It is safe to say that equestrian sport is a challenging one, not only physically but also mentally. Making one error could possibly result in a bad fall and injuries, and could mean you are out for the season. Obviously, this element puts extra pressure on riders not to make any mistakes. In addition, it is the only Olympic sport that involves working together with a living animal, and that, too, adds extra difficulty to the mix. Working together with a highly sensitive animal means that your mind not only impacts your body, but your horse will be influenced by it too.

Imagine slicing up a lemon and squeezing half of it onto your tongue. Can you feel your body responding to this thought by producing more saliva?

Your thoughts have a powerful influence over your body, and when you have negative thoughts, these can impact your ride. The more you go over a certain situation in your mind, the more you fire specific neurons in your brain and create a neural pathway. By thinking about what could go wrong, you strengthen a negative neural pathway. By thinking about how it could go right, you activate and strengthen a more desired neural pathway.

This process obviously doesn’t happen overnight, but imagine someone telling you what a terrible rider you are, all day and every day for the next week. How would you feel about yourself at the end of it? Probably not very positive. But this is exactly what happens when we have critical thoughts about ourselves all the time. Research has shown that of the 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts we have a day, about 70 percent of them are the same, day in and day out. Having the same negative thoughts, therefore, can result in the creation of a negative neural pathway. In other words, you are essentially creating limiting beliefs about yourself.

The good news? We can also create new, more helpful neural networks to improve our riding. Using visualization as a technique to strengthen your positive mindset can be very powerful if practiced regularly. You probably already use it when you walk your course. Most likely, you will go through the course in your mind a few more times so you won’t forget your plan. Another great way to use visualization to strengthen your confidence and positive outlook is to relive your best round ever. Whether you use it at home, or right before you go into the arena at a show, it will help you to focus on your strengths instead of all the things that could go wrong.

Want to give it a shot? Here’s how:

  • Close your eyes and go back into your memory to that best round you have ever ridden. Go back to feel what you were feeling (the sensation of your horse moving), hear what you were hearing (the bell), maybe even smell what you were smelling (the combination of shavings and hay?). The more senses you use, the more neural connections will be made in your brain.
  • Ride that course again in your mind and feel how everything comes together and seems to flow effortlessly. Relive the amazing feeling you had when you cleared all the fences and rode beautifully.

Watching videos from well-ridden rounds or wins can obviously help as well. Whenever negative or unhelpful thoughts pop up in your mind, make yourself recognize them without judgment, and then refocus your attention to what DID go well and what you DO want to repeat in future rounds.

With a background in the show jumping sport, Annette Paterakis is a performance coach, specialized in mental coaching equestrians. She is passionate about working with riders to help them better understand the mind and to provide the framework for creating the right conditions to reach peak performance.

For more information on Paterakis, please visit her website at www.annettepaterakis.com.

-Photo credit: Thomas Reiner.