by Tonya Johnston
Appeared in Eventing USA Magazine, March/April 2008
In riding, perfection can appear on the horizon as a tempting mirage, but using that term can distract us and damage our confidence. Even our best rides contain small flaws that can be found with careful examination. You are riding at an excellent level when you are managing flaws effectively, but they are there, and they will always be there. Once we have accepted that, we can embrace learning and recovering from our mistakes as necessary and vital skills to improving as a rider.
Do you believe that one day you will learn how to ride without making mistakes? Or that you will someday ride a ‘perfect’ test, cross country run or course? For those of you who think that is a real possibility, this article may be the first small step in helping to change your mind. Here we begin by recognizing that mistakes are an integral part of riding and competing. Errors can certainly be minimized, and excellence is a goal, but we recognize that managing our mistakes is a challenge we face during each ride.
In riding, perfection can appear on the horizon as a tempting mirage, but using that term can distract us and damage our confidence. Even our best rides contain small flaws that can be found with careful examination. You are riding at an excellent level when you are managing these flaws effectively but they are there, and they will always be there. Once we have accepted that, we can embrace learning and recovering from our mistakes as necessary and vital skills to improving as a rider.
Now let’s discuss some specific strategies for managing mistakes. First, we will recognize and accept the link between mistakes and progress. Next we will learn the typical reasons mistakes crop up and what to look out for. Finally we will explore a system to help us recover from a mistake in the moment (while we are on our horse) to help us regroup, refocus, and revise the ride.
Quality Mistakes from the Past: An Analysis
Can you remember one of your past mistakes that led to significant learning and success as a result? Take a moment to revisit some of your most memorable mistakes – ones that may have been difficult at the time, but that you have come to embrace as important in your development as a rider (and a person, perhaps), or epiphanies about you or your horse’s skills.
- The mistake: When, where, what, why.
- Emotions you experienced at the time, how you dealt with it.
- What you learned.
- How you have used and benefited from that knowledge.
Try to go through a few mistakes, some large and some small. For this excercise, the mistakes can be related to horse-management, your preparation, or errors made while in the saddle. By illuminating the positive progress that resulted from these errors you do three things: 1) you highlight, and hopefully accept, the link between mistakes and learning, 2) as time passes you see that you are not your mistake, and 3) you can trust that the next mistake you make can turn into progress as well!
Michael Jordan values his mistakes in this quote: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Another Mistake? Why?
Why do riding mistakes occur? Riders’ and horses’ physical and mental skills, conditions, training, habits, etc. – all have the potential to be at the root of a mistake. Here we will specifically address common mistakes that originate in the rider’s mental approach to create the errors made while in the saddle. These are things to be aware of, as awareness is the first step to getting the better of your mistakes.
- Attentional mistakes: This first type of mistake is the result of not being present in the moment or being focused on things that do not contribute to the success of the riding task at hand. A rider feels frustration at having a rail at the first jump in her stadium course and worries about the outcome of the competition. She is not prepared to ride the direct track in a bending line; her horse hesitates as a result, adds a stride and has another rail down.
- Faulty belief system: Poor self-talk, lack of self-confidence, or negative outlook that undermines one’s abilities in the saddle. As you sit in the start box, your inner voice says things like, “Why did we come here? He’ll never jump the corner, how many stops will it take to get him over it today?” These beliefs create your behaviors, and limiting beliefs impede your skills.
- Poor energy management: At one end of the energy spectrum we have ‘flat’ at the other ‘anxious’; both can make a serious impact on how well your mind and body respond to the demands of the task at hand.
- Emotional turmoil: Fear, embarrassment, doubt, frustration, anger, disappointment – as well as euphoria, joy, excitement, happiness. All are strong emotions that can surface quickly as we react to things around us. When these emotions occur with lightning speed, we sometimes forget that we can control them before they cause any interference with our riding skills.
If you recognize any of these factors, rest assured, you are not alone. The most brilliant riders in the world have all faced these issues, and occasionally still do – they simply have a system for dealing with them before a visible mistake is made (or they prevent a small mistake snowballing into a larger one). They have recognized that having a plan for managing mistakes is an important key to success.
Managing Your Mistakes: Regroup, Refocus and Revise the Ride
A healthy attitude towards our mistakes is vital to implementing an effective strategy to deal with them. When we think of mistake recovery as another skill to work on and refine, without harshly judging ourselves, we are one step closer to not only reducing the number of mistakes we make, but also minimizing the ones that do occur. Young golf superstar Michelle Wie says, “I don’t mind when I hit a ball in the woods. I think of it as an adventure. That’s when golf really starts to get interesting.”
Mistakes made while riding can be handled in a variety of ways. When you are schooling yourself, or taking a lesson, you often have more leeway to stop, regroup, and begin again. It is my contention, however, that this does not build strong habits that cross over into your competition routine. Can you pull up in the middle of your cross country run at the event? Trot back to ‘x’ and halt again? As a reminder, how you practice creates a lot of what you are capable of in the competition arena. Negative emotions cloud your head and interfere with your ride after a small mistake in a clinic? How do you think you will be able to remain calm and composed after a bobble at an event?
When we add mistakes management as simply another riding skill that needs attention and rehearsal, we embrace practicing at home in the exact same way we will perform it at an event. Now we will explore the process of managing your riding mistakes.
- Regroup: This is the first thing that needs to happen in the wake of any mistake. Regain your composure and clear your mind. Use an exhale through your mouth to help this happen – release the tension created in the moment by relaxing your jaw and letting go of any anxiety in your body that was a reaction to the mistake.
- Refocus: Lift your eye up and ahead of you to focus on the track you are on. Look with an active gaze, noticing details in what you see to help you connect to the present moment. (Often people get stuck in an internal perspective after a mistake, becoming aware of their emotions, frustration and replaying the error in their mind.) This is also where integrating your performance goals into your ride will be an asset. Notice what is next and center in on a cue word – like ‘straight’ or ‘sit up’ – to get you back on track and feeling proactive.
- Revise the Ride: There are times when a mistake will require you to change your plan in the moment. When this happens it is crucial to act decisively and confidently. A ‘Plan B’ is an important thing to brainstorm before you begin your test or course. Additionally, revision can happen after you have completed an exercise or round by visualizing yourself riding it correctly and building your positive habits instead of getting stuck replaying errors.
The Optimal Idea
“When you make a mistake, don’t look back at it long. Take the reason of the thing into your mind and then look forward. Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.” Hugh White’s quote sums up nicely what we have talked about here – now it’s time for you to bring these ideas to life and make your mistakes work for you.
Please note: Be sure that you have expert guidance and help in recognizing if you are training or competing outside you or your horse’s skill level, as this can lead to mistakes, accidents, and undue risks to health and safety. These are not ‘good mistakes’ – they are the result of truly dangerous situations and can result in serious consequences.
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: www.TonyaJohnston.com. Tonya welcomes your input, questions and comments at Info@TonyaJohnston.com.