Goal Setting for Riders: 5 Questions to Jump Start Your Progress

The arrival of a New Year typically gets riders thinking about their goals. If you’re like me, you have an idea of what you’d like to accomplish by the end of the season. However, determining the effective short-term goals that get you there – well, that could use some work. By asking myself a series of probing questions, I’ve discovered a helpful way to uncover the specific actions I need to complete in order to reach my long-term goal.

Meme: Dreams are where you want to end up. Goals are how you get there.

First, it’s important to establish a long-term goal for the season. This goal clarifies what you want to accomplish and provides a sense of purpose. Having a goal transforms the “I’ll see how it goes” mentality into a course of action. As a result, we’re more likely to use our schooling time effectively, move towards our desired result, and obtain a rewarding sense of accomplishment.

If you haven’t set a goal for the year, go ahead and dream! Brainstorm some realistic dreams and use the information to create a specific long-term goal. Then, answer the following questions (my favorites) to fine-tune your goal and identify the specific actions you’ll need to turn dreams into reality.  

 Five questions to jump-start your goal setting process:

#1 – What is it about riding that you truly love? Ask your heart. Really think about what makes you smile. Identify what YOU enjoy working on with your horse. 

Having a long-term goal that’s personally meaningful increases your chance of success. Focus on what you really enjoy, not what coaches, parents or peers expect you to do. Setting your goal from a place of internal motivation connects you to your passion and gives you a deeper sense of purpose. When challenges arise, you’ll be more committed to finding solutions and moving forward.

#2 – What simple action can you take to kick-off your journey?

Bring procrastination to a halt by completing an immediate action goal – one simple thing you can do in minutes or hours to start moving forward. It doesn’t even have to involve your horse! But it should spark your interest and motivate you to continue.  

Perhaps your goal for the year is to ride in four competitions that are part of an area series of shows. Your immediate action goal could be to join the hosting association, review their year-end awards qualifications, and add the show dates to your calendar. Easy! (Okay, that’s three simple things.)

Meme Quote: You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be Great.

#3 – What’s holding you back from reaching your goal?  

Be proactive! List any obstacles that could limit your success. Then, brainstorm solutions. This will help you create a course of action to manage or overcome challenges before they zap your motivation or derail your progress.  

This may include technical skills to learn in order to move up a level or tack to acquire in order to compete in a new discipline. Maybe you’re concerned about finding sufficient funds for a lesson program. Can you help with barn chores in exchange for lessons? Do you have tack you’re not using that could be sold?

#4 – Where are you stuck in a comfort zone? 

Sometimes we get so cozy in our comfort zone that it limits our ability to advance. Think about what makes you uncomfortable, but deep down you know you have to overcome it in order to achieve your long-term goal.

Perhaps you’ve gotten really comfortable schooling independently at home. You’d like to start showing, but feel uncomfortable riding in front of a crowd. Establish gradual opportunities to build confidence. Your first short-term goal could be taking two lessons in front of a group of friends, followed by riding in one semi-private session at a small clinic. Checking off short-term or process goals from your list creates a feeling of “YES! I did it!” – which further boosts self-confidence and the motivation to continue.

#5 – What can you do OUT of the saddle that would enhance your effectiveness IN the saddle?   

For example, a pleasure rider would really like to take her horse on an organized trail ride, but he’s terrible about trailer loading! Add short-term goals focused on ground work to improve the horse’s trailer loading skills.

I love this question, because many out-of-the-saddle goals provide us with activities to work on during Winter months, rainy days – or even from home! Unmounted actions also strengthen our mental fitness when behavioral and emotional short-term goals are part of the process.    

  • BEHAVIORAL – (short-term goals that build better behaviors)
    • taking a Yoga or Pilates class for better rider fitness
    • watching specific training videos or reading recommended books to advance your understanding of a training concept

(Click the above links to learn how to apply these suggestions)

Once you’ve uncovered what you need to work on, you’ll have an easier time writing specific short-term goals – your stepping stones – that will move you towards your desired result. To maximize your success, create technical, behavioral AND emotional goals. Add realistic deadlines to each short-term goal to create your intended timeline. This forms your personalized action plan that can be organized in a goals calendar or riding journal. A calendar or journal is a great place to mark important dates, record feedback, make adjustments (yes, manure happens), and monitor your progress.

Meme quote: The real value of setting goals is not the recognition or awards; it's the stronger rider we become by finding the commitment and courage to achieve them.

Dreaming about a goal is the easy part. Turning that vision into reality requires planning and commitment. So, go for it! Dream big, follow your heart, and get started by identifying the particular short-term goals you’ll need to move forward with confidence.

Enjoy the journey!

  -Liz Piacentini

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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

Improve Your Ride with Visualization: How to Create an Effective Mental Movie

By, Liz Piacentini

For many riders, sending in a horse show entry can trigger all kinds of worrisome thoughts. What if I forget my dressage test? What if I go off course? What if my horse has a melt down? Yup, that was me. Then I discovered a creative way to remember my dressage tests, improve my focus and boost my confidence. I put my imagination to work and practiced visualization. By mentally rehearsing my rides before show day, I learned how to strengthen my mental toughness and improve performance.

Strengthen Your Mindset and Your Muscles

At first, when bad weather or work-related responsibilities kept me out of the saddle, I visualized. I could always find 10-minutes to unwind after a hectic day and rehearse a great ride. The more I practiced, the more calm, confident, motivated and prepared I became. Visualization shifted my thoughts from dreaming up what-if’s to focusing on whatto-do.

Image Rider looking between horse's ears

Can visualization really improve performance? Yes!

Mental riding rehearsals have an amazing impact on what happens between our ears. Our brain can’t tell the difference between riding a real shoulder-in or one that’s imagined. Research shows that the more we repeat an action (real or imagined), the more we develop our brain’s neural pathways that trigger the action. The result: enhanced motor skill coordination and improved muscle memory – key ingredients for better performance in the saddle.

Getting Started

An easy way to start visualizing is to think of yourself as the director of your own mental movie. Practice! The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.

How to Create an Effective Mental Movie:

  1. Learn Your Lines: Select a Skill or Pattern – Determine the combination of fences you need to practice. Review your dressage test, reining pattern or vaulting routine. Get familiar with the flow of a specific movement or ride.
  1. Set the Stage: Get On-location – Find a comfortable place that’s free from distractions. Experiment with what works best. Sit on a chair in riding position or lie down for a more meditative experience. Either way, start with several deep, calming breaths to help you focus. 
  1. Imagine the Scene: Use Vivid Detail – Bring your mental picture to life by imagining all the sights, sounds and sensations of your ride. What color shirt are you wearing? Is his mane braided or blowing in the breeze? Do you smell fly spray? What is the texture of the reins? Do you hear an announcer or judge’s bell? Include specifics of the grounds. Are there white flower boxes or orange stadium fences? Visit a new venue before the show and notice the surroundings. If you can’t get there in person, check out the photos on their website.
  1. Support Your Co-Star – Consider your horse’s perspective! Scan your mental movie set for scenery your horse may find challenging. Your young horse might need more leg when you ask him to trot down centerline towards a Judge sitting under a beach umbrella. Anticipate challenges AND mentally rehearse successfully resolutions.
  1. Action! Film a Successful Performance – Watch your ride correctly unfold as if you were looking between your horse’s ears. Often called an Internal Riding Rehearsal, use this perspective to experience your ride as if you’re in the saddle. Strive for accuracy! You want to strengthen the right neural pathways and develop correct muscle memory.

Meme: Visualize the ride you want. See it, feel it, believe it.

  1. Use Slow Mo to Practice Difficult Movements – Was there a scene when you felt totally uncoordinated? Maybe you’re struggling with leg yields. Give your brain a refresher on the correct sequence of aids. Watch lesson videos or read pages from your riding journal that detail your trainer’s insights. Recreate the positive experience and feelings you had during a lesson in your mind.
  1. Add a Special Effect: Emotion – What do you need to FEEL in order to ride at your best? Raise your chin and open your shoulders to spark feelings of confidence. Take a deep breath and loosen your jaw to release tension. Imagine yourself sitting tall in the saddle with a calm and confident posture. 
  1. Change Camera Angles: Get Creative! – Watch yourself from an outsider’s perspective: through the eyes of a spectator, looking down from above, or through the eyes of the Judge. An External Riding Rehearsal draws your attention to the accuracy of your position or the movements of the horse. For example, would a spectator see your lower leg securely at the girth as your soar over a blue oxer, or has it slipped back? Would the Judge see a straight horse trotting down centerline, or one that’s drifting left?

Switch it up! Great movie directors change camera angles to enhance a scene and so can you. Let’s say you’re jumping a 3’ course. Start by looking between your horse’s ears as you rhythmically approach the first vertical. Then, switch to an external perspective as you jump the fence. Watch yourself maintain an ideal jumping position. Now, go back to your internal perspective as you align your horse with the center of the next fence and apply a half halt.

  1. Cut! Take 2: Re-shoot the Bloopers – Did your mind wander off course? Oops! Give yourself a mental half-halt and pick up where you left off. Loose a stirrup? Feel your boot slipping back into the stirrup while you calmly stay on course.

What if you imagined a spook that made your heart race? Time for a mental do-over with a positive ending. Riding rehearsals allow you to practice resolving challenges in the safety of your mind’s eye. If a spook happens during your actual ride, you’ll be more likely to maintain composure and apply an effective response. 

  1. Show Day! Replay your Highlight Reel – Mentally see yourself having a flawless ride. Keep your focus on the task at hand by continuing to visualize what to do and how to feel in order to ride at your best. 

Meme: The Secret of Achievement

Timeline Tips:

  • Start visualizing 3 weeks before a competition: 10-minutes of effective visualization 4-times a week is better than 1-hour the day before. It takes effective repetition to strengthen the neural pathways that lead to better coordination and muscle memory.
  • One Week Before: Watch daily re-runs of you and your horse performing at your full potential. Your brain should be so familiar with your mental movie that it’s imprinted in your mind as the new norm.
  • Two Days Before: Change your thinking from “me” to “we”. Describe the details of your movie to your horse. While grooming, use your finger to trace your test or course on his shoulder. “We turn left and maintain a forward rhythm through the corner…”
  • On Show Day: Focus on one test or course at a time. Reassure yourselves – we’ve got this!

Put your imagination to work. Create a mental movie before your next big ride to boost your confidence, focus and performance. Mentally plan your ride, then go ride your plan!

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!

How Riders Can Boost Their Positive Mindset with Gratitude

By, Liz Piacentini

Gratitude Blog Header

I recently read that one of the most effective and easy ways to cultivate positivity is by practicing GRATITUDE.   Simply write down what you are grateful for each day.  You can keep a riding journal or start a gratitude jar.  Either way, by practicing this simple skill, you’ll train your brain to first seek the positives as opposed to the negatives.

Sounded easy enough.  I decorated a jar and decided to give it a try.

Benefits of Gratitude for Riders

Having an attitude of gratitude shifts our perspective to a more positive outlook and helps us stay focused on the present.  For riders, this is exactly where we want our mindset to be!  When we ride with a positive present-state mindset, we are concentrating on the jump in front of us.  We’re not thinking of the rail we just dropped or the future ribbon we hope to win.   We’re focused on what we need to do in the moment instead of on the worrisome “what if’s”.

According to scientific expert, Dr. Robert Emmons, when we are grateful, we become better at deflecting negative thoughts.  We are even more successful at achieving our goals.  Basically, because gratitude is a motivating emotion, it leads us to eagerly take action.

Essentially, when we practice gratitude, we experience increased happiness.  When we are happier, our brains release hormones associated with self-belief and optimism.  The greater our self-belief and optimism, the better we are at building confidence and being resilient under pressure.

An Equestrian Gratitude Jar:  Same Concept, Different Twist

Gratitude jar with noteYou’ve probably heard of a gratitude jar.  Typical instructions suggest writing down 1-3 things you are grateful for, no matter how small, every day.  The key is to have daily appreciation for different feelings, people or experiences.  At the end of the year, read your notes and you’ll be amazed at the amount of positive experiences.

I decided waiting until New Year’s Eve to tip over my jar and read my moments of gratitude was too long to wait.  I honestly need a spark of motivation more than once a year! I quickly discovered how keeping a gratitude jar could be tweaked for equestrians.

How to Cultivate a More Positive Mindset with a Gratitude Jar:

  • Choose a small jar – small enough to store in your tack trunk where it’s easily accessible.  The jar itself is a visual reminder to look for things you’re grateful for.
  • Write down 1-3 thoughts of gratitude – after each ride, or visit with your horse.  Reflect on feelings and observations. Consider your supporters, accomplishments and lessons learned.
  • Date each note – to help monitor progress or mark achievements.
  • Re-read your notes MONTHLY – for frequent boosts of motivation.  Enjoy the opportunity to smile at the silly things and celebrate growth.  You may even notice useful feedback for your training program.
  • Display meaningful memories – At the end of each month, tape your favorite notes to the inside of your tack trunk or post them on a bulletin board.  Perhaps you felt totally re-charged after an amazing trail ride, or extremely thankful for your trainer’s insights as you completed a short-term goal.

Gratitude bulletin board image

Mentally reliving favorite moments provides more time for you to savor positive experiences.  According to psychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson, this is when the real change takes place in the brain.  The more we take time to absorb our good memories, the more our brain releases good neurochemicals.  The neurons that fire together, wire together!  Over time, our brain forms more pathways to positivity.

  • Build Team Support – Do you coach a team?  Start a team gratitude jar!  Place one larger jar, scrap paper and colored pens in a central location.  Inspire positive attitudes and stronger connections by having riders write down what they are grateful for after each practice and competition.  You may even discover riders sharing appreciation for each other.

A team jar is a creative way to remind riders that even mistakes are something to be grateful for.  Yup.  Inside every mistake is a hidden opportunity to learn and grow.

Keeping a gratitude jar is a simple way to reflect on the good times spent with your horse.  It’s easy to recall a proud moment you worked hard for at a horse show or the compliment received from a clinician.

More importantly, keeping a gratitude jar heightens our awareness of the little moments we appreciate by inspiring us to look for them in the first place.  Perhaps it’s being thankful your horse didn’t roll in the mud when you were short on time, or having an indoor arena to ride in on a rainy day.

Did the gratitude jar work?

Yes!  I actually had a more positive outlook after a few weeks.  I found myself looking on the bright side of numerous situations – even being stuck in a traffic jam.

So, get creative! Have fun practicing gratitude to train your brain to first look for the positives.  After all, happiness, self-believe, optimism and resilience are worth cultivating to help you ride at your best.

Treasure the simple pleasures and enjoy the journey!

Quit Sabotaging Results! Turn Negative Thoughts into Positives

By, Liz Piacentini
Opening image of horse & riderHave you ever really paid attention to the mental dialogue chattering between your ears?  We all have thousands of thoughts racing through our brains every hour.  But, when these thoughts become overwhelmingly negative, our emotions can impact our motions when we ride.

Constant negativity fuels worry, reduces confidence and ultimately lowers performance. As equestrians, it’s essential to develop an awareness of our verbal and non-verbal dialogue and make every effort to keep it positive.  If not, we risk sabotaging our results – and the results of others!

My awakening to the power of positive thinking began several years ago, when I was studying for the Certified Meeting Professional exam.  After I became a CMP, I dedicated nine years to teaching a review course for fellow professionals preparing for the exam.  I witnessed how critical it was for study group participants to maintain a positive mindset.  Repeated negative comments had a way of becoming contagious, infecting everyone in the group with worry and self-doubt.

Cultivate positive thoughts, Grow better results. I kicked off each semester with a course overview for the experienced professionals. They all had qualified to sit for the exam, yet most felt overwhelmed by the volume of information and pressure to do well on exam day.

Comments like, “I can’t learn all this material,” “if only I was better at studying,” or “I’ll never pass this exam,” typically surfaced.  I knew that if the negative discussion wasn’t nipped in the bud, they could find themselves spiraling towards a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Hum, this reminded me of language I’d periodically hear from riders preparing for a dressage test!  I recalled my recent experience listening to Olympic coach, Jane Savoie.  Jane explained how top riders pay close attention to their self-talk and speech to avoid sabotaging their results.  They practice re-phrasing their inner dialogue to eliminate the negative elements.  This allows their sub-conscious mind to direct their thoughts, attitude and actions towards their goal instead of away from it.  Here are some examples:

Effective riders turn negative thoughts into positive pro-active statements:

  • I can’t, becomes: I can! 
  • I should take more lessons, becomes: I must.
  • I hate riding last in my class, becomes: I love riding last.
  • I’ll try to ride more often, becomes more committed with: I will ride more often.
  • If I could learn shoulder-in, becomes a determined action with: When I learn shoulder-in.
  • Don’t knock down a rail, becomes a reminder of what to do with: Ride with forward rhythm over each fence.

The first year I taught the course, I shared the value of this line of thinking with the class.  Participants soon sharpened their awareness and became each other’s speech police.  They worked together to re-phase statements doomed for gloom into positive affirmations.  Students who learned how to turn negatives into positives became more motivated, dedicated and successful.  The emphasis on positive thinking actually helped increase the overall confidence level and success of the whole group!

Yes, there were still moments when someone would get discouraged and yell, “Why can’t I get these definitions right?  Because I must be stupid!”  Of course, they weren’t stupid.  “Why” questions have a tendency to lead to lousy answers.  It was time to apply another one of Jane’s tips:

Ask a better question.  Jane had shared how WHY questions cause our brains to search for an answer that confirms why the problem exists.  By using WHAT or HOW, instead of WHY, we gain a solution-driven answer.  For example:

Challenge:  “WHY am I so nervous riding at shows?  Because I’m such a wimp who always falls apart!” 

Opportunity:  “WHAT strategies can I practice to increase my confidence and focus?”  “HOW can I better prepare to ride at my best?”

I shared the technique with the class.  Sure enough, the study group started replacing WHY with HOW or WHAT to uncover solutions.  The initial question now became, “HOW can I remember the definition?”, or “WHAT memory trigger can I apply for this word?”  After a bit of brainstorming, someone would come up with a catchy rhyme or silly reminder to get us laughing and plant the word’s definition in everyone’s head.

Like strengthening a muscle, re-programming our thinking is a gradual process that begins with awareness.  Once you become more aware of what you’re thinking, you might be amazed at the amount of negative self-talk you hear!  The truth is, we are hard-wired to experience more negative thoughts than positive thoughts.  It’s an evolutionary mechanism dating back to our cave man days to help us escape potential threats.

Does this mean everyone in the class developed the ability to dismiss all their negative thoughts and worries about exam day?  Of course, not.  But when negative self-doubt became a distraction, they recognized the opportunity to reset their thoughts and choose a solution-driven alternative.  Oh, exam day jitters would still be there.  However, instead of staying focused on the anxiety, they could redirect their attention towards what they needed to do to succeed.

I may have been the teacher, but the experience taught me a valuable lesson.  Our thoughts either motivate us toward success or away from it.  As riders, we can choose thoughts that build us up, increase our confidence, and sharpen our focus.  Or, we can choose thoughts that break us down, generate self-doubt, and create distraction.

Take a dose of the letter C image

Need some help getting started?  Follow Coach Daniel Stewart’s advice – take a dose of the Letter C.  Why C?  Because the greatest number of positive feelings begin with C.  Select the emotions that identify you at your best.  Then, imagine yourself Confident and Calm and act that way!  Raise your chin and take a calming deep breath.

Whether you ride in a lesson program, on a competitive team, or with fellow boarders on the trail, practice turning negative thoughts into positives.   You’ll cultivate a more supportive atmosphere that boosts each other’s confidence and inspires better performance.  Apply these tips the next time you get a case of the negative notions and unlock an opportunity to ride at your best.

Enjoy the journey!

Opening photo: Copyright Lynne Ann Photography

Ride Beyond the Familiar: 10 Tips to Expand Your Comfort Zone

By, Liz Piacentini

Stuck in your comfort zone?For some equestrians, it can be tempting to ride within the cozy limits of our comfort zone. It’s a place of low risk where we feel secure, in control, and know what to expect. However, doing the same-old routine limits experiences and achievements for both horse and rider.  In order to progress and reach the goals we dream of, we need to expand our comfort zones by embracing new learning opportunities.

Doesn’t stretching our comfort zone mean we may experience moments of feeling awkward, uncoordinated or nervous?  Yup!  But by gradually challenging ourselves we can grow.

I recently had the pleasure of being a demo rider in an area dressage clinic. I viewed this as a great opportunity to learn from a well-respected trainer and ride in a show-like environment.  My horse, Lyrical, and I hadn’t shown in over a year.  I thought this would provide a great step towards returning to the local shows we participate in.  It also meant I’d have to ride in front of a crowd.

Clinic day arrived. The trainer started by asking if there was anything in particular I’d like to work on.  As we walked along, I responded, “I need to work on getting my horse to be more forward.”

As if on cue, Lyrical caught something out of the corner of his eye and leaped into several big, bold strides of canter.  He then returned to the walk as if nothing happened. The auditors and myself burst into laughter.  My nervous tension had been broken. Laughter has a way of doing that.

I faced my fear of not riding at my best and accepted the fact that, well…things happen.  Horses have a way of keeping us humble.  I took a deep calming breath, made the decision to consider the crowd my sympathetic supporters, and focused on the instructor.  Getting started had been the hardest part.  I reminded myself we can do this, took more deep breaths, and enjoyed a positive learning experience.

If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to audit the clinic?  Sure!  Would I have gotten as much out of it?  Nope!  By stretching my comfort zone, I practiced technical skills AND gained more confidence about our upcoming shows.

Let’s face it, stretching our comfort zone IS uncomfortable.  In fact, if we don’t feel uncomfortable, we’re probably stuck in our comfort zone. It requires embracing change, and change is never easy.  Sometimes it’s actually downright frightening.

So, what can YOU do to make stretching your comfort zone a little easier?

Here are 10 tips for expanding your comfort zone and moving closer toward your riding goals:

1.  Set Realistic Short-term Goals – Think of what you want to develop this season. Big dreams are great, but can be overwhelming.  To simplify getting out of your comfort zone, determine more immediate skills and activities that will help you progress toward your long-term goal.

2.  Take the First Step – It doesn’t have to be huge to be a start. But start! Prioritizing those short-term goals can help you decide where to begin.  Even scheduling that first lesson with a new trainer or submitting the registration for an exciting clinic triggers a motivational beginning. 

Small Jump, easy first step

Set yourself up for success with an inviting first step.

3.  Give Yourself the Gift of Time – If you’ve been out of the saddle awhile, have patience.  It often takes longer than anticipated to get to where you want to be – especially If you’ve experienced an injury.  Work with an understanding trainer and consider complimenting your riding with exercise that builds core strength for greater stability in the saddle.  Greater stability builds confidence.

4.  Surround Yourself with Supportive Riders – The enthusiasm of others can fuel your momentum or give you a boost when you need it most. Positive energy and support sparks a “can do” attitude.  You may discover yourself venturing beyond your comfort zone simply by having fun doing something new with capable equestrians who understand your abilities and goals.

5.  Maintain Positive Self-talk – We can easily talk ourselves out of every opportunity to stretch our comfort zone with negative self-talk. Whether we think it to ourselves, or say it out loud, our self-sabotage can sound like:  Why bother riding the course again? I never get my horse over the last fence without knocking a rail.  Turn your negatives into positives and open the possibilities with:  We CAN jump clean over the last fence.

6.  Let Yourself Off the Hook – Are you your own worst critic? If so, give yourself a break! We all make our share of mistakes when we’re learning new skills.  Don’t let the fear of making a mistake hold you back.  Learn, laugh and move on.

7.  Remember to Breathe – Feeling nervous outside your comfort zone?  Breathe!  Inhale deeply into your belly – feel your front and back expanding against your belt. Slowly exhale – feel your seat bones melting into the saddle.  Steady, rhythmic breathing helps slow your heart rate and calm both you and your horse.

8.  Compliment Your Learning with Un-mounted Behaviors – To get more comfortable with the uncomfortable, determine actions you can do out of the saddle to compliment your learning. Consider:

  • Watching videos that illustrate a movement you’re practicing
  • Reading articles that detail new concepts
  • Visiting a new show location before the competition

Image patting horse

9.  Practice Visualization – Visualization is a powerful tool for building familiarization and confidence. Visualization allows you to mentally rehearse your upcoming ride again and again before actually riding it.  Practicing skills within the safety of your mind’s eye even helps develop muscle memory.  You’ll be more likely to remember that new dressage test, too!

10.  Take Pride in Progress – Sometimes we forget just how far we’ve come when we are in the midst of the journey. Give your motivation a boost by celebrating important milestones.  Treat yourself to that new halter or choose whatever incentive rewards you with a sense of accomplishment.

There is nothing like the feeling of a great ride, a big smile and patting the horse you love for a job well done.  Have fun experimenting with these tips to stretch the familiar and expand your potential.

Enjoy the journey!