Reset Your Mindset: Two Tools to Tackle Negative Brain Chatter

By, Liz Piacentini

During an important show, my focus was gradually disappearing. A steady stream of distracting thought was making it harder and harder to concentrate on my horse. Would the two mental fitness tools I learned be enough to get my train of thought back on track?

Meme: Your mind is a garden your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers or you can grow weeds.Maybe it’s happened to you.

You have an argument with a friend before a ride or competition. A co-worker says something that bothers you at work. Or, maybe a wave of your own self-doubt starts to spiral into overdrive. Whatever the trigger, the conversation running between your ears is no longer positive. Before you know it, your negative brain chatter gets stuck on instant replay. Now, you’re losing focus during a lesson or in the warm-up.

That’s exactly what happened to me! My goal one season was to ride in the Connecticut Level 1 Dressage Series championship class. I worked hard throughout the summer improving my technical skills during lessons and competing in recognized shows to earn my qualifying scores.

Finally, the big show day arrived. However, a work-related conversation kept popping into my head. As I rode over to the warm-up ring, I realized my mental chatter had become an annoying distraction. It was disrupting my focus, creating frustration, and decreasing my enjoyment of the show. Brainstorming solutions for my client could be done after I competed. Right now, I needed to reset my mindset and get in the zone of concentration.

Luckily, I had two mental fitness tools Coach Daniel Stewart taught me for overcoming stubborn, distracting thoughts:

Halt negative thinking with a Thought Stopper

I was armed with a thought stopper – something that startles your brain and stops the stream of negative thinking. For example, snapping a rubber band around your wrist may work great if you’re a runner, but that isn’t so easy to do when you’re holding reins! Instead, riders can pick a word such as STOP or RESET. Then, say your word (usually to yourself) when you’re aware of the distracting thought.

Before the show, I had selected the word DING. Not just any old ding, but the loud bell you hear during a boxing match. The ding that immediately stops the fight and sends the boxers into their corners where they take a deep breath. After I said DING to myself, I took a deep breath, gave myself a calming mental half-halt, and substituted the distracting conversation in my brain with my motivating motto.

Replace negative thoughts with a Motivating Motto

Some athletes may call a motivating motto a positive affirmation or a meaningful mantra. Whatever you prefer to label it, create a short, positive statement that reminds you what to do or how to feel in order to deliver your best.

Here’s the key – after you say your thought stopper, take a deep calming breath, then replace the negative chatter with your motivating motto. Give your sub-conscious mind a thought that directs your actions towards what you want to accomplish.

I had selected the phrase, “Elegance and Excellence”. For me, “elegance” immediately reminded me to BE elegant – to sit tall, chin up. “Excellence” reminded me to give it my best shot, knowing there is no such thing as a perfect ride. I needed to continue on despite any hiccups, do my best and enjoy the ride.

Image: Starve your Distractions, Feed your Focus

My Canadian horse, Lyrical, and I proceeded with our warm up. “DING” followed by “Elegance and Excellence” soon dominated my thoughts and helped me focus. The further I entered the zone of concentration, the less I said ding and the more I focused on repeating my motivating motto.

I said “Elegance and Excellence” to myself as we started around the outside of the arena and again when the judge rang the bell. During the salute, I repeated it three times to stay focused and make sure our halt was maintained for the required three seconds. As our ride progressed, I silently stated my motivating motto before each challenging movement.

Having the ability to replace negative thoughts boosted my feelings of empowerment and confidence when I needed it most. Did these tools eliminate all the distracting stress I felt at the show? No. But, they sure did help me manage it!


Tackle distracting brain chatter with these four steps:


1) Determine your thought stopper and motivating motto before an important ride. Your motivating motto might even be hidden within your favorite song!  Find a motivational or instructional phrase that’s meaningful to you.  For example, use:

  • “Fluid and Forward” – if show jitters make you tense.
  • “Long and tall does it all” – to improve your position and effectiveness.
  • “Head up, Heart strong” – to keep your eyes up and trust your horse.
  • “Easy and Breezy” – You got this! Enjoy the moment.

2) Practice! Repetition keeps tools ready for action when distracting self-talk creeps in.

3) Identify challenging moments. Do you get a case of the “I cant’s…” every time you enter the warm-up or in-gate? Know when to automatically use your tools.

4) Take Charge! To STOP negative brain chatter:  S – Say your thought stopper, T – Take time to breathe, O – Open your mind, and P – Put in your motivating motto.

Photo: 3rd place ribbon


By the end of the show, I couldn’t believe how often I said DING! Yes, I realize it’s normal that we have tens of thousands of thoughts racing through our minds every day.  But, boy, did I appreciate having tools to tackle the distracting ones. My thought stopper and motivating motto turned show day from worrisome to rewarding. I enjoyed the experience with my wonderful horse and felt proud of our accomplishment. The funniest part – someone actually said to me, “Nice ride! You looked really elegant”.

Enjoy the journey!

Check out this related post: Quit Sabotaging Results! Turn Negative Thoughts into Positives

Make a Difference: Become a Horse Show Volunteer!

By, Liz Piacentini

This year, I volunteered at several horse shows and events. I witnessed the positive impact volunteering made on organizations, horses, riders and even the volunteers themselves. In fact, volunteering was such a rewarding activity, that I’m making a change in the New Year!

Image: Team Challenge Ribbons

Weatogue Stables Team Challenge awards – displayed at the Connecticut Dressage Association schooling show where Liz volunteered as a test runner & scorer.

After spending my professional life in the event planning industry, I understand the work that happens behind-the-scenes to coordinate a competition, clinic or class. If it wasn’t for the dedicated individuals who currently donate their time and talents to equestrian organizations, there would be no shows or educational programs!

I decided it was time to give back a little more. Besides, the muscles I pulled doing mid-summer yard work needed a chance to heal. Instead of competing, lending a helping hand would be a way to stay involved, provide support, and express gratitude for the events I’ve attended.

Initially, it felt strange to drive onto the show grounds without a truck packed with tack or my Canadian horse, Lyrical. Show organizers kindly answered my questions and quickly helped me get settled into my role. It didn’t take long to realize how volunteering helps equestrians learn and grow from a different perspective.


10 Reasons to Volunteer for Your Favorite Equine Organization –


1) Learn New Skills – A willing attitude is all you need! Start by reaching out to an association or riding club you already belong to. You may develop future career skills while working on a committee, or discover helpful insights from Dressage judges while learning to scribe.

2) Share Your Strengths – Your favorite non-profit may need the skills you’ve already acquired in your job or school. For example: writing articles, marketing, cultivating sponsors, web design, social media, and various administrative efforts lend support before an event and typically can be done from home.

3) Turn a Negative into a Positive – You strain your back or your horse gets an abscess. It happens! When you can’t compete, offer to volunteer. No need to stay home and feel left out when you can fit in, have fun, and make a difference.

4) Check out the Show Grounds – Get comfortable with a new venue without your horse! Being a ring steward or runner allows you to see a show in action. Let your mind’s eye absorb the sights and sounds of the competition ring. After all, visualizing your ride with the details of the actual arena is a great pre-show technique for boosting confidence and future performance.

5) Support Fellow Riders – There’s nothing like seeing the excitement on a friend’s face as they overcome a challenge or complete a great ride. Smiles are not only contagious, they make volunteering so worthwhile.

6) Discover Valuable Lessons – For example, one of my volunteer experiences was at the large Dressage4Kids Youth Dressage Festival in Saugerties, NY. As one of the scorers during Friday’s schooling show, I helped young riders learn how to score their dressage tests. The enthusiasm, riding abilities and team spirit these kids displayed was remarkable!

Now and then, I was reminded that a 4 isn’t the end of the world. These resilient young competitors proved that when we focus on making the rest of the ride the best of the ride, we can still end up with a pretty amazing test.

Meme quote: You don't have to be Perfect to be Amazing

7) Meet New Friends – When you already share common interests in a breed, discipline, or cause, friendships are easier to form.

8) Make a Difference – As an example, my passion for the Canadian horse, led me to join the Canadian Horse Heritage & Preservation Society (CHHAPS). For the past three years, a group of New England members have come together to raise awareness of this endangered breed by organizing an educational booth, demo, lecture and breed display at Equine Affaire in West Springfield, MA.

As one of the coordinating volunteers, I’ve met some pretty amazing and dedicated Canadian horse fans. Little did we realize the impact this four-day expo would gradually produce! Together, we’ve helped new horse owners fall in love with a rare breed, increased memberships, raised funds, and made a difference for le Cheval Canadien.

Image: CHHAPS Volunteers at Equine Affaire

CHHAPS Volunteers: Lise Krieger, Jo Bunny, Liz Piacentini, Margo Killoran and Dave Southwick.

9) Boost Your Satisfaction & Well-being – Still need convincing? Recent studies show that getting involved in cultural activities, being outdoors, and volunteering are key activities for boosting health, reducing depression, and increasing satisfaction.

10) Receive Unexpected Tokens of Appreciation – A heart-felt “thank you” does wonders to let you know your work was appreciated. You might even leave with a swag bag of goodies, complimentary equine magazines, T-shirt, discount coupons from sponsors or other perks. But, you’ll always go home with a valuable experience.


As I reflect on the past year, I realize how much volunteering proved to be a rewarding activity. Giving back helped me recognize it’s time to add volunteering goals to my equestrian journey.

Think about your own goals for the New Year. Between organizations that support your favorite discipline, breed associations, Pony Club, 4-H, therapeutic riding programs, equine rescues and retirement facilities, the horse industry is filled with opportunities to get involved. The success of our equine associations depends on member participation!

Pledge to make a difference in the New Year by volunteering for at least one event. Your favorite organization is bound to have an opportunity where you can uncover rewarding experiences and valuable lessons.

Follow your passion and enjoy the journey!

Discovering Better Balance When Faced with the Unexpected

By, Liz Piacentini

Photo of Lyrical on trailA relaxing trail ride. That was the agenda my friend and I had planned for a particularly warm day in June. We tacked-up our horses and headed off towards the trail. The shaded woodlands would soon offer relief from the blazing sun. To get there, we rode along the side of a paved road for a short distance.

First, we heard the loud diesel engine. Then, we saw the garbage truck, rattling its way up the hill. Our horses swiveled their ears inside their fly bonnets as the noisy truck approached.

It was time to replace the “what ifs” suddenly fluttering into our minds with calming thoughts and actions.

Imagining We Were Spruce Trees

I had just finished reading Sally Swift’s Centered Riding book. As we approached an opening to a field bordered by evergreens, I remembered her spruce tree analogy.

“LaDene, let’s imagine we’re spruce trees!” I suggested. After a deep, calming breath, I began describing Sally Swift’s creative method to help riders feel securely balanced in the saddle with a following seat.

“Engage your core,” I called out over the growing rumble of the truck. “Your center represents the stable part of the spruce tree where it rises from the ground. Think of your legs hanging below this point as tree roots. Wiggle your toes. Feel your ‘roots’ reaching for solid ground.”

Image - stone wall along road

“Take a deep breath and be aware of your seat bones,” I continued. “Now, imagine your torso growing tall like a tree from your center towards the sun. Your tree trunk is strong, yet flexible. Relax your jaw. Open your shoulders. Let your arms softly hang like branches able to gently sway with the breeze. Allow your seat bones to follow the movement of the horse as he walks along.”

My friend, LaDene, was a good sport and played along as I did my best to recall Sally’s description. Our trusty steeds, Lyrical and Irish, willingly stepped inside an opening in a stone wall that lead us away from the road and into a field. The garbage truck barreled past at a good clip. All four of us watched with a sigh of relief.

Riding In the Present Moment

Photo of LaDene riding Irish

LaDene and Irish enjoying the trail.

We resumed our walk to the trail head. For some reason, we continued to imagine we were spruce trees. As we finally entered the cool, quiet woods, we found ourselves reaching down with our “roots” and growing tall with our “trunks”.

The gradual hills and occasional logs across the path tested our “tree” stability. We were so busy being spruce trees that we soon forgot about the garbage truck and focused on the simple pleasures along the trail. We truly enjoyed a sense of better balance and being present in the moment.

Our initial thoughts of “Oh, no!” had turned into “Oh, boy, look at that!”  We meandered around large patches of Mountain Laurel in full bloom. Ferns glistened in the sunshine that filtered in between the trees. Chipmunks scampered along the stone walls, while birds softly sang us their songs.  The air even carried a gentle breeze and earthy smells of the woods.

Our horses happily marched through their surroundings, periodically munching leaves that clearly needed pruning. Even the pesky bugs remained somewhat behaved as they danced around our ears.

Unexpected Lessons Learned

Did we enjoy our trail ride? We sure did! More so than we had anticipated. By imagining we were spruce trees, we replaced helpless thoughts of worry with a constructive course of action. We focused on the task at hand in order to stay calm when faced with the unexpected. Having a more secure position with better balance boosted our confidence and our effectiveness. Instead of gripping with fear, we stayed fluid and sent less tension to our horses.

Of course, remembering to breathe always helps! There’s nothing like a deep, centering breath to slow your heart rate and help calm your horse.

Give it a try! The next time you’re starting a trail ride, warming up your horse, or riding from the warm-up to the show ring, imagine you’re a spruce tree. We certainly discovered it worked wonders for improving our balance, confidence, focus and overall enjoyment.

Special thanks to the late Sally Swift for this helpful tool.

Enjoy the journey!

Make Good Mistakes: Uncover the Lessons in Every Ride

By, Liz Piacentini

Image Quote, Sometimes we win, sometimes we learnSometimes we win and sometimes we learn. That saying rang true for me on one particular show day.

It was a chilly Spring morning that welcomed Lyrical and I to our first dressage show of the season. We finished our first test with big smiles, good-boy pats and respectable scores. Soon enough, the judge’s bell rang again and we trotted down centerline for our second ride. Little did I realize, I was about to experience a “sometimes we learn” moment.

I started off feeling pretty good. We finished our trot work and walk stretch with good basics and reasonable accuracy. Next came our canter work. We completed a nice 20-meter circle, continued down the diagonal, and promptly trotted at X. Whew! The hardest part was over.

Then it happened. Our right lead canter transition felt a bit sticky, so I gave Lyrical a quick tap with the whip. Off he went like a shot! I was so startled – my eyes must have grown to three times their normal size. My steady-eddy, obedient horse was now zipping down the long side like a freight train. The flying changes he added weren’t even part of the required movements.

Somehow, I turned him onto the outline of a squashed circle at E. I think we were three quarters of the way around when I managed to bring him to a trot. Yes, we were supposed to still be cantering, but I desperately felt the need to regain my composure and breathe again.

By the time we energetically trotted past the Judge at C, I had completed several deep, centering breaths. It was time to let go of what happened and focus on the next element of the test – the trot stretchy circle. The good news was that all this forward energy helped us develop an exceptional stretchy circle! As I gathered up the reins, I was even smiling inside over how springy and fluid it felt.

We managed to recover and ended squarely on a positive note at X.  I gave my final salute with a big sigh of relief.

Image of show ribbons


What was my big lesson learned?  Every ride provides plenty of subtle learning moments, but this test taught me one big lesson:

School with the same tack and equipment you’ll use at the show –  At home, I carried a well-loved dressage whip that was always hanging by the mounting block. It was one of several older whips available for boarders. For the show, however, I decided to bring my new whip with the fancy handle.

It turns out that I was the one who had startled him! While the bling may have looked fancy, the new whip was much stiffer. The longer length meant it reached a different part his flank. In reality, the same “tap” with the new whip delivered a more dramatic result – to say the least.

I could have easily discovered this, if I had schooled with the new whip in advance. From now on, I’ll be sure to test out anything new before a show!

What were my positive moments?  Despite my mistake, I left the show with an unexpected observation of what did work. Yes, our forward trot stretchy circle provided an excellent opportunity to experience a great technical moment – (and earn an 8)! But, it was my mental preparation that surprised me the most.

The Value of Visualization – During the weeks before the show, I visualized my rides each evening. I mentally rehearsed the movements and became really comfortable with the flow of the tests. I knew them so well that even when we suddenly went stampeding down the long side, I found myself circling at the correct letter – or at least somewhat close to it.

Often when we experience the unexpected, we become forgetful. We risk drawing a blank during our dressage test or jumping round. This ride taught me the value of visualization, a skill that proved to be much more than an effective way to remember my tests. What amazed me was how well I remembered them – even when the unexpected happened. I may have been caught off guard, but I stayed on track.


Meme Made a Mistake? Make it a good mistake. Learn from it

Coach Daniel Stewart has a wonderful term for being able to learn from our mistakes. He calls it having “mistakability”. We all make mistakes. Yet, it’s often how we respond to them that determines our resiliency and long-term progress.

Good mistakes are the ones we own and learn from.  They’re the ones we reflect upon and determine what specific actions we can do to prevent them from happening in the future. They help us become stronger and more adaptable under pressure.

Bad mistakes are the ones we fail to learn from.  We make excuses. We blame the weather, the footing, the Judge’s mood, or whatever else seems convenient.  We may even get “franky”, (frustrated and cranky), after making a mistake instead of focusing on a solution.


When I look back on that Spring show, I don’t even remember my first test, despite the fact that we placed well. My second test, however, won’t be forgotten any time soon. I learned a valuable lesson from my mistake, and I remembered to look for the good in every ride.

As a new season begins, I remind myself there is no perfect ride. Mistakes happen, but they can be our best teachers. Out of mistakes we can learn how to make our next ride a little bit better than the last. So, off we go. It’s time to uncover more valuable lessons from this season’s challenges and good mistakes.

Enjoy the journey!