Submitted by Nicole Sharpe:

On June 18th I had the great pleasure of participating in a “Pressure Proof Your Riding” clinic with Coach Daniel Stewart (just “Stewart” or Coach Stewart from now on, though I do desperately want to call him DStew).  If you don’t know about Coach Stewart, check out his website here.  TL;DR: he’s a successful 3-day, hunter-jumper, and dressage coach for the USET, as well as a sports psychologist for other Olympic teams and athletes.

Coach Daniel Stewart. Photo by Sheila A Stenger.

Coach Daniel Stewart. Photo by Sheila A Stenger.

The theme of the clinic was putting together your mental game, split into both a riding and a lecture portion.  This blog will focus on the riding portion, as it was a clinic that required some set-up, and quite a bit of thought while riding.

Riding, as we all know, is both a mental and a physical game.  Not only do we have to be great physical athletes, but we also have to withstand the pressures of entering a stadium ring, dressage court, hunter arena, or start box and remembering to do all the right things with our bodies to keep our horses balanced, forward, and on course, without letting them lose confidence or get scared.  Geez, think we have enough to remember?  So if we spend so much time training ourselves physically, why don’t we train ourselves mentally?  This is the key to Coach Stewart’s Pressure Proofing series: putting on the mental pressure to get us used to performing well under pressure.  By optimizing both your mental and physical performance, Stewart believes we are one step closer to unlocking our potential to be great equestrians.

Stewart had us set up a rather simple course of a 20-foot (ish) square of four jumps, with verticals and bounces on opposite sides.  These jumps were all small compared to what we regularly school, but Coach Stewart upped the pressure by requiring us to count strides out loud, design our own courses, and meet an optimum time for the course we rode.  During each go at the course, riders were challenged to accrue as few “penalties” as possible.  Penalties could be accrued through counting your assigned number strides incorrectly (1 point per stride!), knocking rails (the standard 4), crossing your path (5!), chips or long spots (1 per), or putting the course before the horse (a catch-all category including poor riding habits, such as not changing your leads, anywhere from 1-4 points depending on the crime), repeating a jump (5) and finally: going over OR under the optimum time (1 point per second). The punishment for too many penalties in a single round (9+) or over three rounds (30+) was 50-100 sit ups.  A bit of a motivator, but not enough to be scary.

Daniel Stewart demonstrates proper sit-up form. Photo by Sheila A Stenger

Daniel Stewart demonstrates proper sit-up form. Photo by Sheila A Stenger

“You are going to hate me while you’re riding in this clinic,” Coach Stewart warned us.  “But afterwards, I hope you’ll think it was fun.”

So how is it to ride under all this pressure?  Let me give my warm up round as an example.  This warm-up consisted of jumping any 3 jumps in 20 seconds, counting three strides out from each.  A 20 foot square is pretty small, so we had to balance the right lines against the time.  Since my horse, Murray, is a five year old with hardly enough sense to tie his shoelaces in the morning, I chose to take the long way around and planned a wide, spiraling line going to jumps at least on opposite side of the square.  I counted my three strides to the first jump, but missed and only got two to the second.  On my way to my final jump, about 7 strides out, Murray tripped and stumbled, nearly nosing the ground.  After Murray got himself back together I circled before heading to my last jump, and completely forgot to call out my strides at all!

Coach Stewart congratulated me on my round, then revealed that I had done a 20 second course in 39 seconds, accruing 19 penalties just for time.  Add to that a couple of chips and a poor job counting my strides, and I ended up with 25 total penalties.  Stewart focused on Murray’s stumble as a source of our penalties, pointing out that it cost me far more than it should have, and that I should have instead picked Murray up and continued onward to the last jump without circling.

“But I put the horse before the course!” I insisted, trying to remind Stewart of what he’d told us in the beginning.

“Yes, but you came in 19 seconds over time. There isn’t time for circling on my clock.  You should have collected your horse back up and headed straight to the jump.”

 McKayla Maroney. Credit: Associated Press.

McKayla Maroney. Credit: Associated Press.

I pretty much went full McKayla Maroney on the situation at that point.  I had, in my opinion, done the best thing for my horse, and the 19 penalties had been unavoidable!  Furthermore, Stewart didn’t know Murray at all, or my history as a rider, and I thought it was rather unfair of him to expect a green 5 year old (who generally acts like he’s three) to respond to a mistake like a seasoned jumper. (If you quit reading at this point, you should know that I changed my mind pretty quick, see below!)

As the clinic continued, Stewart critiqued every ride, pointing out both what people failed to do as well as what they accomplished in each round.  If a rider counted their strides too quietly, Stewart asked them to prove their confidence in their horse by YELLING out the numbers.

Coach Stewart and Alana Henley count penalties with Tiffany on course. Photo by Sheila A Stenger

Coach Stewart and Alana Henley count penalties with Tiffany on course. Photo by Sheila A Stenger

“Have confidence in your horse. Even if you get the wrong number, be confident in the choice you made,” Stewart reminded us.

Stewart changed up the starting and ending jumps from rider to rider, so nobody could just follow another rider’s route, and had riders counting up to 7 strides out from a jump.  When someone picked a unique line to a jump or changed directions tight and clean, he congratulated them and pointed out exactly what about that choice was the best one.  Over and over, riders forgot to do one thing while concentrating on another: when trying to place their direction change, they forgot to count their strides; when balancing their horse around a tight turn, they crossed their line.  Stewart pointed all of this out as examples of how “Humans are bad at mental multitasking, when we’re concentrating on one thing, we can’t concentrate on others.”  How does he suggest combating this?  Practice!

Photo by Sheila A Stenger

Photo by Sheila A Stenger

When one rider struggled with her horse running out at the jumps, Stewart lauded her great attitude.  “Instead of fighting with your mare, you’re getting on with business and the ride. Most people in this situation, they get angry, they get frustrated, or they cry. You are laughing, which is exactly the right way to approach this: ride your course and learn from the experience!  I like your mare,” he added. “She will not let you get away with anything!”

Stewart was right: I wasn’t a fan in the beginning.  He criticized my decision making and told me to make better decisions. But you know what?  There was a better choice there, and I chose not to take it, instead going with something I was more comfortable with.  And the whole point – literally the whole point – of the clinic was to push us out of our comfort zones as riders and show us that even in that suboptimal place, we can ride well!  Without knowing what mistakes we are making, we can never learn from them.  Perhaps the pressure Stewart puts on riders isn’t totally translatable to show conditions – I will never have to worry about picking my own four jumps in a stadium course (thankfully, that is pre-determined for me) and nobody is asking me to see a 7-stride spot and call it out correctly at a show.  But who knows when a sudden rain squall will foul the footing, an unexpected run-out will require you to think of a new approach to a jump, or a mylar balloon will float onto the XC course and remind your pony that dragons DO exist and THEY ARE HERE.

DRAGONS!

DRAGONS!

I’m not about to ask my coach to throw balloons at me during my regular lessons, or hope that a duck flies into me on XC someday to prove my pressure-proofed-ness, but if I get more comfortable riding under pressure every day, how much less stressful is every show going to be? So much. It’s going to be awesome.

This simulated pressure is what Coach Stewart uses to make us stronger mental riders.  Every mistake, Stewart repeated over and over, is a learning opportunity, not a missed opportunity.  And throwing us into the proverbial fire, Stewart expected us to accept the heat rise to the challenge – and we can!

“When you put the good mental together with the good physical, BOOM! – that’s how you get great riders!”

The author with Daniel Stewart after a great clinic!

The author with Daniel Stewart after a great clinic!

Nicole Sharpe