by Tonya Johnston, MA
appeared Eventing USA,  July/August 2008

OK, let’s not pretend. Famous or not, international or local – it has happened to all of us. You know it, I know it, your friends, family and trainers know it. (Heck, it has even happened to many of those same trainers at some point in their riding careers!) What are we referring to? The dreaded competition moment, “Oh dear, not now – is this really happening? I absolutely, positively have no fathomable idea where to go next.”

At this point most of us have either pulled up, jumped something at random that looked inviting, or circled until a jolt of inspiration hit us like a meteor from outer space. In addition, feelings of shock, mortification, sadness and the-floor-just-dropped-out-beneath-you often ensued. Is this normal? Yes. But if it happens to you more than once in a (very) blue moon, then the strategies and tips provided here will assist you in making it a thing of the past once and for all. (Frankly, even a fear of losing your way can inhibit your riding skills. Better safe than sorry, right? Read on.)

Why do we go off course?

How do we get lost in the first place? We learn the course (if that is difficult for you, fear not, we will address that as well), we can recite it to anyone around us, we practice in our minds, we ride the dressage tests at home, we walk the cross country three times, we visualize the show jumping course, etc. etc. etc. So where and how does it go out the window in the moment(s) we need it most?

“Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”  – Steven Wright

  • Nerves/tension: Excess energy that comes up in competition can be a distraction for our minds and bodies. For example, we may find ourselves internally focused and therefore not able to react, think and ride effectively (e.g. noticing a pit-in-the-stomach feeling, shortness of breath, racing heart).
  • Distractions: These may come from a variety of sources such as external factors (crowds, other riders, etc.), internal factors (rapid and unfocused self talk), or our horse (for example, unexpected spookiness). These distractions take us out of the moment and prevent us from riding our course plan the way we intended.
  • Lack of preparation: A lack of sufficient preparation before entering the ring or going on course can easily leave us feeling rushed and scattered; therefore vulnerable to memory lapses and many types of distractions.
  • Incomplete learning: If your method for learning the course and making your course plan is faulty to begin with, you are setting yourself up for trouble when you get in the ring.
  • Thinking behind ourselves: Allowing the past (a rail on the first jump or a missed transisiton) to consume our focus, making us ill-equipped to respond to what is in front of us.
  • Thinking ahead of ourselves: Worry or fear about a particular part of the course may cause us to take the more ‘basic’ components for granted, or create a complete lack of focus that makes staying on target impossible.
  • Faulty belief system: If you have a deep-seated belief that you are a person who goes off course a lot – guess what?
  • Complete system failure: This is self-explanatory – the “blue moon phenomenon” – but it can be prevented!

Identify Your Learning Style (and stick with it!)


Do you know your learning style? Are you a kinesthetic learner – best on foot, taking extra time walking and looking at the track you will ride while getting to know the unfamiliar surroundings at an event? Or will visual representation help to cement your course plan – by writing it down and then using visualization to help process the information? How about listening to the course plan described in detail by your trainer or talking it through and describing it to someone else?

Knowing your learning style (kinesthetic, visual or auditory) will help you choose methods and strategies that will be particularly effective for you. Learning and remembering are two different things, but make no mistake – they are also intimately intertwined! You can discover your style by thinking about what has worked best for you in the past, or you can find learning style assessment instruments online (Find a nice review of learning style assessment instruments at: Although learning style is only a piece of the puzzle, it can help you immensely in building your competition routine.

Methods to stay on course


Many people do not take the time to recognize that mental mistakes that happen in competition have roots in the practices they employ every day in training. You may find yourself wondering how strategies for riding at home can help you remember competition courses you haven’t even seen yet. Or you may find yourself saying, “But I always stay on course at home!” Please try these strategies anyway – you will be surprised at the difference these ideas make when you work them into your practice rides and lessons.

At home strategies:

  1. Practice with pressure: Create competition situations in your mind and then give yourself one opportunity to ride the exercise, test or course successfully. (See my article in the July/August 2007 issue.)
  2. Practice warming-up and riding your test or course in two different rings.
  3. Visualize specific to the show grounds: In the weeks before your event imagine yourself riding in those arenas or out on that particular cross-country course. Create vivid images that so you build your comfort level and confidence specific to the venue.
  4. Practice walking courses at home: Both in actual rings and simulated arenas you create for yourself. Make a detailed course plan that integrates your goals as you walk and vividly imagine yourself riding the plan successfully.
  5. Practice strategies for dealing with distractions, such as: a) Create cue words that are tied in with your performance goals to get yourself back on track should you become distracted on course. b) Choose places to incorporate a brief exhale on course, and use exhalation when you find yourself taken out of the moment to regain your focus and composure.

Remembering courses and tests in competition is a skill, no question. As with most skills it will improve with experience, but there are also a vast array of strategies you can employ to make the process easier. Below we explore a few of the best methods for staying on track at the event. (Be sure to bring the applicable strategies from the ‘at home’ list as well!)

At the event strategies

  1. Find and note focal points for each ring or course on foot.
  2. Write the course or test out on your own pad of paper.
  3. Visualize your course specific to the competition ring – if certain courses do not make intuitive sense, or you find yourself making mistakes keep at it with your eyes closed until it is locked in (people sometimes give up too early on their preparation). Be sure to visualize the specifics of what you want to have happen in the corners of the show jumping ring or during the ‘breathers’ on the cross country course. Ride the course or test in ‘real time’ (for example, a show jumping round should take longer than 38 seconds to visualize!)
  4. Integrate performance goals into your course plan.
  5. Jump warm-up jumps imagining that they are particular jumps on course: Integrate turns before and after the jump to mimic turns you will face in competition. In this way you will practice the thought process you will use once on course to remember certain portions of the track.
  6. Have a plan to deal with extra energy/nerves (breathing techniques, progressive realization tools, etc.).
  7. Have one word cues to regroup from internal and external distractions on course. (For example, “Eyes” or “Forward” – cues that activate your focus and keep you mindful of your goals.)

The Optimal Idea

“Learn from the past. Prepare for the future. Perform in the present.” This quote by Gary Mack encapsulates how we need to view those days and times we have lost our way on course. Learning from past mistakes, take care to prepare mindfully, then trust your efforts will keep you on the right track.

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.