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 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!