by Tonya Johnston
Appeared in Eventing USA Magazine, July/August 2007

The goal for this issue’s column is to help you use sport psychology to track your progress and build the quality of your schools between lessons and clinics. To set the stage, let’s focus on one feature of the sport of eventing we know to be true: Eventers, more often than many other equestrian disciplines, school and jump their horses on their own.

I am happy to be writing my first article for Eventing USA. By way of introduction, I am a sport psychology consultant with over 15 years of experience working with equestrian athletes. I have also ridden and competed my whole life, primarily in the hunter/jumper world. In my practice, the eventers that I have had the opportunity to work with have all impressed me as being resourceful, eager to learn, and incredibly enthusiastic about the discipline. My hope is to lend my knowledge, skills and creativity to helping you, the event rider, prepare mentally for the unique challenges of the sport.

The goal for this issue’s column is to help you use sport psychology to track your progress and build the quality of your schools between lessons and clinics. To set the stage, let’s focus on one feature of the sport of eventing we know to be true: Eventers, more often than many other equestrian disciplines, school and jump their horses on their own. This fact not only contributes to the physical abilities of both you and your horse, it also creates a need for you to have a variety of mental skills and strategies at your disposal.

During your exposure to a variety of training priorities and competition requirements it is important that you keep track of your personal goals and focus. You must also take maximum advantage of the insights and successes that come your way in the midst of a variety of instructors, clinicians, combined tests, horse trials, shows, etc. – and the list goes on. In between these learning and competitive situations, when riding on your own, you must create training experiences that continue to point you to your goals. This time is extremely important and often underutilized as a place to build quality routines and mental toughness. Remember, riders who want to make the most of every ride figure out ways to be highly effective, consistent and disciplined each time they are on their horse.

Tracking Your Training: Focus on Highlights and Solutions

Many of you have strategies to track your horse’s training schedule. This can provide a reliable way to measure you and your horse’s progress over time. However, the process you use to chart the information is crucial because how it is stored and remembered often decides its future value. It is particularly important to record the wisdom you gain in lessons and clinics; this becomes a resource for developing and shaping the training you do on your own. Let’s go through the process for charting the information and capturing the insights.

It is important to take into account the mind-body connection when recording your training. Every time you write about, discuss, imagine or replay a riding moment, you are teaching it again to your body. By reliving your favorite moments in a lesson, clinic or school, you are strengthening the skills and instincts that created the success.

As you remember a stop you had at a corner during your last cross country school, your body stiffens and braces as the images are replayed in your mind. This process does nothing to teach your mind or body the solution to the cause of the stop. In contrast, as you write and think about what you did, and what your trainer suggested, that resolved the issue, you strengthen your muscle memory of the correct response to the situation.

Post-Ride Notes
‘Post-Ride Notes’ – see illustration – are an effective method for tracking your training. The process of writing them is important, and the product they become once written is a valuable resource. Once you have a collection of completed ‘Post-Ride Notes’ they are useful in a variety of ways:

  • Providing inspiration for the exercises you design and ride on your own.
  • Review them before a competition to build confidence.
  • They remind you of your abilities; useful after a setback or challenging experience.

Instructions for Post-Ride Notes:

  1. Pre-ride Preparation: Include your energy level, attitude, nutrition/hydration, etc. – any key things that contributed to your state of mind and physical readiness for the ride.
  2. Training Goals Accomplished: Goals set before the lesson or with the help of your instructor during the lesson that you felt you achieved.
  3. In the ring: Include diagrams of exercises you rode during the lesson: courses, flatwork, cross-country jumps, etc.
  4. Highlights: Things you felt proud of – moments you felt the joy of achievement, compliments given to you by others, etc.
  5. Training Solutions: Things your instructor taught, explained or reminded you of that directly created success.
  6. Homework: Specific training ideas/exercises/principles to build into your schools.

Doing Your Homework: Book-Ends for Training Exercises

Often your trainer will be very specific about your ‘homework’ between lessons, this can be very helpful because riding on your own can be challenging without setting some clearly defined skills to practice. By having a specific idea of what you will work on, you ensure a productive schooling session. Integrating exercises and training solutions from prior lessons can really add to the value of the ride, and can increase the intensity of your focus.

For example, let’s say the dressage instructor you clinic with regularly wants you to improve the accuracy of your tests by concentrating on “leg first” for all downward transitions and you have a dressage show in two weeks. Your homework is simple, “Think ahead, leg to hand, accurate and sharp.” You decide to design an exercise with a four-loop serpentine, with trot/walk transitions across the center line on your first way down the ring, and canter/walk transitions on the way back. You have integrated her homework and created a very simple schooling exercise.

Now the idea is for you to go one step further and give yourself very precise “book-ends” for riding the drill; a clear beginning and a clear ending. Why? The benefits include: focusing in the moment (as you have to do in competition); practicing your pre-ride routine – what you do and say to yourself right before you begin; and providing a clear time to problem-solve and review the ride.

Riding exercises with “book-ends” can be done with flatwork, all or part of a dressage test, cavaletti, or jumping work. Whether your “courses” are simple or complex, the key is the way you frame the exercise, and the attention you pay to your focus throughout.

Riding an Exercise with Book-ends

Set-Up: Set a clear beginning and ending point for the exercise or course by using a marker of some sort – two cones, or two standards, or a specific fence-post, or the in-gate to the ring. (Occasionally, or before a show, actually entering the ring and exiting on conclusion of the exercise is useful as well. By entering and exiting you mimic the competition environment and practice your pre-ride process more fully.)

To begin: After you have warmed-up and feel ready to begin, come to a halt at your markers. Look in at the ring and make a clearly defined plan for riding your exercise. You focus should be at a level similar to your intensity at a show or event. Think about adding your trainer’s ‘homework’ into your course plan. (From our earlier example, you would be thinking, “Leg to hand, accurate and sharp.”) Take 2 deep, complete breaths – in through your nose, out through your mouth – and transition from the ‘planning/analysis’ phase of your ride, to the riding portion.

Ride your exercise: Begin the exercise and stay completely in the present moment. You are riding your plan and incorporating what you feel from your horse. Be sure to use training solutions as you go forward, don’t allow yourself to reflect back or critique your progress during this phase.

Finish and review: When you get to your markers at the end of your exercise, be disciplined about thinking first of at least two things you liked. Such as: your first canter transition, how your eye stayed up and ahead of you, or the accuracy of your trot transitions on the center line. Next, review the ride from beginning to end and look for places to improve. Think about staying in “problem-solver mode” during this process instead of allowing any negative emotions or self-talk to creep their way into your thinking.

The Optimal Idea

“You play the way you practice.” As simple as this Pop Warner quote is, it is also spot on. The quality and intensity of your practice rides will determine much of your confidence and courage in competition. Hopefully you will integrate some of what we have talked about here today into your training. Tracking the wisdom and skills you gain in your lessons and riding specific homework with a keen attention to detail are essential. With a clear plan and high quality preparation, you can ride up to your potential, every time.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a sport psychology consultant who has specialized in working with equestrian athletes for the past 15 years. She teaches in the Sport Psychology master’s program at JFK University. Her website can be found at: