The Mental Game

Kate & Nyls du Terroir, Pine Top Intermediate. Photo by Carrie Meehan.

Kate and Nyls du Terroir at Pine Top Intermediate. Photo by Carrie Meehan.

As competitors, we are always seeking to improve our skills, and as eventers, this is pretty much a neverending quest. Not only do we have to work on our personal fitness, our technical skills, the strength of our horse, the communication between the two of us and the skill sets of our horses, but there is also the mental game. In riding — more than perhaps in other sports — the ability to control your thoughts and emotions is integral to success. I propose that this type of expertise is what sets the successful upper-level riders apart from the rest of the population in equestrian sport.

In terms of training horses at home, the rider’s ability to control their emotional response is critical. If nothing else, working with young or inexperienced horses can be testing and frustrating, and effectively training them is all about knowing how to not let the little stuff affect you. You can never lose your temper or behave in an irrational way. Horses thrive on predictable behavior from those who train them, and learning to show such a mellow and yet definite mental state is a skill in and of itself.

In surviving the equestrian lifestyle in a longterm capacity, yet another type of emotional control is required. Nobody knows about highs and lows like those involved with horses. Nothing else can give you such a thrill and the next day break your heart in such a complete way. We aren’t necessarily optimists, but we certainly have a way of refusing to let the disappointments crush our spirits. Having mental tenacity is the only way to endure the challenges that our lifestyle brings.

Kate & Buddy at Full Gallop. Photo by Carrie Meehan.

Kate and Buddy at Full Gallop. Photo by Carrie Meehan.

When it comes to competition, the most important thing is your ability to live in the present. You can’t be worrying or even thinking about the last movement, the last jump, the last stride. You can only contemplate the present and maybe the near future. As soon as you waste time thinking about the past, you’ve effectively detached yourself from what is currently happening, and you’ve put yourself a step behind. One jump at a time, one step at a time, one stride at a time.

No matter how many technical skills you may have or how many amazing athletic horses you have access to, you will never be fully successful in horse sports until you master your mind and your emotions. When push comes to shove in the heat of the moment, your mental prowess is what shows through, and your ability to stay cool and think logically will help you win the competition. Without the mental game, there is no sport at all.

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