In this new series, equestrians share their strategies to master the mental aspect of the sport.

hillary-irwin-photo-by-jj-sillmanHillary Irwin is a professional event rider with her own business, Hillary Irwin Eventing, a full service eventing program based in the beautiful foothills of western North Carolina. Hillary has competed multiple horses through the two-star level, all homebreds or OTTB’s, all of which she started from the beginning.

Bringing a horse up from the beginning is what she enjoys the most; she loves the process of working with a horse daily and being an integral part their growth and success. Hillary works almost entirely with Adult Amateurs guiding them from the lower levels thru preliminary/CCI*. Above all, she wants to help each rider and horse gain the knowledge as well as develop the skills that will allow them to truly enjoy and be successful at the sport to the utmost of their ability. Visit Hillary’s website at

Hillary’s Tips

What is your mental routine before going in the ring?

Before I even get on my horse, or if time is tight while I am hacking to my warm-up area, I will focus on what I am about to do.

First, I visualize how I want everything to look. I see it all going well and smooth in my head.

Second, I focus on how I have to ride to make that happen. How I have to use my leg or seat in a certain place, where I need a half-halt, and where my foot falls should be in to get on the right line.

Third, I visualize the ride until I can see it happening with no bobbles, no mistakes, and looking smooth-just as I would at home. If I cannot see the first of attempt of a jump going well, I fix it in my head- I see it all as positive before I ever even start my warm-up.

Lastly, before I go into a ring, I have to disconnect from what else is going on. The barn drama, the life drama, the horse drama, the good, the bad, and the ugly, all has to go into a little box for the thirty minutes I need to warm-up and ride my test or course.

That has taken a few years to learn how to do, but it is so useful when you learn to have “tunnel vision” –total mental focus- when you are riding your horse, it is something you can practice at home when you are having a day where an emotion is extreme (happy, sad, nervous, annoyed-learn to put it aside and focus on your horse.).

What do you recommend for equestrians who begin to feel burnt out periodically?

I recommend taking a break. Take the day and let your horses be, they also need breaks! Remember it is ok for everyone to have a vacation a few times a year, or once every season. It is also important to remember why you do this; everyone knows it is not because it’s easy. Remember why you love it. For me, I go hang out in my horses’ stall and play with them, I take them on a hack around the neighbor’s winery, I ride them bareback in the snow- remember to make it simple and fun every now and again.

What challenges do you see that young riders specifically (under 25 or so) face?

I think the biggest challenge for younger riders is remembering to not skip the basics. Make sure you know them, and you will end up ahead of all the people you think you need to catch up to. For the people are lucky enough to afford a nice, made horse, still practice all the things that are simple- can you do 3, 4, or 5 strides in a 45’ line to poles or low verticals, or 15 transitions down the long side of the dressage ring? For all the people who have to make their own horses, know that the partnership you build will pay off dividends IF you spend time building a solid foundation of knowledge for you both. Don’t be afraid of the staying below what your capable of until you are completely solid at a level- consistency is key and just because you can, does not mean you should.

What do you find is the biggest psychological obstacle for a rider after sustaining a fall?

I find most people’s biggest obstacle to overcome after a fall is waiting for the next fall. Personally, I watch videos and get bystanders opinions to find out what it looked like happened. I combine that information with what I was feeling, and try to figure out where things went wrong. Once I reach that conclusion, I figure out how I would have ridden that situation differently, and then I focus on riding that way in my daily routine in order to prevent the same situation from ever repeating itself. Another way to dealing with it, is to go straight back to the exercise/situation that led to the fall- conquer the situation to build confidence in the rider and the horse.