by Tonya Johnston, MA
appeared in Eventing Magazine September/October 2008

Think back to the best clinics you have ever attended. (If you have never gone to a clinic, try to recall terrific lessons from your past.) What memories stand out from those experiences? Why did you have such a good time? As you reflect, notice what skills you utilized in order to do so well. I’ll wager that your best outings happened not only when you were with a great clinician, but your attitude and focus were both on point as well.

Having attended and taught many clinics, I have observed that the riders who get the most out of their sessions are prepared and on the ball, in much the same way as they would be at an event. Here are some strategies designed to help you create a fantastic experience for yourself at the next clinic you attend.

Introduce Yourself

Meeting a new clinician is an exciting, and sometimes intimidating, experience. This person wants to learn about you and your horse, help you ride well, give you confidence, and have a little fun along the way, but they don’t need to hear your horse’s life story, cute anecdotes about what he does with his tongue while waiting for his dinner, or the last time he had his sheath cleaned. (OK – those are just examples!). Instead, plan ahead and choose valuable and specific information to share in your introduction.

Keep things current when talking to your clinician for the first time. For example, say you had a horse you almost took preliminary in 2006, but he would not walk in the dressage arena, so you sold him for less than you wanted to, to a person you don’t really like, who won her first event on him, and it left you with a lot of baggage. While that is important for your trainer (and perhaps your sport psychologist) to know, a clinician only has time to deal with what presents itself right now in your riding. If they need or want more information, they will ask you. Remember that they are being paid to be insightful and observant – you can trust them to figure a lot of things out on their own!

A short list of information you may want to include when introducing yourself:

  • You and your horse’s age and level.
  • A recent training goal you accomplished with your horse.
  • One or two current competition goals and a brief outline of your upcoming schedule.
  • Particular challenges you have with your horse where you feel a new approach would be useful.

Keep a Foundation for your Focus

Going to a clinic with a new instructor can sometimes create what I call “The Blank Canvas” effect. In an effort to be responsive to new information, riders sometimes go overboard by forgetting to prepare and focus; they in effect “go blank”. Although it is very important to be open to new ideas it is also wise to ride the whole clinic within the context of you and your horse’s skills and goals. For instance, if your focus has been on keeping your lower leg anchored by thinking about landing with weight in your heel over every jump, keep that awareness during the clinic sessions. A clinician will have their own ideas and priorities to teach, but you need to be mindful of the small specifics that help you feel confident and secure.

Be Aware of Communication Styles

Before you go, remember that all instructors have different communication styles. This is also something to take into account when choosing your next clinic. It is helpful to do research about a given instructor to be sure your styles will be in sync and they are well-qualified for your level. The USEA Directory of Certified Instructors is a great resource in this process, it can be found on the USEA website (

Be mindful that you are always in control of how you communicate, regardless of what else may be going on. Speak up if you need to. Asking questions from a positively-oriented perspective will keep your clinician squarely on your side. Instead of, “My horse won’t do that” try, “What can help me get that right the first time?”

By monitoring what you say to yourself and what you communicate to your clinician you will be able to make the most of any experience. If you spend the afternoon focused on what doesn’t work about their approach or communication style, or complaining about how you rode, you will miss out on valuable information.

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that’s important.” – Jimmy Williams

Prepare Effectively

  1. Be early.
  2. Manage your energy: Do you expect to be a little nervous? If so, you will want to keep a positive attitude about how this situation is good practice for your next horse trials or event. Keep yourself calm and in control using breathing techniques, cue words, and preparation routines.
  3. Plan time at the end of each day to review and take notes on lessons learned.
  4. Keep and display a positive attitude at all times.
  5. Bring (and eat) healthy snacks before and after you ride to maintain your energy level and to be sure you manage your strength and brainpower over a multi-day experience.
  6. Dress the part. Attention to detail and a sharp, neat appearance will not only affect your mood, it will demonstrate to your clinician that you have come ready to work hard and do your best.

Regroup if Necessary

It may turn out to be an off day for you, your horse, or (heaven forbid) both of you. What can you do to get things back on track and salvage the clinic experience?

  • Breathe: Let go of the mistake and reset your focus and intention by breathing slowly in through your nose, pause, and exhale gently out your mouth. Be aware of bringing your breath all the way down through the bottom of your lungs and into your belly so that you are relaxing your muscles and centering your body as you breathe.
  • Ask for a quick time-out in order to review the situation, brainstorm what has helped in the past and integrate what the clinician is saying to you. Prioritize 1 or 2 things to focus on. Many times you are hearing a lot of wonderful and new ideas within a short amount of time in a clinic. Select a few things to work on especially when things go awry.
  • Use a brief ‘mini-visualization’: During a brief break, or waiting for your turn to do the exercise again, imagine yourself successfully doing the exercise that has you flummoxed.

“Natural talent… can’t make up for a lack of basic knowledge and skills – but solid basics, combined with real desire and commitment, can make any rider a good rider.”  – Anne Kursinski

Integrate New Ideas Safely

It is best to work on new ideas at home, on the flat and in schools before using them in competition. Just as you would not set off to your first ever one-star in a new-fangled bit you rode in once, experiment with new techniques in comfortable situations to get used to them.

You may also want to simply experiment with new exercises at home – to build your awareness or give you insights about your horse. You will not radically adjust your approach without test-driving the adjustments in brief increments. Adopt changes (such as warm-ups that include a lot of collection work, shortened stirrups, or a new martingale) by reviewing clinic sessions, getting input from your regular trainer, analyzing video from the clinic, discussing ideas with friends who were there, and any other ways you can think of to weigh and measure your new tools.

The Optimal Idea

Taking a clinic can be an invaluable opportunity to build new skills. Not only can you learn from a new instructor, but the clinic format (such as riding in a new place, being watched by new people with expert opinions, and wanting to perform at your best) can mimic some of the demands of competition in very useful ways. Treat the experience as both physical practice and a mental skills run-through for an event, and you will benefit on many levels.

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.