About 18 months ago, we got a call from a concerned Mom about her teen equestrian daughter.

There were fundamental problems with the two critical keys of high performance—enjoyment and achievement. Both were missing. No fun and no results.

Her daughter had become frustrated with the sport, it was a chore going to the barn, shows were filled with anxiety, confidence was low and results were negligible—even with a very nice partner. The drama around the sport was also becoming negative with the impacts of social media at shows and the burden of expectations. It was time to either quit and find another passion…or do something about it.

Fast forward 18 months after a mental/emotional development process that developed the critical skills the young equestrian needed to both achieve her targets and fall in love with the sport again.

From Mom:

“We were talking about you on the drive home Sunday from Toronto and we realize just how much you have helped her…in so many ways, my daughter is a different person. And, we have a new horse arriving next week—the next project!”

Mental/emotional high-performance development can be the difference in your riding

I have the wonderful privilege of working with some of the world’s leading athletes in many different sports. These athletes leave no stone unturned when it comes to training and performance. They understand that performance starts in the mind—so building their mental and emotional muscles is a priority toward maximizing their abilities. Spending equal time on all the key areas of performance enables them to have a healthy, proactive approach to their sport.

In an athlete performance model, there are four key areas:

  • Technical—your skill development, fundamentals
  • Physical—physical development to support your technical skills
  • Strategic—horsemanship and planning to address the challenges of a course
  • Mental/Emotional—critical fundamentals and tools that drive the physical performance

It has been my experience in the sport of equestrian that with the emphasis on the horse and the training of the animal, the training of the rider is secondary. The lack of training in the mental/emotional component inhibits them from truly bringing maximum value to the relationship—and from developing as a happy, healthy athlete.

The traditional nature of the sport has created an environment of late adoption to new approaches compared to many other sports. Riders and coaches have not embraced the exponential benefits of mental and emotional high performance development. The horse has been the priority with a secondary focus on the rider.

This late adoption is potentially being fuelled by some myths about the area of performance that is maybe not completely understood. These myths may be ultimately holding riders back from progress in the quest to reach their potential and fully maximize their experience in the sport.

Myths that might be holding your riding back

I’d like to dispel a few myths that may cause you to hesitate and prevent you from working on developing your mental and emotional muscles—and ultimately preclude you from being the best rider you can be:

Myth: There is something wrong with me if I need to work on mental/emotional skills in my sport.

Fact: Mental and emotional high performance development in sport is not about fixing an athlete. It is about developing skills that are required to maximize abilities. It is an educational process. Similar to building your technical, physical and horsemanship skills each day, the same effort must be made to develop the mental and emotional aspect.

Myth: Mental and emotional high-performance training is for athletes who are mentally weak.

Fact: Mental and emotional training is for all athletes. Any athlete, at any level should be developing the skills that more fully allow them to express their technical and physical training. Consider that every great athlete is coached—no matter what level. Why? So they can continue to improve and ensure sustainability and consistency.

Myth: It’s all about the horse anyway in equestrian—as long as I don’t get in the way—it’s fine.

Fact: Equestrian is an equal partnership between horse and rider. Emotions are shared between the partners and the emotions of the rider directly impact the performance of the horse. The rider is the pilot and must have great mental and emotional competency to steer the relationship in the right direction.

Myth: Mental and emotional high-performance development is only for elite riders.

Fact: Any level, age, or equestrian discipline can benefit from mental and emotional high-performance development. Parents and coaches can also benefit. Not only will mental and emotional high-performance development help you on the horse, but the skills are highly transferable to all areas of life like business, leadership and relationships.

Myth: Mental and emotional training is a quick fix and a short-term thing.

Fact: Mental and emotional training in equestrian is a process to build independence and confidence in the client athlete. Like any skill, it takes time and repetition to build competency and confidence. Tricks and tips never work. Mastery of fundamentals and a great process does.

Myth: Mental and emotional training is too much like therapy, lying on a couch talking about my feelings.

Fact: Mental and emotional training in equestrian is about developing performance skills. A great performance expert has a defined, quantifiable process that includes assessment, building detailed plans, communicating with coaches and using the latest technologies to help the equestrian athlete improve. The work is done through conversation, watching, reviewing and planning at a convenient location, at the barn or at the show ground.

Why mental/emotional high performance should be important to you

Riders like world-class performer McLain Ward understand the benefits of mental/emotional high performance and what it can do to ensure positive performance and sustainability in the sport of equestrian. Ward connects his mental/emotional work directly with his fantastic results—and as a primary reason why he’s at the top of the sport.

Shared Ward during the Hampton Classic horse show last year:

“As far as my own personal focus and nerves, it’s something that I’ve struggled with at times in my own career. I’ve worked really hard with sports psychologists to be better at that and to raise my game. I’m a real believer in how that has affected my results.”

Here are a just a few benefits of mental/emotional high performance development that you might not have considered:

  1. Building self-awareness. Working with the world’s leading athletes everyday, one of the critical keys to sustainable high performance is the competency of self-awareness. When we assess athletes at all levels, results show that eight out of ten performers do not have an adequate level of self-awareness to be a high performer. It, therefore, must be developed for an equestrian to maximize abilities. Development of self-awareness through riding will also enable high performance in other areas of your life.
  2. Building confidence. What is confidence? How do you build it? How do you keep it? A great mental/emotional development plan will ensure you understand confidence and you bring it with you into the ring on every trip!
  3. A clear path forward. A detailed, concise athlete plan is required including a vision for your riding and a plan in place to reach your targets. Most athletes have no plan, no fundamental structure, no defined path to reach targets and, therefore, most often get lost along the way and don’t reach targets.
  4. Awareness and regulation of emotion. Human beings are emotional. Often your emotions direct you and pull you in a variety of directions. Awareness and regulation of emotions is a key element in mental/emotional high performance development. With development, emotions can be channeled in the right direction and used to maximize enjoyment and achievement.
  5. Building focus. We live in a world of distraction—phones, social media, big events, expectations. In order to maximize abilities, a level of mindfulness must be developed to centre the focus on what’s important. Mental/emotional high performance development builds a new level of focus.
  6. Ensuring enjoyment. The ultimate result of your riding is you enjoy yourself and have fun. Many riders lose perspective of the primary reasons for riding and get caught up in traps that do not enable them to enjoy the sport.

So what are you waiting for?

There are equestrians all over the world who have technical and physical talent, and great partners, but they never reach their targets or gain full enjoyment from the sport.

I encourage you to be an early adopter and take the next step to maximize your equestrian abilities—and more fully enjoy the sport you love. Be proactive and don’t wait for issues to arise. Take a developmental stance and build the skills to maximize your abilities and gain an edge over your competition. And, as a major added benefit, you’ll take these skills and become a high performer in everything you do!

About the Author

John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A former professional athlete and current bestselling author of You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve Morein business, sports and life, John understands how athletes think and feel…he’s been there—under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. John coaches athletes in all sports and is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes—professional and elite amateur. See www.johnhaime.com to learn more.