by Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in The Plaid Horse, January 2010

Imagine yourself going through your daily routine at the barn or a horse show and then ask yourself this question: What inspires you? What brings you joy, helps you work hard toward your goals, and reminds you how much you enjoy riding a horse? Is it a nice hack through the country? Succeeding in a hard exercise during a lesson? Watching a rider you admire look elegant mastering a difficult course at a horse show? Finding the moments and experiences that inspire you to ride and compete is an important and on-going process. It’s what gets you revved up, excited to try again when times are tough, and gives you hope that you are progressing down the road toward becoming the best rider you can be.

Sometimes inspiration comes to you out of the blue, and sometimes you need to sharpen your awareness, look around, and gather it up. Either way, the start of a new show season is a great time to identify ways to keep it present in your day-to-day experiences and routines. Everyone needs a lift from time-to-time; what can be hard to figure out is how to get one. Here are a few ideas for some places to look.

Watch Riders you Admire

When you know how to ride, at any level, you understand how hard it is to ride effectively, elegantly and consistently. Appreciating the difficulty involved allows you to be inspired by excellence that you see around you. Some of you are lucky enough to ride at facilities where there are riders you admire and can watch regularly. For others that is not the case, and you must create opportunities to observe the very best. Being able to be a spectator at the bigger horse shows is one way to watch high-level riders not only perform in the show ring, but warm up and relate to their horses before they perform. Using video can be another way to view a level of riding that is inspirational to you.

Use observation to fuel your imagination of what you can achieve in your own riding. Let’s say you have a performance goal of keeping your eye up and focused through each corner. You would want to then watch someone you admire and look specifically at where their eyes focus on course. Notice their habits of directing their gaze and let it motivate you to strive for the same level of accuracy.

“The best and fastest way to learn a sport is to watch and imitate a champion.”
– Jean-Claude Killy, 3-time Olympic Gold Medalist

Revisit the Best Rides of your Life


Remembering your greatest rides is a wonderful way to generate positive emotions and excitement. Ideally you have a method of tracking your rides, so that you can visit the specifics of the experience with ease by reading back through your notes. However, with or without a log of your rides, you can use visualization to remember back to that specific time and place (whether it was a lesson, hack, or a round at a show). Allow yourself to relive, enjoy and experience the ride fully with all of your senses as you walk yourself through it. When you remind yourself of the best you have been – the most in tune, the most focused, the most in the moment – you bring those skills to life and remind yourself that you are capable of creating them in your riding.

Use Music


You can influence your mood, attitude and inspire yourself to greatness with just the right song. Music is a simple way to impact your motivation effectively and immediately, at just the times you may need it most. The music you listen to may be useful on many levels: it may be tied to successful memories from your past; have lyrics that get you going or help you persevere through tough times; or contain a tempo/rhythm/pace that is energy producing.  Creating playlists and mixes has never been easier, and it is worth learning how to create them if you don’t already know. (Any 12 year old can help you out if you get stuck!) By sorting, mixing, freshening, and being creative with your music you can generate inspiration anytime you push ‘Play’.

Appreciate the Simple Things


Rushing to the barn for a quick lesson after school or work, cramming in homework in-between classes at a show, commuting long distances to ride, getting up early to compete without enough sleep – all are examples of the ways that you can get tired and worn down. Once you are in that state it can be difficult to feel ‘inspired’ at all! In fact, you may start to feel like riding is part obligation, part enjoyment. In order to find your inspiration it can be helpful to look to the small pleasures to get you back in the groove.

Can you remember the last time you gave your horse a hug? Or took him out to graze and sprinkled carrot pieces in the grass? Or gave your trainer a big smile and thank you at the end of your lesson and quickly told him/her what you felt the most proud of? Finding joy in the small acts can help you bring joy and inspiration back into your daily riding routine. Everyone on your team, including you, will be the better for it.

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.