Improving your riding mindset

How to Improve Your Rider Mindset in 3 Steps

Keeping a positive mindset when you’re in the saddle is sometimes easier said than done. But it’s vital to getting the best out of your riding. Trainer and mindfulness equine coach Andrea Beattie shares her top tips and how to improve your mindset in 3 steps — at home and/or before a competition.

With continuing lockdowns and restrictions, keeping a positive mindset is more relevant than ever. Improve your mindset to be a more effective rider while using these strategies to combat stress and boost your overall feeling of wellbeing.

Why is mindset important for horse riders?

‘Riding mindset can often be the difference between your best performance and your worst,’ says Andrea. ‘It’s often said that sports performance is 90% mental and 10% physical, and this is never truer than when you have a four-legged animal underneath you.’

Riding with confidence doesn’t just help you enjoy riding, it’s key to keeping you safe, whether you’re hacking out or tackling your toughest competition yet.

Be the leader

“Will I be able to stop him?”
“I’m not feeling up to it today...”
“He feels too spooky.”
“He just isn’t listening to me.”

Do any of these sound familiar?

When you’re faced with a challenge, it’s easy for negative thought patterns to creep in. But building the best partnership with your horse starts with them seeing you as the leader. This applies on the ground and in the saddle. Negative thoughts can stop you riding with confidence and leave your horse feeling insecure and this can cause them to take the lead.

‘Some riders may not experience these negative thought patterns explicitly but will experience body tension (often unconscious) or a feeling of “I can’t or don’t want to do this,’ explains Andrea. ‘Through mindfulness training, you can recognise these unhelpful thoughts or feelings and redirect them into more productive pathways.’

Your horse will pick up on anxiety and tension in your body, so using techniques to help curb these can improve both horse and rider performance.

3 steps to improve your riding mindset

So, what can you do to improve your mindset before you put your feet in the irons? Andrea shares her three horse-riding confidence-building exercises to help clear your mind before any type of riding.

1. Meditate before you ride

Mindfulness meditation is simple to try and you can start seeing the benefits from just 10 minutes a day.

The key is to focus on your breath as it’s always with you and acts as an anchor into the present moment – stopping you worrying about the future or remembering past bad experiences, which can impact negatively on performance.

How to mediate:

  • Sit in a quiet place where you know you won’t be disturbed.
  • Have both feet on the floor, a supported back and hands in your lap.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Focus on your breath and don’t try to change your breathing. Try focusing on the sound your breathing makes, the feeling of the air going in and out of your nose, or your chest rising and falling – whatever works best for you.
  • Try to let all other thoughts fall away. Imagine the only thing in the world right now is your breath. Each time you become distracted by a thought other than your breath, direct your attention back to your breath.

Remember to start small. If you think 10 minutes will be too long for you, start with one minute and gradually increase the time you sit for.

Andrea’s top tip: Don’t judge yourself if you find it difficult. Accept where you are today and when you feel your mind wandering, bring your attention back to your breath. You may have to do these exercises five or 1,000 times – either is okay.

You might not notice the impact on your riding immediately, but over time it’s an incredibly powerful tool and especially for riders, because horses are so sensitive to our emotions. Keep practising and this kind of meditation will improve your connection with your horse and help you to be more relaxed and confident in the saddle.

2. Visualise your success

Visualisation is a great way to mentally prepare and rehearse how you’ll cope with potential challenges.

By imagining a successful outcome, you can increase your confidence for when you’re riding. You can even visualise a contingency plan, so what you would do if plan A doesn’t work out. This can help riders feel confident in their ability to cope with anything that could happen during a real-life situation.

How to visualise:

Let’s imagine you’re preparing for a dressage test. Start off with some mindful meditation from Step 1.

  • Imagine your horse moving beneath you. Really use your imagination and feel his back moving beneath your seat and his sides moving next to your legs.
  • Imagine your horse working to the best of his ability. He is attentive and you are tuned-in to him, you are focused on him alone, everything else melts away.
  • Imagine you give him a pat just before your test and you feel him relax underneath you. Smile. A real, calm smile.
  • Go through your test in your head in real time. Visualise every turn, every bend and every movement. What thoughts are going through your head? Where are you looking? What will your body be doing? What will your horse’s body be doing?
  • Finish with your salute and a feeling that you both performed to the best of your ability.
  • Imagine how your body and mind feels as you pat your horse on the way out. Remember that feeling and revisit it before your next real-life test.

Andrea’s top tip: It’s important to make your visualisation a positive experience. If you’re having trouble letting go of negative thoughts, the good news is you can retrain yourself to hold on to positive ones — let’s move on to Step 3.

3. Stick to positive self-talk

The way we talk to ourselves internally has a big impact on how we see ourselves. Would you speak to your best friend the way you talk to yourself in your head? Probably not. Treating yourself like you would your friends is a simple, but incredibly effective, way to boost self confidence, and not just in the saddle!

How to use positive self-talk:

  • Phrase everything you say to yourself (in your head or out loud) in a helpful way that encourages you to grow, instead of shutting yourself down. If you’re having trouble, take what you want to say to yourself, then imagine you’re saying it to a friend.
  • For example: ‘He’s just not listening today. It’s not our day’ becomes, ‘You need to ride really calmly and make sure you use clear aids today, as he is picking up on the atmosphere. You will be his leader by riding to the best of your ability. Focus on your own calm breath, everything else is out of your control — so there’s no point worrying about it.’

This applies every day, not just when you’re at a competition. For example ‘I’m never going to jump that big course of jumps!’ becomes ‘I can’t jump that big one yet, but with practice, small steps and help, I will be able to.’

Andrea’s top tip: When you start thinking negative thoughts, imagine you’re talking to a friend. Ask yourself, ‘Would I talk to a friend this way?’ Then instead of beating yourself up, reassure yourself, just as you would your friend.’

For more confidence tips, check out confidence coach Jane Brindley’s guide on how to stop nerves holding you back.