By Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in The Plaid Horse January/February 2009

Can you remember when you first did a full jumper division, including the Sunday classic? Or your initial outing in the open equitation division? What about your debut in the short stirrup hunters? Many of these first times are memorable not only for the accomplishments they represent, but for the determination and perseverance you utilized in order to get there. You set your sights on doing something new, gathered up your courage, and went for it!

As you look forward into 2009 and take stock of your goals and your horse’s capabilities, you may again have your eye on a new frontier. Often stepping into a new division is the result of many months or years of hard work and preparation. In order to make the move a successful one, there are some strategies you can employ to help ensure that your transition is smooth and lasting.

Gather Your Strengths


When mountain climbers strike out to climb a new peak they go through a very important ritual. They get all of their gear out and check it for strength and resiliency. They want to visually inspect every inch of the equipment they will use to reach their ultimate goal – the summit of the mountain. In this same way you need to take stock of your strengths and skills. As you ready yourself for your new division you need to remind yourself of the physical and mental capabilities you possess that make this move up the right thing to do for you and your horse.

Take out a piece of paper and write two columns, one for your physical skills and one for your mental strengths. Things may come up such as: how soft you keep your hands in the air, your ability to focus on your plan in the ring, keeping your horse straight to the jumps, listening to your trainer and recovering effectively from mistakes. Brainstorm this list and make sure it includes all of the things you are proud of in your riding. Notice that when you make this list you are putting down skills that it takes to ride well, period. You will be taking these abilities with you wherever you go. It is these very things you will be using when you ride into the show ring for the first time in your new division – be glad you have so many!

Monitor your Expectations

At your first show in the A/O hunters, for example, adjusting your expectations to fit the situation may be appropriate. If you are feeling extremely nervous and intimidated by the new height it is unrealistic to expect a foot-perfect flawless round; doing so will only make you feel stressed and anxious. Accepting the fact that small mistakes may occur will help you enjoy your rides, and get you feeling more relaxed and in control.

Set Performance Goals


When entering a new division it is easy to be sidetracked by the ‘new’ demands of the classes. Most often those are: an increase in height, improved competition, and a change in the technicality of the courses. However, if you focus only on, “Can I do this?” you lose sight of where you are with your horse and your training. The division can feel like a pass/fail exam, instead of a gauge of your training and progress.

To help your focus stay on track, create some performance goals. Take some time to brainstorm things that you are working on either with regard to your technical abilities as a rider (both physical and mental) and/or things specific to your horse. For example, a goal of correcting a left drift with your outside rein and leg remains constant whether the jumps are 3′ or 3’6″ – and it is a goal relevant only to you and your horse. The process of setting these types of performance goals will help you have small, attainable things to accomplish in the show ring. It will also prevent you from relying solely on outcome or your ideas about ‘perfection’ as a yardstick for your progress.

Use Video for Feedback on Progress


At times a move to a new division can be extremely challenging. It is very important to have systems in place to support your progress and concentrate on the small things that are improving. When moving into the 3’6″ medals, for example, things can feel like they are happening very quickly as you adjust to the added technical elements while needing to maintain a forward, flowing pace. By watching yourself on video you can slow down the round to pick out the things you like, and check out your progress on specific performance goals. Therefore a round that may have contained some big mistakes, but also some amazing progress, does not get thrown away with a blanket statement like, “Oh, that was horrible!”


Positive Momentum


Challenging yourself to accomplish new goals unlocks potential and helps you bring out your best. So, as you go out this year in a new division, take this old Tibetan saying with you, “No matter how high the mountain, there will always be a way up.” Have faith in yourself and your horse, and you truly can reach the summit.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a sport psychology consultant and hunter/jumper competitor who has specialized in working with equestrian athletes for the past 15 years. Her consulting sessions provide support and insight for riders while helping them develop personalized routines. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, including national titles and awards. A recent speaker at both the USEA and USDF national conventions, she conducts “Sport Psychology for Riders” clinics as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.