If you read my post earlier this year about my 2018 goals, you might recall that one of the big things I wanted to work on was my mental game – especially the way I think about my riding and the things I tell myself. I am no psychologist, but I know myself well enough to see my thought patterns/internal dialog and know what I want to work on changing. Yet, it’s always easier said than done!
(Disclaimer: I am in no way trying to imply that changing these thought patterns is an easy process or something that can be done just by incorporating a simple formula into your life, and I don’t want to downplay anyone’s journey towards change. I just want to share a few things that have been helping me.)
When it comes to anything I’m passionate about in life – namely art and dressage – I am a perfectionist. I am always looking to be better and to do better. But with that perfectionism comes a lot of frustration about the things I feel I’m not doing well enough. For me, it’s been a lifelong struggle to learn to accept criticism and feedback without letting it take over to the point where I spiral into thinking “I’m terrible at everything. I should stop trying.” Thirty-two years into my life, I’m getting much better at remembering that feedback isn’t an attack on me as a person – rather, it’s usually coming from a place of kindness and caring.
And yes, I am no stranger to feeling these things while I’m taking riding lessons. Sometimes, when I struggled with a new concept, I could shove my self-doubt into the background – still there, still distracting, but not overpowering. At my worst, I would shut down completely to the point where I couldn’t even hear simply instructions anymore. I just sat there, hoping my body would respond somehow without my brain’s direct influence. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work like that)
Challenges to Overcome
One of the biggest things that helped me this past winter, as I mentioned before, was having my trainer give me a challenging horse to ride and then letting me figure it out myself – no pressure, no expectations. The mare needed a job, and Ruth thought we might get along. There was no goal other than to give this horse something to do. That, for me, was an enormous confidence boost. It was enough of a challenge to force me to rise to the occasion just to see what I could accomplish.
During this time, I also started reading a book that Amanda reviewed on her blog, Bel Joeor – “Brain Training For Riders: Unlock Your Riding Potential with StressLess Techniques for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance, and Finding Focused Calm“, by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo. I won the book as a year-end award for our local schooling show series, and it remained unread on my shelf for awhile, before I finally pulled it out this winter.
I’ve never been one for reading books like this one – but I really enjoyed it. It’s such an easy read, and it included so many helpful tips that I found myself wanting to apply to my everyday life in addition to my riding life. While I’ve had my share of fearful moments over my years of riding, it’s the mental struggle that’s always been my biggest challenge, and this book gave me a lot of ideas and encouragement for overcoming those frustrating thoughts that used to be so prevalent in my mind.
Reading this book, combined with my rides on this new (to me) horse, started to slowly change my thinking and perception. The no-pressure situation helped me worry less about making every single ride a good one. The only pressure I felt was whatever pressure I decided to put on myself. Without realizing it, I began to swap my thinking from “Why can’t I get this horse on the bit and ahead of my leg? I suck. I don’t even know why I’m doing this” to something much more helpful. I acknowledged mistakes (a huge step!) when they happened, took mental notes, and asked myself in a non-accusatory tone: “Why did that happen? What is the root of the problem and how would I like to try and fix it next time?” Before I knew it, I found myself excited that whenever I fixed one issue, a new one popped up – it meant we were making progress, it kept things interesting, and it gave me a new puzzle to solve!
Fake it Til You Make it
All of these ingredients came together and showed me where my biggest challenge truly was: my confidence. The more I stopped questioning myself and what I was doing, the more confident I became, and the more progress I made. By reframing my perspective (“Having problems doesn’t make me a terrible person – they give me something to do!”), I was unknowingly creating confidence where there was none.
I worked on allowing myself to feel frustrated without letting it take over and color my entire ride. Instead of suppressing those negative feelings, I let them happen. I gave myself time to feel that frustration/doubt/sadness/whatever it may be – and then, I began to ask myself what I was going to do about it.
I’ve never been a “brave” rider – and I still don’t consider myself one. This winter, (and carrying on into the summer/fall) however, I started to see that if there was no obvious reason why I shouldn’t be able to ride a particular horse, or perform a particular movement, then…why not do it? Inwardly, I might still have that quiet self-doubt about what I’m about to do. But, as long as I don’t feel like I’m in danger, I worked on saying “yes” to each new horse/movement/experience that presented itself. And each time I did that, I was teaching my self-doubting brain that I actually COULD do those things, which meant more points towards building confidence and quelling anxiety.
Music and Riding
Another thing that helped grow my confidence was to put on some music I loved while I was riding. Do you have a particular song or band that, whenever it comes on, you HAVE to start singing along? Suddenly you find your mood improving and your body relaxing. This winter, I created a playlist of songs that always pick me up. Whenever I brought a horse in the ring – especially the new mare – I turned on my playlist. I can’t help myself – it immediately makes me start singing and smiling. I breathe easier. I start to ride the horse to the beat of the music. My worries start to fall away, and I am thinking less about how spooky So-And-So might be today, and instead I’m automatically getting that spooky horse in front of my leg and in tune to me.
If you don’t have a playlist yet (or several!) I encourage you to put one together. ZZ Ward is the new mare’s spirit animal, so she’s my go-to artist whenever I ride that particular mare. Like gazillions of other people across the globe, I’m unapologetically obsessed with Hamilton – so sometimes that’s my jam when I ride. When I ride Crumble, I like listening to The Lumineers or Mumford.
For those who ride alone often, or want some extra inspiration between lessons, check out Riding With Soul. Each song in the collection is already matched to a particular gait, so you and your horse can easily find your rhythm. For extra help, you can check out the albums with narration that will guide you through each gait, with suggestions on what to work on.
How do you bring your A-Game?
I’ll be the first person to say that confidence and the “mental game” are such tough things to work on. They’re things I know I’ll be working on for the rest of my life. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the process, too – what has worked for you? Once of the best things we can do is take the time to find the tools that work for us. While it’s not a quick fix by any means, I find it so encouraging to know that when I do get stuck in self-doubt, I have an arsenal of options to help get me out.