7 Qualities of the Mentally Tough Rider

horse rider psychology, mental horse riding traps, improve horse riding focus, April Clay, preparing for horse riding competition, equine psychology

horse rider psychology, mental horse riding traps, improve horse riding focus, April Clay, preparing for horse riding competition, equine psychology

By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist

Do you consider yourself to be a tough rider, or a tender one? No one is completely one or the other. Different situations elicit strengths and weakness to emerge in people. The challenge is to first know yourself well, then ask yourself how you can move along the toughness continuum. You don’t need to throw yourself into the fire to get tougher, just make a habit of going a little bit further than you are used to and over time you’ll find your strength increasing.

#1 - You know and accept that sport and life are not fair.

As utterly unpleasant as that is, it is true. It’s not fair that your horse suddenly went lame. Or that your friend had the most wonderful horse drop into her lap when you have been looking for months. Judges are not perfect and they do have preferences. If you allow yourself, you can waste a lot of energy on resisting what you do not like or what doesn’t seem fair. Unfortunately, when you resist you let your focus rest on things you cannot control. The elements you can control, such as how you are approaching your ride, will suffer. Your overall attitude tends to become negative and you wonder why things don’t seem to work out for you.

Being tough means you know and accept that unfairness is part of your sport. When an injustice happens to you, give yourself a time limit to vent. Then power up your focus into a new goal that will give you an advantage.

#2 You are a planner.

What are you planning for? It’s hard to be tough if you don’t know where you are going. A tough rider has goals mapped out that are challenging and possible, but that’s not all. A tough rider has these larger goals broken down into daily training goals and habits. When you do this you can check things off your list, and feel good about yourself. After all, you’re not riding for or striving to impress anyone but yourself. So at the end of the day, you want to be square with yourself – to know that you followed through. This is how consistency, another hallmark of a tough rider, is born. It starts in training, not in the show ring.

#3 You think like a warrior.

Tough thinking is not pie-in-the-sky thinking that you are the greatest rider ever, and you can beat anyone, anytime. Sometimes toughness is wrongly associated with arrogance or ego. This could not be more wrong. If you are seeking to pump up your ego or yourself by thinking big, you might be more tender than tough. When you don’t prove to be the best ever, or win what you told yourself you would, the resulting crash is often a hard fall.

The resilient rider focuses their thoughts on what they can control: their task. They are cued into what needs to be done. This doesn’t mean the tough riders don’t need to give themselves encouragement now and then, but they do it in a slightly different way that brings into awareness what is already known. So instead of thinking you are the greatest, your thinking might be a self-assured, I’ve got this, I have done this before, or I am prepared, I know what to do. Warrior thinking focuses on what you have inside to get the job done well.

Photo: When the going gets tough, the resilient rider focuses on what she can control and on what needs to be done. And she knows exactly why she has to chosen to do it. Photo: Jarih/Stock Photos/Photos.com  

#4 One of your mottos is: Hard training, easy competition. 

The tough rider does not avoid training hard. This rider seeks out ways to make training challenging so competition will feel exciting instead of nerve-wracking. Think about it. If you feel well prepared for what you need to do in the show ring, how will you feel? Likely, you’ll feel free to strategize about what you need to do today and put your best forward. While others are worrying about whether they are up for the challenge, you will know you are.

So go ahead, be fitter than you need to be. Jump higher than required. Study your competition more than anyone else. Put in more hours at the barn, and ask more questions. Become an “A” student of your sport.

Photo: By training hard to make competition easier the tough rider feels confident and focused, instead of worrying about whether she is up to the challenge. Photo Credit: ©Canstockphoto.com/DGPhotography

#5 You practice getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

This is what the toughest men on earth, the Navy SEALs, live by.  If you avoid hard training days by shutting down or giving up, you are missing a great opportunity. No one ever got stronger by not stretching themself. Think about strengthening a muscle – you stress it, and then rest it and the result is growth. You need to do the same with your mental muscle. Think of every “bad” day as an opportunity to work through and get stronger. Instead of thinking that you don’t want this situation, think: Interesting, how can I work my way out of this? Start thinking of yourself as the kind of rider who loves puzzles, and loves to problem solve. 

If your coach asks who wants to go first to try a new exercise, go for it. If you feel tired, keep going just a little longer. Find ways to encourage yourself to go past your usual line. Whatever is your common response in a challenging situation, try inching your way just a little past that point, and you could be surprised by the payoff.

Photo: By resisting the temptation to stay warm and cozy inside, and pushing herself outside and into the saddle for an exhilarating winter gallop, this rider will feel stronger and much more positive. Photo: ©Canstockphoto.com/Cookelma

#6 You are an expert mistake maker.

The truth about mistakes is that they will inevitably happen. Sometimes you will need their assistance to further your learning. Sometimes you will want to, and need to, let go of them as fast as smelly garbage.

Observe one of the most resilient athletes you admire, and watch the way they handle their errors (yes, they do make them). Watch the way they handle frustration, disappointment, and losing. Through your observations you will likely observe that the Comeback Kid-type doesn’t judge. The Comeback Kid doesn’t get tangled up in good and bad, but stays focused on pulling out whatever information is needed to keep moving forward and stay on task.

#7 You know your carrot.

There will be times when you wonder why you should keep going, when you are so tired you just want to lie down. You might ask yourself:

  • Why do I have to train six days a week?
  • Why do I have to ride this difficult horse?
  • Why do I have to try again when it doesn’t seem to be working? 

The best way to combat these times is to know your “why” clearly. Then you can answer back to these questions and find the oomph to keep going. Your answers may be:

  • Because I want to be stronger and have more endurance for the show season.
  • Because I want to be able to ride all kinds of horses.
  • Because I want to be the best horseperson I can be.
  • Because I know that when I figure this out I will have gained confidence.

Remember, you don’t ever have to do anything – you choose to do it. So choose why you want to. Know your “why” and keep it close.

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main article photo: The mentally tough rider resists the temptation to focus on negative things; instead, he powers up his positive focus to move forward and stay on task. Photo Credit: Just Chaos/Flickr


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