Mantra Magic - Power Up Your Ride

riding nervous, rider anxiety, horse show anxiety, horse show nervousness, april clay

riding nervous, rider anxiety, horse show anxiety, horse show nervousness, april clay

By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist

At some point, all riders suffer from lapses in confidence, over thinking, or jangling nerves. When this happens to you, an effective strategy to employ is the use of a mantra.

A traditional mantra is a word or sound that is used to facilitate concentration in meditation. Translated from Sanskrit, mantra literally means “an instrument of thinking.”  

In sport, this particular instrument of thinking can come in quite handy. A well-chosen phrase can guide your mind away from negative unhelpful thoughts. Think of it as creating an anchor that guides your focus, or a way to fill the space in your head so there is less room for all that stuff you don’t want messing up your ride.

riding nervous, rider anxiety, horse show anxiety, horse show nervousness, april clay

Photo: Steven Lilley/Flickr

Photo: ©CanStockPhoto/Hightower NRW

“My mind was a constant jumble of competing thoughts at shows,” says Amy, a junior dressage rider. “I would be trying to sort through them, just getting more and more nervous. But when I developed my guiding phrase it helped me immensely. I now repeat ‘enjoy and shine’ over and over as I warm up. It brings me back to my important things, which are to have fun and to show off the skills I have worked so hard to perfect. It really works for me.”

The Making of a Good Mantra

There are a few rules for creating a good mantra. The first is it should be short and easy to apply. Stay away from complicated acronyms or long phrases.

I once worked with a rider who decided to use C-H-I-L-L as her key phrase for relaxation. Each letter represented something important to her, but she found this mantra was too lengthy to complete. It was actually adding stress rather than relieving it.  So she modified this to “chilly Jilly.” Yes, her name was Jill, and she loved the bit of humour that helped her lighten up. Her practice became to warm up at the trot while rhythmically repeating her phrase in time to her horse’s hoofbeats. At the end of four weeks, she was able to use her mantra to calm her mind in a matter of minutes.

The key is to make sure your mantra suits your needs. Ask yourself what is most important to you at what time. Do you need a positivity boost before entering the ring? A motivational phrase for when the going gets rough? Or maybe a way to calm yourself after a mistake? You can have several cues to use at different points in your ride.


There is no rule that says you cannot use a ready-made mantra as long as it has the impact you want, so borrow one if you need to. It’s also just fine to make up your very own language. Lee liked to refer to the style of his jump-off ride as “Millarian.” He was after an efficient, speedy, and well calculated risk in his ride, much like he had seen Ian Millar deliver many, many times.

Lastly, make sure your mantra is positive and instructional. It should be positive in the sense that it should direct you to do something, not “don’t something.” Stay clear of negatives or you will likely find yourself going in the very direction you want to avoid. “Don’t let go” is what dressage rider Madison used to tell herself at the end of her tests. She had a tendency to have lapses in her focus as she finished, so she was trying to get herself to stay on task. But all she ended up doing is stressing herself more with her negative cue. “Next–Now” became her new focusing mantra – and it kept her grounded in her next test element to prepare and execute. Many riders have actually developed negative, performance crushing mantras without being aware of it. Harsh self-talk that gets repeated and rehearsed is a negative mantra. If you currently have one of these, use it as an opportunity to give that phrase a makeover and use language that represents what you want to be doing. Embed instructions to yourself in your mantra to help you focus you back on the action you know will be helpful in reaching your desired outcome.

Mantras need workouts to be effective. You will have to find opportunities in your training to practice with your chosen phrase to make sure you get the desired effect. Load those words up with meaning through rehearsal. The strength you create through repetition will mean that your mantra will be there for you when the chips are down.

 riding nervous, rider anxiety, horse show anxiety, horse show nervousness, april clay

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Here are examples of mantras from some well-known Canadian riders:

Feed your faith and your fear will starve to death.

I know it seems like it has absolutely nothing to do with horses, but it reminds me when I am being swallowed up by my nerves that I am feeding the wrong beast.

- Ashley Gowanlock, Paralympian

Settle here… Build up there.

My mantra would vary as it pertains to the rhythm of the course, and checkpoints along the way. 

- Gail Greenough, grand prix show jumper

What I think, I become

What I feel, I attract

What I imagine, I create

- Trish Mrakawa, Willow Grove Stables

riding nervous, rider anxiety, horse show anxiety, horse show nervousness, april clay

Photo: ©CanStockPhoto/Cretien

Main article image: ©CanStockPhoto/Marcogovel

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