In­side Your Ride

H ow to en­joy and suc­ceed dur­ing the big mo­ments

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Tonya John­ston

With in­sights from eq­ui­tation fi­nals win­ners TJ O’Mara and Hunter Hol­loway, men­tal-skills coach Tonya John­ston re­minds us why it’s im­por­tant to have fun in the show ring.

Win­ning a na­tional hunter-seat medal fi­nal is a tremen­dous ac­com­plish­ment. It is rare for one rider to win more than one fi­nal in one year, but last year it hap­pened twice. TJ O’Mara and Hunter Hol­loway each won two na­tional fi­nals in their last year of eligibility as ju­nior rid­ers. TJ took the 2016 Na­tional Cham­pion USEF Tal­ent Search Medal Fi­nals and 2016 Pes­soa/U.S. Hunter Seat Medal Fi­nal and Hunter won the 2016 WIHS Medal Fi­nals and the 2016 Ma­clay Medal Fi­nals. Had they been close be­fore? Yes. Was there a lot of pres­sure? Yes. Did they ride beau­ti­fully and ef­fec­tively, stay­ing fo­cused and poised through­out? Yes. Amaz­ing! As the drama of medal-fi­nals sea­son con­cluded, I was im­me­di­ately in­ter­ested to talk to each of them to see what they might have had in com­mon from a men­tal-skills perspective.

To be sure, both TJ and Hunter are talented eques­tri­ans with a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence, re­mark­able work ethics, long re­sumes and ex­cel­lent train­ing that has served them well. How­ever, as they de­scribe here, their de­sire to ac­tu­ally rel­ish and en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence of fi­nals was also quite sig­nif­i­cant in the big­gest eq­ui­tation vic­to­ries of their ca­reers.

Hunter Hol­loway: “When I was younger, like start­ing out in my first grand prix [ at 12 years old], I would just get ex­cited in a pos­i­tive way so it didn’t turn into nerves. Then, as I got older, I went through a pe­riod of time where I re­al­ized things were a big deal and I had a chance to win … .I would put so much pres­sure on my­self that there was nowhere for it to go and it would get all bot­tled- up. [ As a re­sult] I think I got stiff and kind of froze a lit­tle bit and I wasn’t rid­ing as nat­u­ral and it wasn’t com­ing to­gether. [ Then this year] even though it was my last year, I didn’t put so much pres­sure on my­self. I’d been sec­ond, I’d been third [ in fi­nals in pre­vi­ous years]. I said [ to my­self] ‘ Just go in there and have fun. It’s OK.’ Don

[ Ste­wart– one of Hunter’s train­ers] is so good at try­ing to keep things light. He’ll crack a joke at the in- gate, and he’ll make it all feel fun.”

TJ O’Mara: “Last year [2015] I just really wanted to win [a fi­nal] and I think I got into my head too much. Com­ing into this year [2016] I re­al­ized that it was my last few classes on my horse so I might as well just have a good time while rid­ing her and make the best out of it. I’ve al­ways loved the early morn­ing lessons and I wanted to sa­vor those mo­ments. I also tried be­ing at the in-gate for all of my friends, and it was a much bet­ter view than just sit­ting in the stands. One of my best friends was about to go and she was look­ing at me to say some­thing and I said ‘ Good luck and go have fun out there!’ and she ended up mak­ing the top 25 so we were really happy.

“For the fi­nal round of the Ma­clay fi­nals [where TJ fin­ished third] we were go­ing over the whole course and what to do and what not to do and it started feel­ing stress- ful and Max [Amaya–one of TJ’s train­ers] just looked at me and just said, ‘Just have fun out there OK?’ So that really brought my stress level way down and I just walked in with a whole new mind-set.”

En­joy­ing the Ride Even When It’s Im­por­tant

Can­ter­ing smoothly to­ward a jump, cre­at­ing an ef­fort­less tran­si­tion and ask­ing your horse for a big ex­ten­sion are just a few ex­am­ples of the mo­ments on your horse that ide­ally feel at the same time ex­hil­a­rat­ing, ex­cit­ing and en­joy­able—in a word: fun. Why then, when we ride in an im­por­tant class or in front of peo­ple we re­spect or when we are asked to do chal­leng­ing move­ments can fun sud­denly feel so out of reach? There can be many rea­sons for that, and it is good to be aware of what trig­gers you: Things like fo­cus­ing on results, wor­ry­ing about what other peo­ple think of your rid­ing or hav­ing a men­tal todo list that is too long. These times can be frus­trat­ing and they of­ten lead to mis­takes or sub­par per­for­mances.

Dur­ing those stress­ful mo­ments it’s one thing for your trainer/friend/mom to re­mind you, “Go have fun!” to try to help you take some of the pres­sure off. It’s quite an­other thing to hear him or her and un­der­stand how to then bring it into your rid­ing. Shouldn’t you ap­proach your big mo­ments very se­ri­ously and in­tensely? This is a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion. Tak­ing some­thing se­ri­ously does not mean that it can’t also feel fun. In fact, it’s best when it does!

The Ben­e­fits of Hav­ing Fun

Let’s be clear on the ben­e­fits of en­joy­ing the rides that are ex­traor­di­nar­ily sig­nif­i­cant to you. Not only is fun, well you know, FUN, it also fa­cil­i­tates high-level per­for­mance. In equestrian sport, it helps you be present in the mo­ment and put forth even more men­tal and phys­i­cal ef­fort as well as main­tain a com­fort­able, pos­i­tive at­ti­tude. Fun will also fa­cil­i­tate a sense of free­dom, clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels, ap­pro­pri­ate de­ci­sion-mak­ing and nat­u­ral con­fi­dence.

5 Ac­tion Steps to Keep Fun in the Mix

1. Be in the mo­ment: Be­ing in the mo­ment is both a ben­e­fit of fun and one of the steps you take to achieve fun. Con­nect­ing with your horse and ef­fort­lessly ex­e­cut­ing your plan to­gether is fun, but when you are dis­tracted by try­ing to pre­dict the fu­ture or re­mem­ber­ing the last time you made a mis­take in an im­por­tant sit­u­a­tion, you won’t get to ex­pe­ri­ence it. In­stead, heighten your senses and in­crease your aware­ness, par­tic­u­larly of what you see and feel, to help you an­chor in the present.

For ex­am­ple, take a mo­ment to no­tice how your leg feels se­cure and strong as you step down into your heel. Or be aware of how bal­anced you are with your horse and how light and en­er­getic each step feels as you go for­ward. The tan­gi­ble phys­i­cal aware­ness and en­joy­ment you ex­pe­ri­ence will help you stay present on what mat­ters most within the height­ened atmosphere.

2. Mix it up: For ex­am­ple, TJ tried watch­ing from the in-gate with a fo­cus on sup­port­ing his friends and found it to be a very en­joy­able ad­di­tion to his nor­mal rou­tine at an im­por­tant show like medal fi­nals. What is a new twist you can add into your typ­i­cal rou­tine dur­ing a sig­nif­i­cant event? Add a funny cheer to say with your barn bud­dies at a show or play a fun new song as you pol­ish your boots. You can also try chang­ing your perspective by imag­in­ing your younger, more naïve self in your cur­rent po­si­tion to ap­pre­ci­ate how bright-eyed and happy she would feel to be in your shoes. Mix up your rou­tine by us­ing your cre­ativ­ity to de­velop new ideas and fresh op­tions.

3. Use hu­mor to keep perspective: As Hunter men­tioned, she ap­pre­ci­ated that her trainer is good at telling jokes and main­tain­ing a sense of fun at nor­mal horse shows and big­ger com­pe­ti­tions. If you are lucky enough to have some­one who can ap­pro­pri­ately use hu­mor that is help­ful to you, that is fan­tas­tic. How­ever, even if you don’t have a trainer or

ground per­son to pro­vide you with this lev­ity you can look for ways to use hu­mor to main­tain a healthy perspective.

Craft­ing a funny out­look or us­ing out-of-the-or­di­nary ideas to create hu­mor is one way to go about this strat­egy. For ex­am­ple, you can set the scene in your mind’s eye by say­ing to your­self, “Let’s go jump barn­yard an­i­mals over lum­ber—it’s su­per awe­some!” Or skip your way to warm-up and make your­self laugh be­fore you get on your horse.

4. Ap­pre­ci­ate the op­por­tu­nity: “Pres­sure is a priv­i­lege. You have to earn it.” This quote from ten­nis great Bil­lie Jean King em­bod­ies the con­cept of lov­ing big mo­ments by ac­knowl­edg­ing and be­ing grate­ful for the hard work it took to get you there. What’s more fun than get­ting to ride your horse on a big stage, whether that means an im­por­tant class at a horse show or your first clinic with a big name trainer. Ap­pre­ci­at­ing the op­por­tu­nity is a great way to en­joy the mo­ment in­stead of fear­ing it—as in, “I would rather be here than any­where else in the world. What a blast!”

5. Fo­cus on per­for­mance goals: The fastest way to take fun out of your ride is to fo­cus on out­come goals such as win­ning, qual­i­fy­ing, im­press­ing other peo­ple or get­ting a cer­tain score. These out­come goals are ul­ti­mately out of your con­trol and only in­crease the pres­sure you feel. In­stead, con­cen­trate on spe­cific goals that will help you ride ef­fec­tively, such as keep­ing your el­bow soft or look­ing up and ahead of you through each cor­ner. These keep you feel­ing em­pow­ered and chan­nel your en­ergy in pro­duc­tive, en­joy­able ways to create a beau­ti­ful ride.

Hav­ing fun is one of the most pow­er­ful ways to im­prove your ride from a psy­cho­log­i­cal perspective and it can also be one of the hard­est things to do. There­fore, be­fore you head out to an im­por­tant event/show/clinic/train­ing day, brain­storm some new meth­ods or choose some of those men­tioned to help you keep perspective, en­joy your­self and fo­cus on the process.

TJ O’ Mara and Kaskade took the 2016 Na­tional Cham­pion USEF Tal­ent Search Medal Fi­nals.

An equestrian men­tal-skills coach and A-Cir­cuit com­peti­tor, Tonya John­ston has a mas­ter’s de­gree in sport psy­chol­ogy. Her book, In­side Your Ride: Men­tal Skills for Be­ing Happy and Suc­cess­ful with Your Horse avail­able in pa­per­back or e-book edi­tions. For more info on Tonya’s work, go to www.Tonya John­ is

Hunter Hol­loway and C’est La Vie on their way to a win at the 2016 Na­tional Cham­pion Ma­clay Medal Fi­nals

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