [If not], you are a danger to get on a horse,” she says. “If you’re just anxious but then it goes away when you start riding, that’s a normal level of anxiety.”

Don’t wait too late to call, either, Lahman advises. “[People will] call two weeks before their kid is going to Maclay [Finals]. I say, ‘Okay, we can do this,’ but it would have been nice to have two months to work with them. It’s not so much that what I’m going to say is so different, but that it gives you time to practice—it gives you time to take it, apply it, and trust it.”

THINK BIG—AND SMALL
As you step into the ring, it’s easy to get tripped up by a million plan-of-action thoughts. Having a balance of small, process or performance-oriented goals can help ground focus, Johnston says. “When someone says ‘Well, I just want to be consistent,’ or ‘I just want to have a nice round,’ I’m always saying, well, your body doesn’t understand that—that’s not language that your body relates to. As lovely as that sentiment is, your body needs more tangible instructions. If you can pick two or three things that you think are really important for you to create a great, smooth, flowing trip, that’s what you want to be thinking about,” she continues.

With all the focus on keeping your body in line, it’s good to remember that the brain is an organ, too. “If you’re motivated to excel, you want to make sure you’re exploring all of your options. Thinking about your mental skills and your mental strengths is a part of what can make you a truly successful rider,” Johnston says.

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