by Tonya Johnston
Appeared in Eventing USA March/April 2009

Have you ever felt wildly misunderstood by your ______ (horse, trainer, or friend)? Have you ever been too hard on yourself? Have you ever reflected on your communication skills and wished you could do better? In riding there are two things that are essential in communicating effectively: sharing your thoughts clearly and saying things that serve you as a rider. When you communicate well you are easily understood and your messages support your efforts to be an excellent horseperson.

First of All, Who Are You Talking To?

  1. Yourself: These messages, ones you say to yourself, are referred to as self talk. These statements can be things like “I am excited for this lesson, the course looks like fun.” Or, in a different vein, “My horse feels awful today, I’ll never get him to soften his jaw during my test.” Self talk is born out of our belief structure, personality, attitudes, expectations and experiences.
  2. Your Trainer/Clinician: You have many relationships with teachers, trainers and clinicians. How you communicate with these people will affect your relationships with them as well as how much or how well they are able to help you. For example, are you able to clearly describe how you feel on course, or does a moment of frustration get conveyed as if you are arguing with your trainer’s suggestion?
  3. Support crew: The family, friends, and barn-mates you choose to be around when you are riding are hopefully there to support you and help you and your horse create success. Ideally, talking to them about all of your horse-related endeavors can help you gain perspective and encouragement – two things essential to your success.
  4. Your Horse: Mostly this channel of communication is non-verbal, but many people do spend time both in the saddle and out telling their horse all kinds of personal things (building a relationship with your equine partner is key, after all). This is obviously a vital line of communication that is most effective when it is clear and unambiguous.

In Part I of this two part series, we will focus on the messages you say to yourself and how to keep them productive and positive. It is unrealistic to think that a negative thought or worry will never enter your mind. The key is to: 1) Be aware of the messages you are telling yourself, 2) Be sure that your beliefs about yourself and your riding are productive, 3) Begin with thoughts that are helpful, and 4) Shift to a positive focus when negative thoughts creep into your mind.

Step One: Awareness of Self Talk

Before adjusting, changing or improving your self talk you must first know what is being said. Everyone talks to themselves; it is practically an unconscious process – but not quite. It is important to remember that the things we say to ourselves are in fact the result of choices we make and beliefs we hold. In order to get a clear picture of your internal dialogue it can be useful to keep a log or journal for a couple of days of important events and the thoughts you had surrounding them. Write down negatives as well as positives, and the results you experienced as a result.

For example, in your log you noted that prior to a lesson you said, “It’s so cold today my horse is going to be insane. What a waste of time.” Result: My horse was very wild and I was so frustrated I ended up getting into an argument with my trainer. Can you see a link between the two? Of course you can’t control the weather or your horse’s mood, but you can monitor your reaction to those events and make an effort to keep your reactions appropriate and helpful.

Now, certainly there will be some who think, “I don’t need to analyze what I say – plus it feels silly. I can’t suddenly change what I am saying to myself and have it make a difference.” But what if making some adjustments to the way you communicate with yourself and others improved your riding even a little bit; would you give it a try? What do you have to lose?

Step Two: Your Beliefs are Fundamental to the Process

It is good to address your self talk, but unless you understand your beliefs about your skills as a rider you will never get to the heart of the matter. If you have a core belief which says you always crack under pressure, it will not be very potent, much less effective, to say, “I always ride accurately under pressure.”

Often our beliefs are old and outdated, and it can be useful to assess them periodically. To do this, write “I believe…” in the middle of a small circle in the center of a piece of paper. Brainstorm everything you feel to be true about yourself as a rider – the good, the bad and the ugly. Next, take the negative beliefs and write a list of experiences, instruction or ideas to refute those beliefs. Taking the example from above, recount the two times you went into your stadium round in the top three and rode assertively and accurately – even if you did not end up winning.

Step Three: Start from a Positive Perspective


In sport psychology work it is important to have a plan for success. Instead of using your mental skills and strengths to regroup from mistakes or errors in your thinking, try to create productive thoughts from the beginning. Affirmations are a great way to accomplish this task. The most important thing is to make them engaging and realistic.

Affirmation Guidelines:

  • “I” statements.
  • Written in the present tense.
  • Powerfully worded.
  • Positive and active verbs.
  • They do NOT have a: should, would, could, can, want or if.


I am focused.

I ride forward to the base and support off the ground.

I thrive under pressure.

I am confident in myself and my horse.

What to do with Affirmations:

  • 1. Say them out loud or to yourself before or during your rides.
  • 2. Visualize the end result as you say your affirmation. (E.g. what do you look like when you are riding confidently? See and feel that picture in your mind.)
  • 3. Have your affirmations written on a small card and placed in strategic spots -say them when you read the card. (E.g. in your tack trunk, coat bag, etc.)
  • 4. Erase doubts and ‘what if’s’ by saying an opposing affirmation several times.

“Excellence is a skill, and an attitude.”

Step Four: Change Negatives to Positives

“I can’t get him to jump that corner.” “I am so bad at remembering my course; I’ll never get around today.” “He is so locked on his right side – I hate this feeling!” All of these thoughts have one major thing in common: they are not helping the rider find a solution to the challenge presented. By changing your negative thoughts into positive ones you can redirect your efforts to things in your control that will help you be successful.

Changing negative thoughts into positive self talk is a skill that is often misunderstood. If you are scared, saying “I am brave” feels untrue and ineffective. At best it feels too simple, and at worst is feels completely unbelievable. What you must do is include specifics, action and intent in the positive self talk replacement. You then have particulars in place that will help you succeed.

Try this: The next time you find yourself stuck on a negative thought try to use a thought-stopping cue – a visual cue, physical trigger or catchy phrase will do the trick. Ideas include: imagining a big red stop-sign, snapping your fingers quickly or saying something silly like ‘Must Delete’. Then replace the negative thought with a positive one that contains specific solution-oriented ideas. In the example from above you have found yourself thinking “I am scared” when you walk the track to the new down bank into the water. You imagine your stop-sign, think “STOP” to yourself, and replace it with “I stay tall and balanced with a supporting leg.” Can you imagine the effect this thought would have?

The Optimal Idea

In the next few weeks try to be particularly mindful of your self talk in order to build good habits of thought. Start from a proactive mindset, stay strong and create positive solutions to challenges. In Part II of this series we will look at communicating effectively with those around you in order to create a positive environment in which to achieve your goals.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a sport psychology consultant and horseshow 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 throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.