Finding the Message in the Mess with Daniel Stewart

Athletic endeavors are hard, no matter the sport; however, all of us that ride and enjoy horses
know they also add challenges that simply don’t exist in any other sport. Eventing is
complicated, full of unexpected situations, and honestly most of the factors at a competition
are out of our control. Coach and Clinician Daniel Stewart is spot on when he says, “Skis don’t spook at snow! There aren’t any chestnut mare tennis rackets that refuse to load in the car!”

We train and train on the physical aspects of riding but spend much less time focusing on the mental challenges that our sport presents, which is ridiculous when you think about it. In addition to the sometimes unpredictable nature of our equine partners, we riders also put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves – not only to perform well for ourselves and others, but to do right by our horses. That pressure can fill our brains with destructive thought processes and severely limit our ability to ride well.

I spent the 4th of July holiday participating in a clinic with Daniel Stewart, which was organized by Julie Stephens of Leading Edge Equestrian in Spokane, WA. Julie met Daniel at the United States Pony Club annual meeting in Sacramento many years ago and has been hosting his clinics for twenty years. “I keep having him back because the affirmation of his positive approach is amazing,” Julie said. She uses many of Daniel’s exercises in lessons with her riders and said, “we practice tough, which is why I believe our horses jump so well.”

Coach Daniel Stewart provides clinics to equestrians in order to “pressure proof” their riding.
Photo by Erin Tomson.

Under Julie’s leadership and instruction, the Leading Edge riders are incredibly supportive and encouraging of other riders (from their own and other barns), which is wonderful to see. Daniel rightfully says that “riding is like juggling a chainsaw, a hotdog, a kitten, and a cactus!” Our sport is hard, challenges are inevitable, and we all do better when we cheer for each other. If you top a positive attitude with good practices for both the mental and physical aspects of riding, you might just have a “BOOYA-CRACKALACKA” moment where it all comes together!

Participants Cheyenne and Karlynn demonstrate the positive and supportive atmosphere developed.
Photo by Kelsey McCarty of KMC Equine.

Daniel’s clinics are unique. The jumps stay small and simple, but don’t be fooled… the challenge
comes in the rules of the game. He intentionally gives riders too many directions to follow, so
everyone is guaranteed to make mistakes, no matter how good or experienced a rider they are.

For example, he might give you instructions to jump a course of 6 fences beginning with #2 and
ending with #4 (the fences are numbered, and all can be jumped from both directions), no
repeating jumps, two changes of direction, count your strides out loud (e.g. three strides before each fence), and an optimum time of 45 seconds. You receive these instructions while you
canter a courtesy circle, and then you immediately begin your round, which means you have no
time to process the information and make a plan. He times you and you get penalties for being
under or over the optimum time, as well as making mistakes on the directions, and chipping in
or jumping long. If you have more than 7 penalties in one round…. Get off your horse and do 50
sit-ups! Doesn’t that sound fun?! With Daniel, it is as fun as it is challenging! Among the primary reasons for these exercises are to practice under pressure and learn to be okay with making mistakes.

We put so much time, energy, money, etc. into preparing for competitions, and when we get
there, we feel nervous and might have performance anxiety. Daniel’s unmounted sports
psychology seminars help riders learn what causes these show jitters and learn strategies to
combat them. In the seminar portion of his clinic, we learned that the fear of failure can top
that list. We all have imperfections, which we prefer to keep hidden, so when we put ourselves
on display, we risk others seeing our flaws or mistakes. The fear of letting someone down is also common — what if I let my HORSE down by not riding well or making a mistake? What will my parents, coach, friends, teammates, or sponsors think of me? Daniel addresses this by saying that we typically define our horses and the people in our lives based on effort, but we usually define ourselves based on outcomes.

Everyone is bound to make mistakes. But working to better understand how to cope and move forward is critical to an athlete.
Photo provided by Daniel Stewart.

There is power in realizing that you and only you create pressure. That means you can also
remove that pressure. Daniel pushes riders to practice under pressure so you can learn to stay
calm and make good decisions. He says, “Equestrians don’t make mistakes, mistakes make
equestrians. It makes them bolder and braver and brighter.” The only guarantee is that you are
going to make mistakes. Learn to be okay with that because messing up is how we learn. The
key, however, is to find the message within the mess.

Remember that mistakes are outcomes, so we shouldn’t focus on them. Whereas finding the message in your mistake takes effort. I really like this strategy because it gives me permission to be human! Humans are imperfect, just make an effort to learn from the mistakes and not repeat the same ones – that’s progress.

That’s not to say that mistakes don’t hurt or that you shouldn’t feel bad about them. Daniel
says you should feel bad about making a mistake and allow yourself a moping period to process
the error. However, your moping period should be proportional to the severity of the mistake.
He recommends three seconds to three minutes. Three seconds is a long time when it occurs
after you pull a rail in your 1-minute stadium round! Three minutes may not be long enough to
process the error if you pulled on the reins, took your leg off, caused your horse to drop a rail on the last fence, and knocked yourself out of first place… but the idea is to allow yourself to feel those emotions and then tell yourself “OK move on!” You can choose to come back into the present moment and not continue to dwell in the moping zone.

Personally, I find that cheering on my friends and fellow competitors helps me move out of the moping zone. Root for each other, enjoy other people’s successes, and remind yourself “I did my best” even if your best was messy and imperfect. In most cases, we did do our best and we should be proud of that. Keep practicing and next time your best can be even better. As Daniel says, “Riding is tough, but so are you.”

As Daniel Stewart says, “Riding is tough, but so are you.” And we are better when we cheer each other on.
Photo by Erin Tomson.

If you coach other riders, you might be interested in Daniel’s Instructor Certification Program,
which he is relaunching in Fall 2022.