Whether you're an accomplished horseman or a lower-level competitor, it's likely you have faced times when your riding has gotten off-track. Maybe you've had a fall that left your confidence bruised. Or your quest to break a certain percentage point at Second Level keeps getting falling short because of your inability to focus. Regardless of the nature of your issue, it's likely you can improve the situation by mentally training yourself, in addition to training your horse.
Thoughts are verbal behaviors that we use to label our experiences, expectations, and to help us make to sense of the world,” said Mike Mozzoni, Ph.D. Dr. Mozzoni is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) who serves as Director of Research for a specialized healthcare company.
“Both success and failure are accompanied by emotions,” he said. “When we make an error or are corrected, we experience an unpleasant emotion and naturally seek to avoid repeating the experience.
“Conversely, when we are successful we experience a pleasant feeling and seek to repeat that experience,” concluded Mozzoni.
Mozzoni believes that the nature of riding injuries can contribute to the mental difficulties. “When a rider is injured his pain is accompanied by a strong negative feeling which motivates escape or avoidance. When placed in a similar situation the rider may recall the injury and seek to avoid the situation.
“By focusing on the technical aspects – in this case let’s say it’s jumping – you redirect the negative emotions and focus on what you do have control over – your technique.
He also says the key to future success is having a positive and forceful outlook. “Remember, how we verbally label our experience sets up our expectations. As the old saying goes ‘when you fall off a horse the best medicine is to get right back up.’ The functional part of ‘getting right back up’ is a determined positive attitude. Instead of wallowing in the emotional pain, tell yourself ‘I can do this!’
“It’s important to remember, though, that visualizing success and having confidence is not a substitute for skill. If you are a new rider or are doing a new routine be sure to get the proper coaching so that you can build confidence and skill without excessive injury,” he cautioned.
It’s also important to seek the help and training that will help prevent future incidents. “Good horsemanship is built on practice which creates skill and confidence,” said Mozzoni. “If you practice the wrong way you may never experience the success you seek so get competent coaching and PLEASE wear a helmet! If you injure your brain you probably won’t be able to recall all of the skill and confidence you’ve worked so hard to gain.”
Mozzoni recommends breaking things down into a simple four part system that can be applied in the days, hours, or even minutes prior to a performance.
a) Tell yourself “I can do this.”
b) Visualize success.
c) Take a calming breath.
d) Go for it and keep the vision of success in your mind as you move.
So what if you are a busy adult amateur and, despite your best intentions you find yourself lacking focus or the energy required to ride your horse in training mode. Sure, you know the show is coming up in three weeks, but all you really feel like doing is lightly hacking your horse for 30 minutes.
How do you balance the pleasurable aspects with your competitive goals?
“Short answer – get 2 horses!” Mozzoni joked. “But if that isn’t an option select two different environments: one used only for training and the other used only for pleasure.
“Dividing your work space(s) has multiple benefits. Not only will this get the horse under environmental stimulus control, it will also help the rider ‘get into set’ for the competitive/training side of the riding,” he said.
That means setting up training rides designed to emulate competitive environments. “If you know you are always going to compete in a standard dressage arena, then by all means practice in a standard dressage arena,” he advised. “Your horse will recognize the setting and will be schooled in the geometry of the ring.
“If you plan to take your horse on 25-mile endurance rides, do your training in a setting that will replicate that of the competition. Similarly, if you know your horse will need to be obedient and responsive on a challenging cross-country course, use your trail-riding and hacking space to school him as well,” he concluded.
Dr. Mozzoni believes that riders must seek to control the technique first, and when you can control your technique you can build confidence and skill, thus putting yourself on a mental road to riding recovery.
“You must remember that you work long and hard to enjoy your sport and your horse is likely more than just an athletic partner to you. You absolutely have a right to enjoy his company and benefit from the therapy your riding provides you.
“But if you set competition as your goal, you owe it to your horse to be responsible in your training methods,” he said. “If you’re finding it difficult to address your core schooling program, you should probably reconsider your riding goals, or maybe add a new element to your riding.
“The bottom line is it must be enjoyable to both you and the horse,” he finished.