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

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!