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Mind over matter

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what's in our latest issue, click here.

Lyndal Oatley and Sandro Boy. © Rui Pedro Godinho

Lyndal Oatley and Sandro Boy.

© Rui Pedro Godinho


Lacking confidence? Maybe you just think you do. Use your head to turn that around and teach yourself how to ride more confidently with the help of these techniques.


YOUR STOMACH FEELS like butterflies at a rave concert ... swallowing is hard, and you wish you had that sip of water before you headed towards the arena.  You second-guess yourself. What are the lines again? What if I don't get the sequence changes as I missed them in the warm-up? Suddenly, you tense up and your shoulders rise up as if to support your cheekbones. The walk to the competition arena feels twice as long as you remember and you start to wonder why you put yourself through this stress. Am I good enough to compete against the best?

Ah, the joys of confidence. We either seem to have too little or too much of it. The joy of this sport is that it is a humbling one, and horses can take you from one level to the complete opposite in seconds. I will be honest; I am not the most confident person. I was the girl who could barely lift up the phone to order a pizza, and even when I got my first car I could barely gather the confidence to go drive and get that pizza! In the equestrian world, some experiences have highlighted that I am not as confident or headstrong as the competitors around me, and in a team environment this can be a weakness.

What I often overlook is that the years of dealing with my lack of confidence have taught me to develop skills to ensure that when I get on my horse, very little will unnerve me. My strengths have come over years of routine and development and now I know how to get myself in the right frame of mind to compete. Here are some of the tools I have adopted which I hope can help you. Not every tool will help every rider; and this is simply what I have found useful.


When you feel your level of nerves build up, simply stop and breathe. Pause for a moment, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Count this out for a few seconds, hold for a second or two and then exhale. Do this a couple of times if you have time, or if not, once alone is enough to restore a little calm and clarity to an over-anxious body and mind. Also, take a second or two to breathe in the test, and plan these places so it becomes routine. Part of my preparation is that from when the bell rings, breathe and say one thing to myself as I begin the entrance into the competition arena, breathe once before I exit the first halt, once after the half-passes in the Grand Prix, and so on.  Making breathing a conscious decision and a planned exercise is a very helpful tool to calm those nerves.

Last breath before the centre line.

© Rui Pedro Godinho

Personalised pep talk

Once you begin the downward spiral of self-doubt it is very hard to stop that cycle and head yourself back in a positive direction.  The opening paragraph describing panic actually happened to me before the Grand Prix in Stockholm in 2013. I had never before gone through such a phase as nerve-shattering as this one experience. I stopped and breathed for a few seconds (it helped a little) but I knew this was not enough to get myself into the right frame of mind to enter the arena.  My decision was to try and find three things I thought were positives about me. This was not an easy task at this point, but I did, and then repeated these to myself until I started to feel more in charge of my confidence and nerves. These three things will be different according to the individual, but they saved me that day, and I rode one of my best tests to date. ‘”I work hard”, “I am dedicated”, “I deserve this”, “I don't give up”,  “I do this because I love what I do”, “I will not let others stop me”. The list is as long as your imagination, but give it a try.

Get in your zone

Devise a set of actions that put you in your best possible state of mind to perform at your best. This is highly personal, but to follow a set of actions before getting on your horse can be extremely valuable. The repetition of these actions alone can be instrumental in staying calm and focused.  Many riders listen to music with headphones on, watch a certain television show, do Pilates or yoga, go for a quick run, talk to a family member, play a game on their phone etc. Find out what works best for you and make it your routine.

Don't be afraid to ask for help

The role of the mental coaches and counsellors in equestrian sport has expanded. They are an instrumental inclusion for competition success and confidence development of many top riders.  Every top rider has utilised these experts through either their federation or on a private level.  An alternative option is to ask for help from someone you really trust. Don't be afraid to ask for help and be truly honest as you can come away with valuable suggestions that will benefit you, your riding, and ultimately your confidence.

Try not to fit into a mould that does not exist

Every rider has their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Of course, to be successful, their goals and some characteristics will be the same. However, their approaches to a problem, personalities and past experiences will greatly alter their confidence and mechanisms to cope with stressful situations. Simply writing down your strengths and weaknesses and visualising them can help you accept the rider you are. No riders, even the top of the top, are without weaknesses. The difference is these riders do not focus on their limitations but work on their weaknesses.

Step into someone else's top boots

This point may seem a little contradictory after my last point, however, learning from the best can be done by mentally stepping into their boots.  If your confidence is lacking, to mentally step into another rider’s shoes can be a valuable tool to turn your self-confidence around.  This is a technique I have used and is very helpful. Think of a rider that inspires you; one who is calm, focused, confident, who rides with great feeling and timing -- and then carry yourself in their manner. This rider may ride in a certain way or have a strength in exercises that perhaps you are lacking. For example, Isabell Werth is an attacker: confident, driven, and someone who fights for each point, and when something goes wrong her facial expression clearly shows she is kicking her own butt for that mistake and it will not happen again if she has her way.  This is not a tool you need to adopt every day, but simply draw on when needed.


We have all had that horror test when things did not go well. The difficult thing is to return to the arena the next time and worry that these mistakes will happen again. Change your mindset. Instead of thinking of the last test and what went wrong, remember your best test. Visualising components of this test, for example, the final centre line, and looking forward with pride that you just did the test of your life to date. Remembering such positive memories, commonly known as positive hallucinations, and entering the test with this feeling of positivity and success can really help break the cycle of thinking the worst.

Give yourself a break

Finally, don't be too hard on yourself. Everything takes its own time, and our sport is especially hard as we have to not only deal with our confidence issues but those of our four-legged dance partners.  At the end of the day we do this sport because we love horses, and we take on the responsibility for them as well as ourselves. Sometimes simply remembering it’s not all about us, and that we are here to develop and guide a horse is enough to put things in perspective. Shifting the focus away from you and onto what is best for your horse and your horse’s confidence is all the push you need to be brave and deal with your own issues.


This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what's in our latest issue, click here.








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