We riders are funny—we can accomplish amazing things (stick spring bucks, hang tight when that stride’s left out…again, teach big strong animals not to break us), and we can win plenty of ribbons and recognition, but all it takes is one bad lesson, one bad round, and our confidence is shattered.

Performance coach John Haime has made a name for himself working with professional athletes in top sports around the globe—the NFL, NHL, golf, soccer, and tennis, to name just a few. His work with equestrian athletes has led him to identify what he calls a “crisis of confidence” across disciplines in horse sports, and in his new book, Ride Big, he gives us all the tools we need to keep our cool, even when the pressure heats up.


Before you can have confidence, you must first understand yourself. The fundamental pieces that make up this understanding become the foundation for sustainable confidence and your ability to be consistent in your performances. This is not a book about quick tips and tricks that yield only temporary change. I want to help you understand and build confidence that lasts.

Mastering your Self-Discovery skills will allow you to constantly look at improvement in all areas of your riding. What I typically see is equestrian athletes trying to deal with problems one by one and going around in one big circle—almost always ending up where they started with little improvement to show for it.

One of the primary truths I see in my day-to-day communication with some of the world’s leading performers is that if you clearly understand yourself, the door to the world can open to you. When you don’t know some of the key fundamentals about yourself, that door is much harder to unlock. The difficulty in opening that door is reflected in a variety of struggles for athletes, including frustration, inconsistency, and the self-sabotage traps that lurk around every corner.

Confidence is your secret weapon to Riding Big. Self-Discovery is the doorway to that confidence.

So, what is Self-Discovery, and what does it really mean?

As a starting point, there are many pieces to it, including understanding:

  • your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • your purpose
  • your personal values
  • your personal vision
  • your strengths and limitations
  • your emotional triggers
  • what you can and can’t control
  • your ability to reflect and accurately assess your experience
  • your ability to receive and interpret feedback

Like your seat position, hand position, and key fundamentals of the technical part of your riding, Self-Discovery is a key fundamental of growing your mental and emotional muscles. And Self-Discovery must be considered and practiced every day. It’s like a muscle that grows over time, and the effort you put in will help put you on a path toward Riding Big.

And, when you take it one step further, while it’s important to know who you are today and what “makes you tick,” you must adapt to the tension that equestrian athletes face daily—ongoing changes needed to excel and move to new levels. You must be aware of the changes and what is required of you to adapt to them. A high level of awareness of yourself first will help you recognize and make those changes.

Here’s an interesting fact: In the course of the past 10 years my team and I have assessed thousands of people in our programs or audiences. Surprisingly, we have discovered that approximately 8.5 out of 10 performers we assess do not have an adequate level of understanding about themselves to be consistently high performers. This certainly confirms why there may be a general lack of confidence in performers when we know that Self-Discovery is Step 1 on the path to sustainable confidence.

Let’s do a very quick check to see if you might have the level of self-awareness that opens the door to allow you to Ride Big.

If you answer “yes” to most of the questions below, the chances are good that you understand or are on your way to understanding yourself well. But if you struggle with these questions, as many do, we need to help you get to know your equestrian self just a little bit better.

The Self-Awareness Quiz

Answer “yes” or “no” to the following statements:

1. I understand my emotions from moment to moment and why they happen. I know what triggers unsettling emotions that distract me from my performance.

2. I can easily list all of my strengths and limitations in riding.

3. I know all of the reasons why I ride (my purpose).

4. I have a defined value system that guides my decisions, behavior, and actions in my equestrian life.

5. I always recognize how my behavior affects my horse and others around me.

6. I ask people (coaches and trainers) for feedback on what I do well, and how I can improve.

7. I reflect after training and competition performances, and write down what I learned and how that might lead to improvement.

8. I rarely repeat the same mistakes because I learn from them.

9. I am aware of my negative habits, and I know how to build good ones.

10. Adapting to change is easy for me.

The leading athletes in equestrian sport have traveled the journey to know themselves well in order to attain new levels, gain confidence, and keep moving forward. Olympic and World Equestrian Games gold medalist McLain Ward says his own journey in self-awareness has been extremely important in his development as a world-class show jumper:

“First, I was aware I needed to work on my mental capabilities,” he explains. “I had done a lot of great things in my career on some of my basic riding capabilities, but I knew when I came up short, it was a mental issue. So that was my first step: the awareness and recognizing that I needed to build some skills. No matter what the outward appearance looked like in confidence and credentials, I just felt there were lost opportunities. So, I was aware enough to do something about it and get some help. It was just learning that I can control it and continue to work on it—and knowing how it affects my performance.”

This excerpt is adapted from Ride Big by John Haime and reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com). Pick up your copy on Equishopper.com!

John Haime is this month’s featured author on HN Reads. Tune in Wednesday, May 12 at 7:30pm ET for an intimate chat with the author and host Gretchen Lida! Exclusively on Horse Network.