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Improving your riding mindset

Improving your riding mindset

Ensuring you’re in the right mindset when in the saddle is vital to getting the best out of your riding. Trainer and mindfulness equine coach Andrea Beattie offers advice and exercises to help improve your riding mindset.

‘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.’ To be safe and enjoy riding, it’s vital to ride with confidence whether you’re hacking out or tackling your toughest competition to date.

‘As a rider, it’s essential for your horse to see you as his leader, both on the ground and in the saddle,’ adds Andrea. ‘When faced with a challenging situation, it’s easy for negative thought patterns to emerge: “Will I be able to stop him?”; “I’m not feeling up to it today”; “He feels too spooky”; “He just doesn’t listen to me.” These thoughts can stop you riding with confidence and being the leader. 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.” Through mindfulness training, you can recognise these unhelpful thoughts or feelings and redirect them into more productive pathways. This helps the rider to reduce anxiety and body tension, which the horse will pick up on, thus improving rider (and equine) performance.’

Andrea outlines three horse-riding confidence-building exercises to help keep your mind in tiptop shape for every type of riding:

Mindful meditation

Mindfulness meditation is really simple to try but is most effective when done every day, for 10 minutes or more. You might not notice the impact on your riding immediately, but over time it’s an incredibly powerful tool, especially with horses, as they are so sensitive to our emotions. 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 do it:

  • 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. You could focus on the sound your breathing makes or 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.

Top tips:

  • 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.
  • 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 five or 1,000 times – either is okay.

Practising this kind of meditation daily will improve your connection with your horse and help you be more relaxed and confident in the saddle.

Visualisation

Visualisation allows riders to mentally prepare and rehearse for any upcoming 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 do it (using a dressage test as an example):

  • Start off with the steps above for mindfulness meditation.
  • Begin to 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 into 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.
  • Then go through your test in real time. Imagine every turn, every bend and every movement. What thoughts will be going through your head? Where will you be 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 after the test as you pat your horse on the way out. Can you recreate that feeling before your next real-life test?

Top tip:

It’s important to make this visualisation a positive experience, which is why it helps to have already taught yourself to let go of negative thoughts and hold onto positive ones through mindfulness practise.

Positive self-talk

The way we talk to ourselves internally has a big impact on how we see ourselves and we probably wouldn’t talk to our friends the way we talk to ourselves in our heads. Treat yourself like you would treat a friend. In your head (and out loud) phrase things in a helpful way that encourages you to grow, rather than shutting yourself down.

For example, ‘I’m never going to jump that big course of jumps!’ becomes, ‘I can’t jump that big one yet, but with practise, small steps and help I will be able to, if I really want to.’

For example: ‘He’s just not listening today. It’s not our day’ becomes, ‘I need to ride really calmly with very clear aids today as he is picking up on the atmosphere. I will be his leader by riding to the best of my ability and focusing on my own calm breath, everything else is out of my control so there’s no point worrying about it.’

Top tip:

When you start thinking negative thoughts, imagine you’re talking to a friend and instead of beating yourself up, reassure yourself, like you would a friend.