by Kelly Sanchez
Appeared in The Equestrian News June/July 2010

Watching Olympians Beezie Madden or Steffen Peters as they put their horses through their paces, it’s tempting to imagine that they were simply born great. These riders work hard, to be sure, but through some happy accident the must have been blessed with the raw talent to launch themselves into the stratosphere of the sport.

Tonya Johnston rejects this view. A San Francisco-area mental skills consultant, she has discovered that top competitors have one thing in common: Resiliency. “They feel good about themselves no matter what,” she says. “Even if they have a bad day, it doesn’t change the confidence and faith they have in themselves and their process. Elite athletes display a mental strength so that even if something goes wrong, it doesn’t damage their self-concept.”

Johnston, who works with athletes from a variety of sports, believes that this ability to stay focused on the long term is something that can be learned and perfected. A lifelong equestrian, she works closely with riders of all disciplines to help them overcome fear, come back from injuries, develop confidence or just polish what they’re already doing well. Many riders come to her because some difficulty in the ring has affected not only their confidence but their motivation. “They come to me saying they know they can be better, that they ride better at home than they do at shows, and that they’re not supporting themselves mentally,” she explains. “We talk about things like preparation, attitude, focus, energy management and communication as well as how they’re handling their down time. It’s not about how many strides to the jump – I leave that to the trainers.”

Equestrians, Johnston emphasizes, are faced with an inherently unique challenge. “You have a teammate with whom you communicate nonverbally,” she says. “A horse is a truth detector – they can tell if you’re nervous or feeling pressure.”

As a teenager, she remembers struggling at the beginning of every horse show she entered. “I’d do great in the last class on Sunday,” she says with a laugh. “I thought, Why can’t I ride like that on Friday morning?” So began a journey of understanding that athletic success was about “being able to focus and be in the moment,” she says. “You can be the best rider on the planet, but if you’re allowing worry, anxiety or self-doubt to affect you, it’s like tying one arm behind your back.”

Dressage rider Michele Cooper, who currently trains with Shannon Peters in San Diego, swears by Johnston’s approach. “I would never do a show without calling Tonya the night before to fine tune my strategies,” she says. Cooper first sought out Johnston when she was returning to competition with her talented but volatile Hanoverian, Lucky Girl BC, on whom she’d suffered several injuries. A badly broken arm kept Cooper out of the show ring for more than a year, during which time Steffen Peters showed the mare. Cooper says her fear wasn’t about getting hurt again, “it was about failing,” she recalls. “I kept thinking, I can’t do as well as my Olympic trainer. But Tonya helped me focus on what I could control, what I could do.”

In a series of phone consultations, Johnston asked Cooper to examine what made her successful in the past and had her create an intensive pre-show routine that involved everything from getting her own tack room where she can “cocoon” herself before a competition to visualizing the show grounds and playing what she calls “happy music” for herself.

The system worked. At the Dressage Affaire in Del Mar this spring, Cooper and Lucky Girl came in third out of a very competitive field of 18 (including Steffen Peters) at Fourth Level, Test 1. “At this level, a lot of dressage is mental,” Cooper says. “The difference between being an amateur and being a professional is that competitive edge. Being able to slow things down in my mind to become more of a thinking rider in the moment has been my most valuable lesson from Tonya.”

Hunter trainer Beverly Jovais of Chestnut Hill in Northern California often kicks off the show season with a clinic in which her entire barn participates in mounted and unmounted sessions with Johnston. But she’s also called on Johnston’s services in an emergency, such as when a rider’s confidence is shaken or if they’re preparing for a major competition. “We have a vet, a farrier, an acupuncturist and Tonya,” says Jovais. “If Tonya weren’t a rider herself, she couldn’t relate. But she can work with the ten-year-old who forgets her course and the older student who is afraid because her horse just runs over the jumps, and she’s helped my riders get over some really bad falls.” If a student is having a problem with negative or catastrophic thinking, Johnston will give them an index card with a stop sign on it or a mantra to repeat. Notes Jovais, “You always leave a session with a concrete tool.”

Johnston crafts individual plans that are unique to her client’s needs and goals. “All I need is someone who is interested in improving,” she says. “But until you build your awareness –  understanding what went right and what went wrong every time you ride – there’s no way you can do anything differently.” Homework is part of the process. “I’ll have clients write things down and refect on them. Habits of thought are just as difficult to break and change as are physical habits.”

Hope Glynn, who has 49 horses in training at her Sonoma Valley Stables, says working side by side with Johnston has taught her to be a better coach. “The biggest stress of my clients revolves around competitions or when they’re transitioning to a new horse or new level. Whether she’s giving students cues to work through anxiety or helping them stay focused in a difficult situation, Tonya teaches them new ways of thinking that carry over to other aspects of their lives.”