Pro Tips

5 Tips for Maintaining Focus Under Pressure

©Stefano Grasso/LGCT

Beezie Madden, Ian Millar, Scott Brash—some riders seem to thrive under pressure. The higher the stakes, the better their performance. For less accomplished riders, the pressure cooker of the show ring can cause a plan to unravel quicker than a Spartan Brass sax player on game day.


Fear not. There are ways to ensure you don’t spiral into spaz mode in the ring. Mental skills coach Tonya Johnston of California shares her tips for maintaining focus in high pressure situations. Take a cleansing breath and read on.

Learn the “How”

“Every course starts with knowing where to go. ‘What’ am I supposed to do,” says Johnston.

“Some people stop at the ‘what.’ You have to make a plan that includes the ‘how.’ If my horse gets sluggish by the gate, my trainer may want me to have a plan to get in my two point position and send him with my leg before the in-gate. I’m going to add that to the ‘how’ layer.”

She suggests using checkpoints in the ring. “Plant a mental flag or checkpoint at the corner that this is the place where my horse may fall behind my leg. Put a ‘forward’ flag there, so there is a specific place in the ring to trigger ‘keep leg and create forward momentum.’”

Do your ring research

If you leave the ring and the round feels like a big blur, it’s because you are suddenly taking in too much information all at once, says Johnston. The more ring research you do, the less likely you are to be distracted by the new information.

“Walk the outside of the ring. Get comfortable with the track, the slope of the ring, look at every angle. You want to get acquainted with the ring so you can focus on ‘how’ and not be surprised by the environment,” she says.

Run a mental rehearsal

Close your eyes and ride the whole course in your mind.

“When using visualization techniques, it’s very important to use an internal perspective. See the course through your own eyes—ride the opening circle, ride the jump, ride the corner. Smile after you’re done and pat your horse,” advises Johnston.

“The more vivid the imagery, the better you will learn the course plan. You want your body to have déjà vu when you’re in the ring because it was already taught the plan.”

The course may not happen exactly as planned, she continues. “But you have a better chance to remember what you should concentrate on—the whole plan, not just the order of jumps.”

Simulate the course in your warm up

“In your warm up, before you start jump schooling, ride some corners in your mind as if you are riding a part of the course. That is great rehearsal for the ring. Focus on your body and horse’s body and pull in pieces of the course. You’ll feel like you’ve already learned and ridden it well,” says Johnston.

Observe others in the ring

“When watching other people, even if they are not in the same class or riding the same course, some of the corners or lines will be the same. The more comfortable you are, the more you can focus on your own priorities. Watch and pretend you’re riding the course as you watch their horse progress around the ring. Do this to gain information, not evaluate other people’s rounds,” continues Johnston.

“Your preparation for the show ring should include plans for executing both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the course. Use mental skills to teach yourself the plan so that by the time you start your round you feel only trust and confidence.”

Find more words of sport psychology wisdom at Tonya Johnston’s Twitter page.  

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