by Tonya Johnston, MA
appeared in Eventing USA Magazine, July/August 2009

What do you think you can accomplish on a horse? Do you believe you can be calm and focused in your stadium round next week? Are you going to get strong enough to sit your horse’s trot for more than three laps of the arena? Do you think you will be successful at the next level?

What you believe about yourself, your abilities, your horses and the world at large play a large part in creating your experiences. Although these beliefs exist at a deep level, and are thus sometimes hard to identify and adjust, it is important to take stock periodically to ensure they are 100% helpful to you.

The goal of this article is to help you investigate the role your beliefs have in your day-to-day riding life. How to assess them, evaluate their usefulness and fine-tune them as necessary. This work is a true ‘inside job’ – others can give you advice, encouragement, or instruction, but only you can be sure the faith you have in yourself is helpful and true.

The Belief Pyramid

Do you believe it was random luck when your horse bulged left, spooked at a shadow to the right, and ended up staying on the direct track to the chevron? Or were you balanced and secure (to correct the drift), prepared for anything (including the spook), with your eye locked on your focal point to make sure your horse knew where you were going? Can you see the difference between those two perceptions and thus the beliefs that will ensue? (“I am a lucky rider.” vs. “I am a prepared and tenacious rider.”)

Beliefs you hold true are the basis for your expectations, self talk and actions. In the field of psychology, a term called self-efficacy describes the belief you have in your ability to be successful. When you believe that you will be successful, does that mean you will be every time? Maybe, maybe not – but you are much more likely to have positive expectations, tell yourself you can do it, and utilize your best skills and abilities.

What do you believe?

Try this: write a list of the beliefs you have about your riding abilities. First, focus on the positive by listing specific mental and physical skills that contribute to your success in the saddle. Give yourself 15 minutes to think, brainstorm and write only affirmative things. Next, write down things that are negative or limiting. Now compare the two. Are the negative beliefs fun, helpful or entertaining? (Trust me, the answer is no!) Hopefully the positive beliefs outnumber the negative ones, but if not don’t worry – there are ways to modify and erase those pesky negative beliefs.

The first and best thing to do to get rid of limiting beliefs is to determine if they are rational or irrational. It is the irrational ones (that hold us back unnecessarily) that we are pursuing here. (Such as, “I will never be confident jumping a down bank into water.”) These irrational and negative beliefs are suspect – they don’t help you succeed, and yet they linger in the deepest recesses of your mind.

Common Irrational Beliefs

Irrational beliefs are generated by many different thought patterns. It is not out of the ordinary to experience them, most everyone does. The problem occurs when you as a rider accept, preserve and endorse these self-defeating beliefs as universal truths. You have then severely limited your potential and your performance.

The following are examples of athletes’ commonly held irrational beliefs and distorted thinking:

Perfection is essential: “I must be perfect to be respected as a good rider.”

Catastrophizing: “I know that look in my horse’s eye means I will _____ (get run away with, trample my ground person, get eliminated for jumping out of the start box, etc.).”

One-trial generalizations: “I always forget my stadium course.”

Personalization: “Those people watching on the rail are all laughing at me.”

Polarized thinking: “I am not a true event rider if I can’t be in the top five this year, and I will quit if it doesn’t happen.”

Worth depends on achievement: “Thank goodness I won last weekend, now I finally know how to ride.”

Assess your Beliefs

Put your negative beliefs to the test and assess if they are rational or irrational, productive or unproductive by using the questions below. For example, let’s investigate the following belief: “I always ride terribly in my stadium round.”

  1. Is the belief based on objective reality? Would observers see the event the way you perceived it, or do you exaggerate the situation?
  2. Is it useful in some way?
  3. Does the belief help you reach your goals, or get in the way?
  4. Does the belief create emotions that help you feel empowered and capable while reducing your stress level?

It should be evident that when put to this test, the above belief is irrational. It may feel true to you but it is not based in objective reality (you stay on course, your horse leaves many jumps up and you have sections of every course where your trainer tells you that you rode well); it is not useful in any way; it prevents you from achieving your goals by creating a constant negative expectation; and it makes you feel tense and anxious.

Adjust Your Beliefs

In order to get a handle on your irrational beliefs and adjust them appropriately use a method, developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, called “ABC Cognitive Restructuring”. To use this method take an irrational belief you have identified and work through it using the following strategy:

Irrational Belief Example: “I can’t stay focused when my horse is bad.”

A: Activating Event

First, describe a typical event that leads to the belief, feelings and behavior.

My horse spooked five times on the way to the warm-up area.

B: Beliefs or Interpretations

Second, record the negative self-talk and beliefs.

“This dressage test is going to be awful.”

“I can’t stay focused when he is bad.”

C: Consequences

Third, identify the bodily reactions, feelings, and behavior that resulted.

Worry; my legs are not down and around my horse; my shoulders, jaw and neck are tense; my elbow is locked.

D: Dispute

Fourth, write rational and adaptive responses to use in the same situation.

“This is a challenge, but one I can solve. I know some good flatwork exercises to get his mind back on me.”

“I am in control of my body and my energy. When I remain calm, centered and keep my goals realistic I can make the best of any situation.”

You can see the negative impact the belief has on your behavior. Your expectations are negative, your self talk is unhelpful, your body is tense and locked – how do you think the dressage test would go if the belief is left unchecked? By taking the time to realistically and actively dispute the negative belief you mobilize your skills and talents. The “Dispute” section is crucial to this process. The next time you are faced with a similar situation you will remember that you have choices about your mental and physical responses. The experience of your horse repeatedly spooking does not have to equal a horrible test – so you can leave that belief behind and remember that there are many productive things you can do to create a solid performance.

The Optimal Idea

Wouldn’t it be silly if all that was standing between you and your best event ever were the old beliefs that your horse ‘doesn’t like new places’ and ‘I am really too old to be doing this’? Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field, and a childhood polio survivor, said, “My mother taught me very early to believe I could achieve any accomplishment I wanted to. The first was to walk without braces.” To develop from a child who couldn’t walk to an Olympic champion, her beliefs in her abilities surely grew and developed as her skills increased – be sure yours do the same.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach who specializes in working with equestrian athletes. Her coaching sessions teach mental strategies for optimal sport performance and help riders develop personalized preparation routines. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, including national titles and awards. She has presented at both the USEA and USDF national conventions. Tonya has a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. She conducts “Mental Skills for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.