Get Your Head in the Game – Sports Psychology for Equestrians

As someone who is extremely self-conscious and suffers from terrible competition nerves, I was really excited to hear that the West Leinster Region of AIRC had arranged for a talk with Sports Psychologist Anna Donnla O’Hagan of Dublin City University. The talk, which took place in July 2015, was primarily geared towards helping attendees overcome nerves and become a more confident rider, with practical takeaways to implement at home. I was particularly looking forward to the practical exercises, as despite knowing the theory quite well, I was still falling apart in a competition environment!

Anna opened the session by getting some background on each of the attendees and what we wanted to achieve from the session, and then delving into what makes elite athletes, well… elite! Some things I picked up were that elite athletes possess greater self-confidence and self-awareness – they always evaluate their performance after every event, focusing not just on how they did physically, but how they performed mentally. They also set ambitious, yet realistic goals that are centered on variables within their control. More on this later!

Three key themes came out of the talk:

  1. Setting Goals
  2. Preparation – Physical & Mental
  3. Using imagery/visualisation

I’ll go through each of these in a little more detail.

1. Setting Goals

Anna reminded us of the importance of setting SMART Goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Based. If any of these variables are missing, it makes it that much harder to achieve your goal.  One of my SMART Goals for 2016 is to qualify for the National Dressage Championships by getting my two qualifying scores by July 2016. I have set a clear timeframe, have made it specific and measurable with the qualifying scores, it is relevant to my chosen discipline, and given my current trajectory, is definitely achievable!

Anna also discussed the importance of the type of goal we set, and the three types of goal that can be set:

  1. Outcome Goals – ‘I want to win this competition’.
  2. Performance Goals – ‘I want to score above 65% in the test’.
  3. Process Goals – ‘I want to keep a bend in my elbows’.

While there are no right or wrong goal types, it was clear to me that Process and Performance based goals seemed much more attainable and within my control than the Outcome based goals – ultimately making it more likely for me to succeed with every outing.

Anna suggested breaking down goals into short term, medium term and long term goals, and that any larger goals should be broken down into smaller, more manageable goals. I could break my SMART Goal into a clear Performance Goal (gain 2 scores above 63% on two separate occasions) and go even further with a Process Goal (improve my lower leg position).

A few other tips Anna had around goal-setting were:

  • Try not to have more than three ‘active’ goals at any time – two is the optimum
  • Set goals in three week blocks
  • Write your goals down somewhere, and keep testing yourself against them
  • Keep a log book – rate your performance against goals, both at home and at events
  • Make your goals public to encourage social support
  • Goals need to be of moderate difficulty – too difficult and you will give up, too easy and you won’t challenge yourself
  • Don’t set goals based on variables outside of your control – for example winning a competition. Try instead to set goals that you can control, that lead to that Outcome goal, e.g. going clear within a certain time or nailing a jump-off session at home so you’re 100% prepared going into the ring.

2. Preparation – Physical & Mental

Something I didn’t expect to be covered in a Sports Psychology talk was the topic of physical preparation, but Anna had some great insights to share on how your physical state can really impact on your mental state. Some great tips that I took away were:

  • If you feel thirsty, you are 2-3% dehydrated. At this level, your cognitive function is 10%.
  • To ensure your head is fully in the game, stay hydrated using isotonic drinks, and if you’re too nervous to eat (like me!), eat a banana.
  • Fake it ’til you make it – keep your head up, shoulders back (sounds like I’m back in a riding school again!), and slow your rate of speech to calm your body.
  • Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation – tense each individual muscle in your body one by one; hold it for three seconds, and then release. Then move onto the next one. This helps relax your entire body.

Next, she moved onto mental preparation:

  • Change your perception – for some, increased heart rate means nerves, for others it means adrenaline. Shift your mindset to pull more positive energy from events or feelings that have negative connotations for you.
  • Understand your triggers – is there a specific time before the event that you get nervous, or a specific moment that you feel your self-doubt kick in? Self-awareness was a key theme again here – knowing your triggers so that you can deal with them and put a plan in place to counter them.
  • Build a mental routine that helps you ‘get your head in the game’ – five minutes before I am due in the arena for a dressage test, I like to park myself in a corner away from everyone and just go through my test in my head, imagining me riding it (more on visualisation in the next section).
  • Use cue words to help keep you focused on your goals when in action – for example say ‘heels down’, ‘outside leg’ or ‘rhythm’.

3. Imagery/Visualisation

Given that I am a very visual person, this section of the talk gave me the most practical exercises to take away, and I still use some of these currently in my competition preparation. Anna talked about a study that showed the link between imagery and success, and encouraged us all to try it – either by using actual image/video content, or by going back to childhood days and using good old imagination!

The first visualisation tactic (that I still use) is to imagine exactly how the entire day will go from start to finish, and incorporate as many senses as possible. Imagine what the weather is going to be like, what can you smell, how busy is the venue, where do you park, what are you wearing, how do you ride? Go into as much detail as you possibly can, right down to how things feel and smell. I find the best time to do this is right before you’re due to fall asleep, and start doing it as early as two weeks out if you can – as you will find you’ll build on the visualisation with each time you do it. I like to imagine myself riding my test or jumping a clear round, and what I’m doing in the saddle while it’s happening.

As someone who likes to catastrophise, I like to pair this visualisation with ‘What If’ Scenario Planning – I imagine absolutely everything that can go wrong, and then plan ways to overcome those scenarios. I must stress that What If thinking is only useful if you are genuinely using it to proactively change your mental approach to these situations and prepare yourself – not if you are just going to sit there worrying! I imagine things like bad weather, being late for my class, forgetting a piece of tack, or knocking a fence. I then use visualisation to find ways to imagine those scenarios and how I would overcome them, both in my mind and in ‘the real world’.

Another great tip that Anna gave was to use a recording of someone riding well at a similiar level, or a few levels above you, to get inspiration for visualisation. It’s important not to look too far above your level (for example a Prelim dressage rider looking at a Grand Prix rider) as it’s not going to help you create an association between them and you in your head. I do this by looking up Youtube videos of dressage tests I’m due to compete in soon, with high scores.

Finally, if you have a recording or image in your head of a time you did something really well, that’s the best one to use – a time when you jumped a super round, or got a great score in your dressage, or even when you felt really confident. Build your imagery and use that to keep you focused before you go into the arena.

The most important takeaway from the entire session for me was that different things work for different people, and that you can’t train your brain overnight – it takes practice and iteration to find what works for you. Once you find something that works, keep using it and developing it, and be consistent in using it both in the lead up to, and the day of, your big event. The more regularly you practice it, the more second-nature it will become!

The key is to become more self-aware – know what your triggers for anxiety are, know the reasoning behind them, and take practical steps to overcome them by practicing regularly. I have recently found a great resource called Horse Confidence and have downloaded their app to see how NLP can help me build further on this – more on this in a later post!

Natalie xo


  1. Patsi

    Well written Natalie. I’ve been using the visualization technique myself and it definitely makes a difference in keeping me focused during competition, especially when things get a bit bobbly. Love the blog!

    • Thanks for the encouragement Patsi! I’ve found a massive difference in my focus from using visualisation, and am able to recover from wobbles more quickly, like you say 🙂

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