Lunch & Learn: Mental Skills for Success in the Show Ring

Equestrian, General

Happy Friday!

I attended another great edition of the Lunch & Learn series here at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington this week.

Lunch & Learn: Mental Skills for Success in the Show Ring with Tonya Johnston, MA” Sponsored by Foxcroft School.

The mental side of this sport is a hugely significant factor that most of us probably don’t nurture the way we would like to or moreover should.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach. She has her Masters in Sports Psychology and specializes in equestrian athletes. In addition to being a published author, Tonya does individual sessions and mental training clinics. She can work with you in person or via phone. She has worked with everyone from pony riders to top professionals and international riders.

She also participates monthly on The Plaidcast – a weekly horse podcast hosted by Piper Klemm, PhD, publisher of The Plaid Horse magazine, and USEF “R” judge, rider, trainer along with Plaid Horse editor Sissy Wicks. Tonya’s feature, Inside Your Ride, focuses on the mental side of the sport. PS – Downloaded this immediately.

She started her presentation with an exercise in visualization. She had us close our eyes and go to a more recent great ride we’d had. She asked us to visualize that ride in detail using all of our senses.

After completing this and coming back into the room, she discussed the importance of routines. She explained that many of us have pre show preparation regimes for our horses, but we forget that we need them too. As riders, we also need consistency in some form to adequately prepare. She gave a few examples from different riders she has worked with.

Susie Hutchinson would gear up for the show ring by watching whatever professional sport was on at the time. She was inspired by the level of performance.

Ian Millar is dedicated to yoga as apart of his mental preparedness.

Taylor St. Jacques, a well known hunter and equitation rider, would put her phone away during competitions until she had finished her rides.

We are all individuals alas, and we all need to take note of what works for us and commit to it. For me, a few things came to mind when this was presented regarding my own pre show rituals. One example for me is in regards to my beloved morning cup of coffee. On days that I am showing, I don’t drink caffeine beforehand, thus my camper is always stocked with plenty of decaf in the summertime.

Other things to consider according to Tonya are your mental/emotional state the day you are competing. If it is not as positive as it could be, how can you change how you respond to things that are out of your control?

Make sure you are taking care of your own nutrition and hydration needs. Your brain dehydrates first! I don’t like to eat much before I ride, so a banana is often my go to.

Get acclimated with your show ring in advance. Look at it from several different angles before learning your course and the technical details of said course. If you often take a picture of your course sheet, instead or in addition, take a picture of your actual course. I’ve been watching a class before and seen things happen on course where there appears to be a certain reaction uniformly across the class at a particular fence. Perhaps from a different angle, I would be able to pinpoint potential reasons prior to being there myself. When you are memorizing your course, plan the details of your course down to your opening circle, turns, and important cues for the corners.

Take note of your energy level. What energizes you? A rest in a cool calm place or maybe a playlist? Your own soundtrack to good vibes!?

And of course, BE PRESENT!!! “It is here, it is now”. I must admit I’ve had plenty of rounds where my mind gets too busy and I walk out of the ring and think, what just happened? Well, I can also delightfully recall the times when I’m literally on course thinking about being in the moment and really taking it in and having a clear mind.

Next we moved onto an another exercise. She had little pendulums at the tables for everyone. She had us hold it at 90 degrees with our elbow comfortably at our sides. She had us begin by focusing on keeping the pendulum still. Then she asked us to begin to imagine the pendulum moving in a circle, starting small and slowly getting bigger and rounder. The focus of this realizing our mind/body connection that is busy within our subconscious. It was really interesting!!! Without any indication of physical movement, we were all sitting there with this pendulum swing around in a neat circle, complete with a direction change midway through. Her point being, your mind has power over your physical being.

Going back to riding your course mentally came back into focus next. Visualize, but better yet use imagery. Imagery includes all of the senses. When you are going through your course you should not only visualize the ride like you are watching yourself, but rather from an internal perspective, which is more powerful. See colors vividly, hear the sounds around you, and feel the air and conditions.

Bernie Traurig won the American Jumping Derby (took place in Rhode Island from 1976-1988) 3 times in row on 3 different horses. The course was the same each year, daunting, (long and included many natural obstacles) and he used vivid imagery to prepare.

Richard Spooner “The master of faster”, visualizes in amazing detail according to Tonya, and often with multiple horses in the same class. Each one has to be visualized individually, often more than once. He is fiercely committed to this process.

She also recommends that when you are going through your mental imagery, be sure to imagine it at the speed that it will actually happen. You shouldn’t be spending 7 minutes visualizing a 2 minute course. Practise results in improvement and that applies to this mental aspect as much as physically doing it.

Some roadblocks people may face include lack of time (make it a priority!) and thinking that you don’t have the power to manifest your visualization into a reality. (You can!)

Some other ways that she suggested to build visualization include:

Review your videos – one section at a time.

If you have problems on course rewind the imagery and keep working on them until you get it right, and you feel comfortable.

Be sure to let yourself feel happiness, pride, and excitement of a job well done upon completing the course and exiting the ring. Associate positive emotions with your ride as you begin and end. Positive self talk!

Learn about your environment, especially in a new show setting. Build scenarios (coming back for the second round of a hunter derby or going to the jump off).

Preparation builds confidence.

I really enjoyed this subject and I thought that the pendulum exercise was such a great way to show us an example of our minds and bodies working together.

What is your mantra?

A little bit about the sponsor. Foxcroft School is an all girls college preparatory boarding school for grades 9-12 located on 500 acres in Middleburg Virginia. Many students from Foxcroft are able to maintain their academics while attending WEF for the winter season. Learn more here. 

Have a fabulous Friday!




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