A great horse, a great coach, lots of practice... what else can I do? Photos Kathryn Darby or me.

I was very excited when I saw the first of Sommer Christie’s “The Mental Game” series here on HJU.

Sports psychology is something that’s interested me for a while but I’ve never pursued. However, after watching a few of Sommer’s videos I decided to try it and emailed her.

As a professional I’ve had both great and terrible show experiences. Through the years I’ve gone through stages of “oh wow, I’m so awesome!”  to “oh wow, I suck so much I should just take up knitting… wait, then I’ll poke my eyes out ’cause I suck so much.

However, with experience I got calmer, more consistent, and while never perfect, I do love competing.

I get a little nervous but nothing I can’t handle; in fact, I think if I ever stop having a certain amount of show nerves, I should quit showing. Sometimes I have winning rides and other times I’m at the bottom of the list, but in both situations I review my rides with my coach and take the lessons of what went well and what needs to be better.

My somewhat calm, organized state of mind led some people to ask me why I need sport psychology? My answer was why not? Really, I am always interested in how to be a better performer.

Foremost in my mind though, is that for the first time I have amazing people behind me who bought a great horse, Countess (also known as The Orange Goodness), for me to train and campaign, with the goal to get us in to the international Grand Prix ring before eventually offering her for sale. With such an incredible opportunity in my hands, I figure I should do everything in my power to make the most out of it. Enter Sports Psychology.

I knew this work wasn’t a magic pill that would make me suddenly the next Wonder Trainer, giving me skills and know-how that I didn’t have last week, but if could make me better somehow, then let’s go.

Not knowing really what I was in for, I started meeting with Sommer one evening each week over Skype (me in Denmark + Sommer in Canada = too far a commute to meet face to face). Right away I felt relaxed and comfortable, like I was talking with a smarter friend (the only kind I have) rather than to someone who is looking for all my weaknesses.

Can this make me a better rider? It would seem so.

I started keeping a journal of my training. Since I usually ride between 6-10 horses each day, this seemed like a daunting task, until I realized it didn’t have to be.

Just one or two short sentences or points on most hoses was enough, the ones I’m more invested in (Orange Goodness) would have a little more detail. I would take notes during my lunch break and then again at the end of the day.

Within the first week, I noticed an improvement in my riding as a trainer. I remembered that Horse X responds better to a quieter leg in the passage.

Horse Z felt strangely better and more free in her movement when I had a rigid feeling in my back, while Horse Q needed at least 10 minutes of forward walking on a long rein at the beginning to save some grief in the warm up.

By writing these observations down I was able to remember them and apply them the next ride. Cool.

We streamlined my training journals so they became more specific, to let me note such things as my level of focus, technical challenges, and enjoyment amongst other things. I noted the positives and not-so-great parts of my ride and thought out how I might make it better tomorrow. Then I made a goal for tomorrow’s ride.

We all know that making a training plan with horses doesn’t always work; to write down “tomorrow I will work on the canter zig-zag from Inter II” usually means that your trot will be a disaster, and you’ll spend the next 45 minutes trying to solve that problem, leaving your canter work for another day.

Being flexible is important, but I also found it helpful to say, “I want to work on XYZ, but I will make sure my transitions are of excellent quality.”  Horse may not get to XYZ today, but transitions are something that I can do regardless. A goal set and accomplished is always a good feeling.

Besides daily goals we also made short and long term goals. These have specific time frames and steps to how to get there, making them realistic and achievable. I’ve found this very helpful because I often forget about the long-term goal (Grand Prix), while I focus on the short term (upcoming show at Prix St George), but this is helping keep me on track.

photo via tastefullyoffensive.com

It’s not all been jolly easy good times though. Like learning anything new, there has been a bumpy patch while figuring things out.

While exploring distractions and what kind of cues I need to get myself back on track, I spent so much time thinking about my mental state and responses that I was too distracted to ride. What the…

It didn’t take long though to realize that being too cerebral, thinking of words and phrases, wasn’t good for my riding, but I do respond well to images, using a mental-picture to help me relax or change my focus.

The greatest thing I’ve taken so far from my work with Sommer is how I deal with mistakes. I know in a show you have to just let a mistake go and get on with it, and I’m usually good about that.

However at home, I can easily recall getting frazzled and making the same mistake over and over because I’m too frustrated to just stop and think.  Now if I blow a line of flying changes, I think, “yep, that was wrong. Why? Maybe because xyz, so I’ll try 123 on the next line.”

This breakdown can take just a few strides to think through, but if I’m feeling the frustration coming I will stop, walk a circle while I breathe and think about this, and then try again. I’m finding I can get through the mistakes much faster by taking this quick pause and the horses are much happier for this!

So my work at home has been noticeably improving since my work with Sommer. My next challenge, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to give this a try, is coming up next weekend when I take The Orange Goodness to our next show. This is no international competition, no qualifier for anything, it’s just a show. But this is where I’m going to start so that when I am riding CDI’s and qualifiers, I’ll be mentally prepared.

My goal next weekend isn’t to win, my goal is to have a great time and ride the mare just like I ride at home.  If, like at my last show, Andreas Helgstrand is there coaching his beautifully riding student on a super-fancy-freaky-moving horse, I will use one of my funny mental pictures I have stored away for such situations.

It will make me giggle, relax, and remember that I have a great horse and we are what we are, and I’m proud of it. I have a Competition Plan and I’m going to stick to it.

OMG, Andreas and his super team. Yeah, well, whatever...

Thankfully I have one more session with Sommer midweek to remind me of my plan and help me focus. Then the rest is up to me…