Mindset for the Competitive Equestrian

What separates elite athletes from the rest?

Talent?

Many talented athletes never lived up to their potential.

Technical skills?

All the technical skills in the world will not help if you are unable to perform those skills in the heat of competition.

Natural athleticism?

There are many examples in sports where less athletic athletes became elite, and physically gifted athletes failed to succeed.

So what is the special ingredient that produces elite athletic performances?

The biggest contributor to elite performances is mindset after all the training and talent is baked in.

Mindset is your mental outlook and how it helps or hinders your performance in competition.

So, let’s talk about mindset for the equestrian athlete.

Have you ever felt nerves or anxiety while competing? When I was younger I literally could not eat the morning of a show. Saying I had butterflies, or jitters, was an understatement! I was even known at the show grounds for getting so worked up I was sick to my stomach the mornings of the show!

For most people pre show, or pre class, nerves are a common occurrence. Often we don’t even realize how much those nerves are holding us back or how CRUCIAL mindset is for our success. Further, a lot of us pull it together at the last minute without even realizing how much better we could have done if we were properly prepared mentally.

Telling yourself to “just relax” does not work. It won’t even work coming from your mother, trainer or long time friend. A winning mindset needs to be prepared well before unloading your horse at the show or walking towards the dressage ring.

I am going to summarize the top 5 mindset skills that I feel are required to be a successful athlete. This is not an exhaustive list and, of course, there are other skills as well. This list comes from my own education, experience and training in Psychology as well as NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) as well as a long time working with athletes in my coaching programs!

  1. Choose and maintain a positive attitude.
  2. Use positive self-talk.
  3. Use positive mental imagery.
  4. Manage anxiety effectively.
  5. Maintain concentration.

Skills 1: Successful athletes choose and Maintain a Positive Attitude

Successful athletes:

  • Realize that attitude is a choice then choose an attitude that is predominantly positive.
  • View their sport as an opportunity to compete against themselves and learn from their successes and failures.
    • This allows you to focus on what you can control, which is your own attitude, performance and progress. This gives YOU the power to succeed instead of worrying about factors outside of your control, such as what Sally and her horse are bringing to the ring that day.
  • Have a coach-able attitude and do not say things like “I know that already” or “I have already tried that”. Successful athletes are open to feedback and welcome advice on how to improve.
  • Respect their sport, other participants, coaches, officials, and themselves.

Skill 2: Use positive self-talk.

Successful athletes:

  • Work through stressful situations using positive self-talk. It is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to do well in a sport if your negative thoughts are telling you otherwise.
    • I recommend my athletes begin with writing down their most common self limiting beliefs, such as “I am not good enough to do well” , “I could never beat the girls with the fancy warmbloods”, “I always mess up my dressage test” and reframe it into positive self talk, such as:
      • ” I perform well in tough competitions”
      • ” I am prepared and unstoppable”
      • “I am a great athlete and my horse is ready”
      • “My horse and I always perform our best”
      • “I am a badass and I am ready”
      • Post these new beliefs everywhere and anywhere you need to until they become your default thought process!
  • Tip: To generate a strong sense of self-belief, an athlete cannot worry about feeling arrogant. To be the best you can be you must believe you are the best. There is no shame in being arrogant inside one’s own head. In fact, it is a critical element to achieving success.
  • Use self-talk to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors during competition. When you feel negativity or anxiety creeping it reframe it with positive self talk. Positive self talk will also help an athlete overcome setbacks during competition.

Skill 3: Use Positive Mental Imagery

Successful athletes:

  • Use positive mental imagery to focus on the desired outcome. There is no more powerful mental tool than mental imagery and it can have a huge impact on your sports performance.
    • Imagery is used by virtually all great athletes and research has shown that, when combined with actual practice, improves performance more than practice alone.
  • Visualize themselves winning in great detail. They include multiple senses such as the sound of the horse breathing, the sound landing from a jump, feeling the warmth of the sun, the feel of the horses coat, etc.
    • You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual competition. 
    • Tip: Create and use mental images that are detailed, specific, and realistic.
    • For those that struggle with visualization I recommend beginning with guided meditation to learn how to focus your mind.
  • Use imagery during competition to prepare for action and recover from errors and poor performances. Maybe you “messed up” in your dressage test. These skills will help you brush it off so it does not negatively impact the rest of your competition.

Skill 4: Manage anxiety effectively.

Successful athletes:

  • Accept some anxiety as part of sport. Pre competition jitters are not only normal but help increase performance.
    • Accept, rather than fight, the nervous energy you feel. Don’t misinterpret it by thinking that it is fear. That adrenaline rush you feel is normal and it is part of your body’s natural preparation for the competition. Notice it, but don’t focus on it.
  • Realize that some degree of anxiety can help them perform well. This is important so athletes do not allow jitters to develop into a spiral of stress and negativity.
  • Recognize ways to deal with stress and anxiety in their day to day life. This could be yoga, meditation, walks in nature, breathing techniques, etc.
  • TIP: If you connect a state with a behaviour, for example, deep breathing with your eyes closed to a quiet mind or fist pumping to pump yourself up you can INSTANTLY change your state at the competition. This, of course, must be a neural connection that is solidified well before the competition. The outcome needs to be connecting a desired state with a certain behaviour. This can be seen with elite athletes that have pre show rituals!
An example on how there is an optimal amount of arousal (“stress”) to reach a peak level of performance.

Skill 5: Maintain concentration

Successful athletes:

  • Have learned how to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether they come from the environment or from within themselves.
  • Are able to regain their focus when concentration is lost during competition. You see this with viral videos of loose horses running through a test and the rider staying focused. While the horse is often the one credited it is more so the RIDERS concentration that keeps the horse focused and relaxed. Horses feed off of our emotions and the more relaxed and focused you are the more relaxed and focused they are.
  • Have learned how to play in the “here-and-now”, without regard to either past or anticipated future events. If they are unhappy with their last dressage test successful athletes move on and focus on the current moment and the current test. Allowing the past or future to dictate emotions will cause anxiety and lower your performance.

In summary…

Effective athletes train their mind as they train their body, or, to relate to horses effective equestrian athletes train their mind as they train their horses! Keep in mind that research has consistently proven that athletes who possess a growth mindset, and believed their performance could be improved simply through effort significantly outperformed those who believed that their talent was fixed.

I hope you enjoyed this article and it challenged you to think about how your mindset may be effecting your performance!

Free equestrian community:

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My YouTube Fitness and Mindset Channel, make sure to subscribe to stay up to date!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3QQdWscURZYByuNLHF5f-g

xo

Ashley

Work the booty to improve your position

If you are unstable in the saddle, or lack balance, what is the FIRST thing someone tells you?

Strengthen your core.

Yes, the abs are important.  Most people have lost the ability to move from their “center”, therefore teaching someone how to work the core, not just do crunches, is VERY important.

However, there is one major muscle group that has proven time and time again that they are actually more important to functional movement than the abdominals: the GLUTES

The glutes consist of 3 major muscles:

  1. The gluteus maximus, which does external rotation and extension of the hip joint (moving the leg backwards).
  2. The gluteus minimus, which does abduction of the hip (moving the leg away from the body).
  3. The gluteus medius, which also does abduction of the hip (moving the leg away from the body).

As you can see these muscles are important mover and stabilizers of the hip joint.  The glutes assist us in walking, sitting, standing, climbing stairs, getting out of bed, and LITERALLY every lower body movement.

The problem these days, is that we SIT on the glutes all day long, rendering them weak and useless.  Without the proper use of the glutes, the hamstrings and lower back muscles end up taking over far more work than they should.  The abdominals are strong and can support a weak lower back, but if the lower back keeps having to compensate for sleepy glutes, then the abs will never be able to keep up. This will result in poor posture, back pain and a less than ideal position in the saddle.

Trying to ride without strong, active glutes is akin to trying to build a house without a foundation.

So how does this relate to you?

Without strong glutes your lower back and hamstrings will take over as primary movers. This provides a very unstable base of support for your upper body, which can show as bracing in the upper body and tension in the reins, as well as an unstable lower leg. You will also find riders with weak glutes clinging with their legs as they have no stability through the pelvis.

Weak glutes also leads to poor posture, as the abs are only able to compensate to a point. This is where the dreaded “shoulders back” battle begins. You will also see this manifested in riders that can’t seem to sit up straight and always tend to lean forward. The weak glutes lead to tight hip flexors and a weak upper body making it nearly impossible to sit up straight. This isn’t something that can be fixed in the saddle.

Think of the pelvis, and hips, as the foundation of a house. Without a strong foundation everything is weak and unstable. This applies to your riding as well.

Without a strong pelvis, which is stabilized by your glutes, you are going to lack the ability to maintain a proper position, which leads to unclear aids, poor posture, imbalances in your body due to compensation and a whole host of other issues, just like a bad foundation does for a house.

And here is the truth: Your imbalances become your horses imbalances which become your horses lameness.

Further, by allowing your lower back and hamstrings to take over while riding you are setting yourself up for back pain, knee pain and ankle pain as you compensate for the weakness.

Often I hear “I am just old, I get knee pain when I ride”.

And while degenerative conditions, such as arthritis, can lead to pain strengthening the proper muscles, and lengthening the tight tissue, is one of the best ways to not only combat chronic pain but prevent future pain.

But riders are soooo busy!

Now, I know riders are busy between working to pay for the horses and actually riding but it is crucial to make time for your own fitness, out of the saddle. And, no, mucking stalls doesn’t count.

Sinead Halpin said it best, in her recent article Making Time for Fitness Outside the Saddle with Sinead Halpin for useventing.com:

“If you’re competitive, if you don’t want to have chronic low-grade pain, if you want to be kind to your horse by riding well, you will find it important to find an exercise routine that works to keep you supple and strong,” Halpin concluded. “Just do it. I have 23 horses on the farm, an 8-month-old, and a mortgage to pay without a major sponsor and I find the time, so just do it.”

Riding will feed into your imbalances. If you are weak on the left, and therefore lean into the right you will lean more into the right stirrup as you get more exhausted in the saddle. Especially out on cross country it becomes dangerous to have a riders imbalances being magnified when the horse, as well, may be getting tired.

If you sit at a desk all day and therefore have weak glutes and tight shoulders, causing you to slouch into a chair seat in the saddle no amount of yelling “Shoulders back” and no amount of custom saddles will fix YOUR issues.

Further, if you continue to get on the horse with the same issues it doesn’t matter how much money you dump into their massage, Back on Track, Chiropractic, acupuncture, etc. YOU will continue to cause the same imbalances in the horse until it causes a lameness. And then, well, your horse is out of the game until the injury has healed, if it can be.

A blank slate.

We are all adults right? I can be a straight shooter?

You are an athlete. Start training like it! Not only does improving as a rider depend on it but your horse depends on you to show up as YOUR best self everyday.

To help you get started I am developing a YouTube channel with free workouts for riders looking to get fit. Here is a quick booty blast to help kick off your new fitness plan!

For more videos and tips make sure to follow me on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/the.equestrians.advantage

Or join the FREE The Equestrians Advantage community at:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/426232728129685/

As a former sport horse vet tech,eventer and certified personal trainer I am passionate about starting a movement towards rider fitness OUT of the saddle to improve not only the riders, well, riding, but to also improve soundness in the horse.

I hope you found this helpful!

Ashley