10 Things Every Rider Should Do To Prepare for the Ring
Join International sports psychologist for show jumpers Jim Hickey on a journey to exceed your expectations in the ring.
By Jim Hickey
Sport psychology is a well defined area of research, however the availability of information regarding the importance of psychological training in equestrians, specifically in the discipline of show jumping, was much narrower. Dr. Inga Wolframm has published multiple research articles as well as a book that discusses sport psychology in equestrians Most of the quality sources found are her work or cite her papers. Some original research is helpful, but often only the abstract is available.
In any sport, including riding, a "suboptimal mental state" is a common cause of poor performance. Whether it is a state of arousal regarding expectations of a certain outcome in a particular event, a challenging fence on the course, horse and/or rider uneasiness in a new environment, or a distraction outside the ring; a change in the emotional state of the rider can lead to a lack of focus, a change in physiology like increased muscular tension and heart rate, unexpected behavior from the horse, and damaged confidence or trust in the partnership. Given these effects are potentially devastating for a horse-rider combination, it is clear that managing thoughts and emotions is an integral part of developing elite competitive skill.
When comparing elite and sub-elite riders in dressage and show jumping, elite competitors show better anxiety management and concentration. They were also more likely to employ multiple skills to control anxiety and stress including "goal-setting, cognitive restructuring, positive self-talk, focusing skills, mental imagery, pre-competitive preparation and relaxation skills." Additionally, the technical skills required for high level competition are honed over time and eventually these behaviors become automated, possibly allowing more attention to be paid to the mental skills required to compete at the highest level.
Following this, psychological training can be used to mitigate the physiological and psychological effects of stress to improve these 5 key areas:
The rider must have self confidence when competing at a high level in order to mitigate the effects of anxiety about injury, failure, or loss of status. Being equipped with mental skills helps improve feelings of control leading to more self-confidence.
Learning techniques for relaxation is important to mitigate the effects of somatic anxiety, which is responsible for the physiological signs of stress. Especially at higher levels, the aids require very fine motor control which can be compromised by muscular tension or elevated heart rate.
Showing in the elite arena requires intense concentration because the courses have a high technical difficulty level.
When the rider lacks focus, aids may be applied inappropriately or not at all. These changes may be imperceptible to the rider and therefore the horse is seen as recalcitrant or misbehaving, rather than reacting to subtle changes due to the rider's emotional state.
Practicing self-talk in the midst of distraction to re-focus the mind on the task at hand can be beneficial.
By improving confidence, focus, and relaxation, the rider is better able to communicate with the horse in the consistent manner which is required for highly difficult courses. Additionally, good communication increases trust and improves confidence in the relationship. Conversely, when physiologic stress causes misunderstanding, it can then damage the rider's self confidence and the relationship between horse and rider.
Setting goals and progressing toward their achievement is motivating and can increase self-confidence in the rider. As discussed, confidence helps decrease physiologic stress, therefore improving communication between horse-rider. Additionally, the efficacy of goals based on skill mastery or performance is something that needs more research, though because of the high level of competition at the elite level, performance-based goals may be necessary.
To wrap it up, psychological training helps to decrease the effects of stress by improving confidence, relaxation, focus, horse-rider communication, and facilitating appropriate goal setting.