The Mental Game Part 1: Awareness

I’ve been talking a lot lately about how I’m trying to focus on fixing my brain. What I mean by that is addressing the mental aspects of riding and showing (in my case, mostly showing) that are having a negative impact on my life and my riding. It’s been a goal of mine for the past couple years, ever since I started to become aware of the issue, but this year certain things have slowly made themselves more obvious, and I’ve buckled down on trying to address what’s going on in my head.

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The first part of this, of course, was becoming aware of it. I’ve been showing since I was a kid, and looking back I realized that I’ve always struggled mentally to some degree. It’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, had to pay for my own habit on a tight budget, and stepped into harder competitions and higher levels. The pressure has taken it’s toll, and it snuck up on me without me really even noticing.

The first eye-opening moment for me was at the N3D at Coconino in 2016. There’s a lot of hoopla leading up to an event like that… qualifying for it, conditioning for it, saving the money to make the trip to Arizona, taking 2 weeks off work to go horse show, etc. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, considering how much time and money I had invested in the event. And, naturally, I kinda bombed. The pressure I put on myself got the better of me in dressage and stadium, resulting in silly mistakes, and we finished just out of the ribbons. My first reaction was to be really upset. Not with anyone else, but with myself. I screwed it up, this thing that we’d been working toward for months, and I was really frustrated and angry about it. The things that I said to myself in my head (you don’t belong here, you aren’t good enough, you’ll never be good enough, what made you think you could ever do well at this, you wasted all this money, etc etc) were pretty cruel, and it showed on the outside as a generally sour attitude. My Trainer rightly pointed out that I was acting like a huge brat and needed to get over myself, which rocked me back on my heels at first. I was 33 years old and she was calling me a brat? WTF?

But she was right, and I’m glad she said it. It was the slap in the face I needed. I spent the whole drive home thinking about what she said, and trying to figure out what was going on with me that made me act that way. It was the first time in my entire life that I ever sat back and thought about my mental state as it relates to horse showing.

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Of course, once you start to become aware of it, you start to see it more. I could look back and think of other times when my inability to handle pressure (that I put on MYSELF, mind you, no one else ever has) and my lack of self-confidence had bitten me in the butt. I could also think of times that other trainers had noticed it, but their less brutally honest comments just never registered in the same way.

The good news is that you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken. So realizing that I had a problem was the critical first step. Of course, from there you’re kind of left wondering what the heck to do next, how on earth to fix it. At first, I did nothing. I didn’t know what TO do. Mostly I just thought about it and reflected and tried to open up my awareness to how I was feeling and why, trying to figure myself out. I’ve been doing that for a couple years now, and I finally feel ready to do something about it.

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Lately I’ve been talking about it more. Bringing it up here on the blog and with some of my friends, trying to talk things through. It’s brought up so many interesting conversations, helping me learn more about others and about myself. It’s helped me pinpoint exactly what my issues are and what they stem from. There have been many lightbulb moments. And, with some encouragement, I purchased 3 different books about the mental side of riding, which I have delved into with more enthusiasm than I ever could have imagined. I’m very much a book learner, and they’ve already helped me open my eyes and start to develop a plan for myself.

I think I have a long, hard road ahead. Changing a mindset that I’ve had for my entire life is certainly not going to be quick and easy. It’s a struggle, every single day, to start training my brain to see things in a different way. I want to talk about it here, partly because I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this, but also because I’m hoping you guys will help me hold myself accountable. Part of changing how I think is changing what I say. I have to be more positive about my capabilities, more forgiving of my mistakes, more accepting that failure is a part of growth, and just plain have a little more freaking faith in myself. Especially now, as I’m starting to push outside of my comfort zone and outside of what I ever thought was possible for me. Growth isn’t comfortable, and I want to be more prepared when the struggles come calling.

This is the most ME chapter that has ever existed in any book. We jumped 36 fences at Holly Hill between XC and SJ and the only ones I focused on afterward were the 3 that I didn’t ride well.

The books have given me a lot of good ideas on what to do and things to try, so my current status is “In Progress”. Right now I feel like I’m taking baby steps on shaky legs, but they’re steps in the right direction. I want to share the journey here, in all of it’s brutal ugly honesty, as I start trying to make these changes to my mentality. I have no idea how often I’ll write updates on how it’s going or what the heck the subject matter will be about, but this post is a starting point and, hopefully, a way to hold myself more accountable. I feel like good things have always come after I put something out there in the world, so… let’s try it with this too.


The books I’m reading at the moment are:

Pressure Proof your Riding by Daniel Stewart

Inside Your Ride by Tonya Johnston

Keep Calm and Enjoy the Ride by Annette Paterakis

22 thoughts on “The Mental Game Part 1: Awareness

  1. As someone who has struggled daily with performance anxiety and OCD, I hear you. I was a talented kid in music and offered spots in prominent conservatories as a sophomore in high school…but I couldn’t handle my anxiety/OCD/mental banter. Quite frankly, I was ashamed that I couldn’t just ignore it. I spent 6 months unable to play because I would literally choke on air trying to play the first note. My biggest life regret (I’m 31) is the fact that I didn’t try to get help and work through it. While those struggles aren’t quite as prominent in my riding, they are certainly still there and raise their ugly heads frequently.

    Thank you for sharing. I am going to investigate these books and I look forward to following your journey.

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  2. Inside Your Ride was super helpful to me. It helped me let go of worrying about things I couldn’t control at shows, and also helped me realize that a lot of my stress at shows was due to not being organized/losing things at the last minute. I would have never connected either of those dots if I hadn’t read it.

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  3. This is so interesting and good for you for tackling full force! Only you 🙂 I realize I really do get into my own head about stuff too. The nerves and want to vomit feeling is worse than ever while showing and even getting on my horse after a lengthy time off (in my back yard no less)I thought I was going to get sick. And he did nothing. I put so much stuff in my own brain it is lucky he doesn’t read my nerves and follow through.

    Let alone jumping that big shit you do. UGH. Thanks for sharing the books titles. I need to read Tik first (i have it just havent started it) but may need to look at one or two of them.

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  4. Good for you! Sports in general are such a mental fuck, but when you share that sport with an animal who depends on you, it can be even worse!
    There’s a fine balance between “I want to do well” and “ I want to be perfect” and I know plenty of people who can’t enjoy anything unless they are the latter statement. And that’s not fun or reasonable.
    I’m excited to follow along with what you’ve learned. This is certainly a lesson for all of us!

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  5. I started this journey myself in summer 2017, when I realized that I was getting sick-to-my-stomach anxious when I was SIGNING UP FOR A SHOW ONLINE. Like, really? I’ve still got a long way to go, but realizing there’s a problem and taking positive steps has really helped. The mental aspect of this game is HUGE, and that’s not something most trainers will ever tell you (or maybe they don’t know themselves?)
    I’m also starting to work with a performance coach… happy to give you her name if you’d like.

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  6. I audited a Daniel Stewart clinic earlier this year and my trainer gifted me his other book that includes 52 weeks of exercises both physical and mental. I am in a vastly different place than you in that I get panic attacks when I ride where the fear just takes over and I have to hop off. Yet riding is the thing I most want do to above and beyond anything else in the world.

    I was able to take some tidbits away but thought it was more apt for riders who were more advanced than I. One thing that was odd was, a few horses in one group were acting up and he came quite close to saying, he couldn’t work with them if the riders couldn’t calm them down. The trainer who was hosting would have none of that and he caught himself and reminded himself to work with what was in front of him. And it all ended well.

    Because I am at a place of almost debilitating fear sometimes, I just bought Brain Training for Riders. I’m only through the first bit (haven’t gotten to the competition section yet) but am finding it far more relateable to me. Not the least in that she uses her own examples of where her “lizard brain” tries to take over and how she dealt with it. Its a bit too soon to tell but I am throwing myself in to the exercises and so far feel a wee bit more confident when I climb aboard my saintly mare.

    Thank you for sharing…I never would have imagined in a million years that your mental game gets in the way for you sometimes. 🙂

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  7. Super relatable. Kinda like how Lake Placid was in the works for years and then I went and had an utter meltdown for no reason besides the pressure I was putting on myself. It was the coolest. NOT.
    BRB gonna get myself at least one of these books.

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  8. You’ve already got a good list of books, but I have one more suggestion to add – Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Waldo. I struggled a lot with the mental side of riding, to the point of crippling anxiety and many meltdowns. I read Inside Your Ride and Pressure Proof Your Riding, and there’s lots of good stuff in those, but Andrea’s book has helped me the most by far – it’s a lot different than most sport psychology books. I still tend to get stuck in my head and am definitely a work in progress, but I’m starting to see positive results. I liked her book so much I actually did a few phone sessions with her and that made a world of difference for me. It’s such a mental game…sometimes I wish I had picked a different hobby! Haha. Good luck!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Good for you!
    I mean, it´s not as if we aren´t constantly telling you not to downplay your achievements and not to be too hard on yourself for a less-than-ideal ridden course or jump. Thanks for joing us! :o)
    I hope you´ll update us on this and you´ll certainly get our feedback with the next show or lesson post.
    As someone dealing with performance anxiety, depression and OCD issues I can only tell you to Keep at it. It´s tough to retrain your way of thinking, what you know/how you´ve always thought and acted *is* simply more comfortable.
    It takes effort, it takes reality checks..and it takes forgiveness if you slip back into old habits. It happens.

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  10. Riding is probably 85% mental, and for the most part, all the pressure comes from ourselves. I think it’s great to step back and realize that, and try to change a negative mindset.
    My trainer growing up was really hard on me, and put a lot of pressure on me. When I didn’t do well, she could be pretty terrible, telling me I was ruining my horse, and that I made dumb mistakes. Thankfully, my last junior year I rode with a different trainer who helped change that for me. Sure she made sure I knew where I made errors, but she also let me know when I did things right. It helped me to acknowledge those parts too.
    I find it really hard to believe people when they say I’m a good rider though. Like, part of me knows that. I certainly am not the worst. But I’ve been on semi-hiatus for so long, I feel like I shouldn’t trust my instincts, and the fear keeps slapping me in the face… Probably one or more of these books would be helpful with some of that.

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  11. I will be interested to see if you notice a change in yourself now that you feel more aware of your mental state. I spent the last few years going through this not only with riding but also life. I really think reflecting and diggin deep can do a lot of good for personal growth.

    For riding, I pretty much spent all summer feeling like a failure but not giving up and just constantly reminding myself it will get better, I will get better, etc. Positive vibes and self belief is where it is at. Sounds so cheesy but it is.

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  12. Excited for you! The mental game is just as hard as the actual riding part. I semi-recently realized I get insanely nervous- to the point that it negatively effects my riding. Keeping that under control has been a bit of an issue, but like all things I think being aware of it and practicing positive habits and self talk are slowly helping. I hope those books help you to change your mindset!

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  13. Inside Your Ride was really helpful to me! Going to check out the other two.
    Another one I quite enjoyed was “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down”. Not specifically horse related, but lots of great things to mull over, and the audiobook was fantastic – I can’t fully describe it, but all the f bombs read with the british accents of the authors were super entertaining to me 🙂

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  14. After picking riding back up after some time off, I found myself dealing with crippling show anxiety. I’ve worked past some of it in various ways, but definitely still have a lot of room for improvement. Definitely interested in a few of these books!

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  15. Very interesting. Trainer yelled at me during my schooling show with Gem. We were out there doing something I never thought possible and while I went around I felt so awful that I said out loud “Gem we look like fools let’s get this done”. She called me out for having a crap attitude. The thing for me is that I absolutely hate being watched. Endurance was awesome because there were no spectators and competitors came and passed and moved along. When I’m in an arena at a show I feel everyone’s eyes on me (imagined or real) and it embarrasses me causing to feel every tiny mistake 1000x worse. I need to get over that and realize that nobody knows my journey to get there or who I am. Me and center of attention do not get along.

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  16. The mental side of riding is huge. And I learned that the hard way. I am so happy to see you giving it the platform to talk about it. I think we, as riders athletes, do our selves a big disservice when we neglect it.
    About five years ago I had a series of bad riding decisions that resulted couple falls that shook my confidence but worse than that made my never stop at a fence horse start slamming on the brakes. We went from jumping happily 1.15-1.20m fences to him stoping at Cross rails and me who never had any fear jumping anything to feeling like vomiting at the thought of a square oxer (at any size).
    After a period of denial I figure out I needed help. I booked some sessions with a local sport psychology professional and started reading. Daniel Stewart’s book (also watched YouTube videos of him teaching and giving lectures) and Jane Savoie’s books both were very helpful in changing my self talk and giving me method’s to handle the stress. Was it easy? Nope pushing past my mental comfort zones was hard work. Did it work? Well,
    This year I took that same horse and his brother to our first FEI event (intro) and he did his first prelim (FOD too!).
    But even better then making those goals happen was being able to enjoy those events and having the skills to be mentally on my game. It’s made showing way more enjoyable for me and I know my horse’s are happier with not having to deal with me and that mega load of stress.
    So I am excited to read about how your mental awareness journey is going as I continue on my own.

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  17. I went through a very similar issue (although it manifested differently) for me about a year ago. I had so many of the same thoughts and feelings — I put pressure on myself to perform because owning, riding and showing horses is expensive (in time, money and energy… and not just your own!). But it just made me bitter, hopeless and miserable.

    I spent a lot of time thinking about it (read a few books) and talked with my friends and family. In the end, the answer for me was to focus on my own journey and let the rest of the chips fall where they may. It’s a mindset I still have to work at everyday, but it’s getting easier!

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  18. I definitely relate to this.

    I have found working with baby horses has helped though, because who actually expects you to do well on your horse’s first outings?
    Then it all becomes about giving them the best experience possible.

    Do I beat myself up over everything I did wrong? Still yes. But not as much, because sometimes riding baby horses feels like riding a baby landmine and you just gotta survive it.

    When I was riding my 1* mare though, yeah I was a brat.

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  19. It is so true that we tend to focus on the mistakes, not what went right, even when the mistakes were only about 5% or maybe .05% of the ride. It is definitely cultural (maybe all cultures) because our teachers and parents taught us to do this from a very early age, unintentionally I’m sure.

    And especially when we measure our day against the money spent on it — fairly sure that was indoctrinated by a parent, because mine did the same! But in my mind it is about the experience, and whatever it cost is water under the bridge.

    One heads-up as you go forward in this interesting journey is to be very strong in your new, positive ways of thinking, because the world is not going to understand that approach to competing and measuring oneself. A lot of remarks will need to be ignored, a lot of expectations for negative review of a ride will have to be cheerfully waved off. 🙂

    As an adult, when I reported to my parents about a horse show and talked about how beautiful to location was, how sparkling the weather, how well the horse went and what a great day it was, they asked two questions. How did I place? How many were in the class? They were uninterested in anything else. Both are non-horseperson schoolteachers and that is what counts with them. I had to laugh (and still do), knowing the context of their questions. I enjoy ribbons! but it is really about the experience, for me.

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