The Competitor’s Toolbox: The Mental Game

Recently I have been thinking about myself as not only a horseperson, but also as a competitor. That is, assessing how I stack up and whether or not I am prepared at competitions so that those shows set myself and my horse up for success. I’ve determined that there are three ways to think about the requirements of a good competitor, and these are the Mental Mindset or Psyche of the rider, Equipment, and Preparation of the Horse.

The first then that I want to assess is the mental game. I think a lot of this is knowing your strengths and weakness, and staying mentally focused so that you remain in the moment enough to use your strengths to your advantage, and make corrections (for your weaknesses) as you go along.

For instance, while it’s taken me many years to get there, I think I have a good Dressage ‘game face’. Intercollegiate Dressage in particular taught me to ride every step of every test, and have confidence in my abilities. I’ve practiced and perfected visualizing exactly how I plan to ride each movement in my mind, and now find this process relaxes me whenever nerves try to come up. Visualization comes up again in my day-to-day riding, as when I feel the horse getting heavy or sloppy I picture myself as a Grand Prix rider, tall and elegant and soft but clear with my aids. This in turn tends to correct my equitation and helps my horse respond to me more efficiently.

Game face on.

Game face on.

My weakness, then, is jumping. Because I have been a formal student of jumping for less time, I lack the ability to visualize exactly what I want to achieve, and therefore have less confidence going on course. Looking for riders at the top level as visual examples is, in my opinion, less clear, as I see a bevy of different releases, leg positions, and styles among professional jumpers and eventers. Additionally, not knowing the course until the day of (or sometimes the hour of) the competition makes my mental run-throughs rushed and not nearly as effective. In short, the techniques that work so well for me as a dressage competitor fall short for the other phases.

CHP, October 2014

CHP, October 2014

Instead for jumping, I have started using other techniques to get my psyche in order. The bullet lists you see in each lesson post become mantras that I repeat as I prepare for the competition. I try to find songs that get me pumped. J played this one for me getting ready for the clinic, and I really found it helped me find a groove, even if the only lyrics I really know are ‘like a great white shark on shark week!’ (enthusiastically yelled by myself, of course).


Besides knowing your mental strengths and weaknesses, there are the other responsibilities of the rider to know- speeds required for the level and what that feels like, penalty rules, technicalities (such as what to do if your horse refuses the second fence in a related combination, whoops), and so on and so forth. Any detail of this could be the difference between success and failure (although we never fail, we just gain a learning opportunity!), or a blue ribbon and a red ribbon. Growing our knowledge and becoming a student of the sport is what being an amateur is about, and the more we know, the more we set ourselves up for success.

What mental techniques do you use to prepare for or at competition? How do you handle the stresses of competing? Are there mental aspects that you would like to improve yourself?

10 thoughts on “The Competitor’s Toolbox: The Mental Game

  1. I really like the idea of this being a triad! I always find that if I’m mentally preparing at the show, it’s too late. I walk in either anxious or excited, and it’s super super hard to change that mindset once I’m warming up. So I prep the night before by looking at pictures of people jumping and then reading critiques; I used to look at Practical Horseman magazine to read what George Morris had to say about all the submissions, and now I go on Judge My Ride. Getting to see pictures of real amateurs riding and reading what judges think about their position makes me feel more informed about what I should be focusing my energy on. And for it’s a matter of focusing on something so I don’t focus on tensing up!
    I’ll be really interested to hear what everyone else says!

  2. There are certain rituals I do at a show (and prepping for one) that help me have a calm mindset. I’m with you on positive visualization. Being organized makes me feel in control. I have checklists. I make day plans that tell me when I get up, go to X place, do Y, etc. I bring the USEA rulebook to every show and I read the sections covering the next day’s phases the night before. I know the rules very well by now, but I feel more confident having it fresh in my mind. I check my tack (for wear/issues). I walk my course a million times – and visualize while I do so. I go stand at my dressage ring and visualize. Looking forward to reading other comments and tips!

  3. This is such an important topic, but also deeply personal for each competitor. I think it’s important to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, so that you can prepare a mental strategy around that, as you do.

    My weakness is nerves and letting mistakes go. When I start to feel butterflies, I tell myself to breathe deeply and remind myself that I CAN do this; that I have done it and to trust in myself and my horse because we’ve practices and are prepared for this.

    In terms of letting mistakes go, I practice this in lessons. When I mess up a distance to a jump, I make SURE I have to jump another jump before stopping. One mistake to one fence isn’t going to keep me out of the ribbons, but if I ride the rest of my course focused on that mistake, it will.

  4. Great post! I actually have the opposite feelings about dressage and jumping, bc dressage is still so new to me. But your points about knowing the test ahead of time vs not knowing the course make a lot of sense!

    I use a lot of visualization a too – esp trying to remember those times when everything went really well.

  5. Your philosophy is so similar to Daniel Stewart’s, and he’s a professional sports psychologist! The mantras, the song, it’s all part of his program for helping yourself ride better under pressure. So I totally agree with you and I have LOTS of songs I like to sing — actually aloud — during my rides!

  6. Great post! Preparation is also KEY for me – the day before a show I NEED several hours to bathe & clip my pony, pack the trailer, clean my tack and boots, and set out all my clothes for show day. Before I go to bed, everything is ready so that all I have to do when I get to the barn is give my pony one last quick clean, throw him on the trailer, and go! Getting to the venue early also helps me as well – feeling rushed almost always has a negative impact on my performance.

  7. Pingback: Confident Riding | A House on a Hill

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