Psychology for the Horse Rider - From Self-Sabotage to Success
By Annika McGivern
Have you ever felt like you’re getting in your own way? If so, you are not alone. As equestrians, we can be at particular risk of “self-sabotaging” when moving up a level in competition. This article will explore why this happens and what we can do to work against our tendency to make things harder for ourselves than they need to be. It is possible to tackle each new level with self-trust, confidence, and effective riding. All we need is the support of some mental skills and strategies.
Self-sabotage can be a confusing term, suggesting that we are acting against ourselves and our priorities. Why would we get in our own way when we want something so badly and have worked so hard to make it happen? The truth is that self-sabotage often comes from misunderstanding what truly creates the opportunity to perform well and progress in sport. We think we are protecting ourselves, or pushing ourselves to be better, but don’t realise that what we are doing is having the opposite effect. To better understand the impact of self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours, I’ll introduce you to two riders, both of whom are at the start of a three-day event and about to move up a level from Training to Preliminary. Both riders and their horses are fully capable of competing at this new level and have put in extensive preparation at home. However, each of them is experiencing very different thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in response to their upcoming challenge.
Rider One is George, who is feeling extremely nervous and anxious. His thinking is overwhelmed with self-doubting thoughts such as: I can’t do this. What if I’m not ready? What if I embarrass myself? He feels jittery and tense and is having trouble focusing. When he walks his cross-country course, he can’t stop thinking that the jumps look enormous. He’s wishing he didn’t know anyone at the event so that there wouldn’t be any witnesses to his potential failure. He’s avoiding thinking about his upcoming rides as he keeps imagining himself having a refusal. In discussion with his coach, he jokes that “my goal is just to survive the weekend.” Unknowingly, George is sabotaging his chances of success.
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Rider Two is Sophie. She is also nervous, but her nerves are not overwhelming her. She feels a balance of nerves and excited, positive anticipation for the challenge ahead. Her thinking is very task-focused, and she is methodically moving through her preparation routine to ensure that she and her mare are completely ready. As she walks her cross-country course, she is completely focused on the technical aspects of the course. I’ll need to make sure to balance early for this jump, so that she sees it. I think this will jump nicely as long as I keep coming forward to it. She is grateful that she knows lots of people at this event. It helps her feel supported and like she has lots of people to ask for help if she needs it. She is taking the time to carefully visualise her test and course, imagining how she would respond to both expected and unexpected situations. Sophie is actively working against her mind’s tendency to self-sabotage and is increasing her chances of success.
What’s the difference between George and Sophie? How can they have such different reactions to the same challenge? How can George change his experience to improve his chances of tackling this new level successfully?
1. Perfectionism creates self-sabotaging behaviours.
One key difference is the way George and Sophie are thinking about what it means to complete this event successfully. Like many riders, George is a perfectionist and therefore feels he must produce a great ride in each phase to prove he is good enough. He fears making mistakes and being seen making mistakes. He feels he cannot accept failure and is very hard on himself, using critical self-talk to attempt to motivate himself to try harder. All of this creates a lot of extra stress and other negative emotions, which ultimately distract him from focusing on his plan. He is more focused on imagined worst-case scenarios than on the present moment.
Many riders unknowingly create self-sabotaging behaviours by holding themselves to a standard of perfection. Photo: iStock/Fuen30
Sophie, on the other hand, has learned to focus on steady improvement rather than perfection. She is focused on improving herself as a rider and knows that being a good rider isn’t about not making mistakes, but rather about how you manage them. She wants to do well but is more focused on how this event is part of her long-term plan to become a strong, consistent rider, and therefore trusts she will be fine if something doesn’t go according to plan. This simple but powerful shift in perspective allows Sophie to stay focused on her plan and approach her rides prepared and connected to the present moment, ready to perform.
2. Telling ourselves we aren’t ready creates self-sabotaging behaviours.
If we don’t see ourselves as someone who is riding at the new level or capable of riding at that level, we are at risk of sabotaging ourselves. We always behave in ways that align with who we believe we are.
Sophie already sees herself as a Prelim rider and therefore looks at the course from a technical perspective and makes a plan to ride it to the best of her ability. However, George sees himself as a Training rider who is attempting a Prelim course. When George looks at the course he focuses on the height of the jumps and worries about his own ability, and that of his horse, to jump them. George’s plan is based on “just surviving” or “getting around” whereas Sophie is focused on how to ride the course to the best of her ability. Remember, this is the first competitive Prelim for both Sophie and George. The difference is that Sophie has chosen to believe that the fact she is there doing it makes her a Prelim rider, allowing her to fully focus on how to do it. George feels he must prove himself at this level before fully claiming that identity. This leaves him focused on the very different question: Can I do it?
By believing she is ready to compete at the new level, this rider is focused on the big picture with a plan to ride to the best of her ability. Photo: AnnaElizabethPhotography
When we believe we are about to do something beyond our skill level, we immediately feel unsafe, which prompts our brain to imagine worst-case scenarios and to focus on self-protection. When we believe we are about to do something that aligns with our skill level, we feel safer and respond adaptively to the present moment. We need to allow ourselves to believe we are prepared and skilful enough for a new level of competition.
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To do this we must redefine what it means to be a rider at any specific level. What makes a rider Prelim level? Must they have completed a full event at preliminary, or won or placed at that level? Of course not. They need to be regularly training the height, speed, and dressage movements associated with Prelim. Owning this identity isn’t just about being confident. It’s a choice we make to allow ourselves to “level up” mentally without needing to prove it first in competition. You prove it to yourselves in your training, and once you demonstrate you have the necessary skills it is essential that you trust in them.
Riders unknowingly create self-sabotaging behaviours by holding themselves to a standard of perfection, and by not believing they are ready to compete at the new level.
Here are two decisions you can make today to help you approach your next level of competition knowing you are setting yourself up for success.
1. Zoom out and think about the big picture. Who do you want to be as a rider five years from now? Consider if the process of working towards this goal feels satisfying and rewarding. Each time you are about to move up a level, return to that big picture view and recognise that this is simply a step in that bigger progress. Remind yourself to be grateful to have reached this cool moment in your journey. Let go of any need for it to be perfect. Make a plan, execute the plan to the best of your ability, and learn everything you can in the process.
2. Allow yourself to “level up” mentally before you get there. Whatever the level, you are that level of rider if you are training the skills associated with that level. Give yourself permission to trust in your preparation. Stop asking yourself: Can I do this? Instead, ask a better question: How am I going to do this to the best of my ability?
Small shifts in perspective can create big changes in experience. We all have the potential to be George or Sophie. The decisions you make now about who you are, what you are working towards, and what you are capable of are what will make the difference.
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Main Photo: Dreamstime/Sergii Kumer