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Riding to Win

by Kathy Gorsky
Posted on November 6, 2015 2 I almost changed the title of this blog post because I was afraid that people would think that “winning” equates to earning blue ribbons. But let’s be clear: winning means giving your best performance in a competitive setting. After all, we can’t control what our competitors do. If a rider performs at her personal best, then she is winning. So why did I go ahead and call this blog “Riding to Win” when I probably could have called it something else? I could have called it “Riding Your Best” or “Sports Psychology for Equestrians,” I suppose. However, I want to make it clear that there is a difference between “riding to win” and “riding not to lose.” So much of competitive sport revolves around the mental aspects of allowing your body to do what it has been trained to do. But I see so many very competent riders enter the show ring and simply “blow it.” Why is that? There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon, but let’s focus on the one that I would like to address. When a rider goes through the ingate, her mind should be focusing on the job at hand and making it happen. She should trust that she has the skills that are necessary to accomplish her goals, rather than questioning her competence and second-guessing her abilities. A rider who enters the ring, knowing that she understands the questions that a course is presenting, and being confident that she can handle them, is already heads and tails above the rest. She will exude presence, and that is something that a judge is looking for. More importantly, she will communicate to her horse that all is well, and that the job ahead is a piece of cake. This is what I call “Riding to Win.” On the other hand, “riding not to lose” looks far different to a judge. Obvious anxiety not only restricts your ability to ride well, but it also communicates to your horse. Now, both of you are a big ball of nerves! To make matters worse, telling yourself what not to do is an ineffective way of getting the job done. You need to give yourself positive mental cues if you want to be an effective rider. For example, telling yourself “I hate tight turns, I always let my horse cut in” is not nearly as effective as thinking “I’m going to push my horse out with my inside leg and aim for the exit sign in the corner.” Similarly, thinking “ugh, my horse is going to buck in the corner” almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s better to think “I’m going to ride forward through the corner.” Here’s a little history lesson for you. (I promise it won’t be too painful.) In 1972, Timothy Gallwey published a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis.” Rather than being an instructional manual on forehands and lobs, this book focused on the importance of having the mental strength to perform well when the chips are down. Believe it or not, this was a new concept to many athletes at this time; certainly there had never been a bestselling book about such a topic. Gallwey had a lot of great things to say about competition. He claimed that “Performance rarely equals potential. A little self-doubt, an erroneous assumption, the fear of failure – that’s all it takes to greatly diminish performance.” He also told athletes that they would be better off trusting that they know how to perform well, rather than thinking about every little detail of what they need to do in order to do well. Overthinking can keep us from doing our best. Or, as Gallwey puts it, “Conscious trying often produces negative results.” It is possible to try too hard! I’m not going to belabor this concept. My students have heard me talk about this on many occasions and I suppose a coach can also be guilty of trying too hard to get her students to perform well. Let’s just find a takeaway on the subject of “Riding to Win.” And it’s “Just Ride!” Let your body do what it knows how to do. Ride forward, ride clearly, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Your horse will thank you for it. And so will your trainer. And you just may end up with a few nice ribbons in the process.
Kathy Gorsky
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Kathy Gorsky

Kathy Gorsky has been a riding instructor for over 30 years. She is also the coach of an Interscholastic Equestrian Association team for Full Circle Farm in Manchester, CT. Kathy's blog, School Horse Chronicles, helps her to share some of her experiences as a riding instructor with other instructors, riding students, parents, and anyone else who enjoys horses.