In­side Your Ride

Gen­er­at­ing •ucce•• with the voice in your head

Practical Horseman - - Special Sporthorse Health Issue - By Tonya John•ton

Men­tal-skills coach Tonya John­ston and dres­sage trainer Jane Savoie ex­plain how to halt neg­a­tive self-talk for good.

Your nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring men­tal skills are like su­per­pow­ers. Sim­i­lar to a su­per­hero, you were born with them and now you must make sure that you use them for good and not evil. How does this re­late to you as a rider? Well, one of the su­per­pow­ers you were born with is the voice in your head. It is an in­cred­i­ble tool that you must be aware of, uti­lize wisely and rein in when nec­es­sary. If you leave this skill unat­tended it can run amuck and cause a lot of need­less trou­ble.

Have you ever caught your­self say­ing some­thing sim­i­lar to these state­ments in your head dur­ing a ride? I am so stupid—I can’t be­lieve I made that mis­take again or I am the worst or Ev­ery­one here is so good, why am I wast­ing my time and money at this show? These are ex­am­ples of neg­a­tive self-talk that can lead to poor fo­cus, lack of con­fi­dence and a less-than-op­ti­mal per­for­mance. Work­ing to build your aware­ness of how to speak to your­self, halt­ing your neg­a­tive self-talk and edit­ing your vo­cab­u­lary are all things you can start do­ing to­day to build con­sis­tency in your rid­ing.

Jane Savoie: Help­ing Eques­tri­ans Cre­ate Positive At­ti­tudes

Jane Savoie has been an in­spi­ra­tion to eques­tri­ans for years. She is a dres­sage com­peti­tor, in­struc­tor, coach and mem­ber of the U.S. Eques­trian Team. She is the author of five books, in­clud­ing the clas­sic That Win­ning Feel­ing, in which she teaches read­ers to train their minds and cre­ate at­ti­tudes that help build men­tal strength. Jane is con­stantly cre­at­ing new pro­grams to help rid­ers bet­ter un­der­stand their horses and their own learn­ing process. In a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion, we fo­cused on one of her favorite men­tal skills, self-talk, and she de­scribed her won­der­ful per­spec­tive as well as some con­crete sug­ges­tions for im­prov­ing your in­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tions.

Aware­ness of Your In­ner Di­a­logue

“We talk to our­selves all day long: We can’t go more than 11 sec­onds with­out say­ing some­thing,” says Jane. “It is usu­ally some­thing harm­less … but when it’s neg-

ative then you are un­der­min­ing your­self. You need to learn to be aware enough to cen­sor your own speech be­cause those neg­a­tive thoughts are go­ing to pop up. Some­times I will be in the mid­dle of giv­ing a talk and I will give my­self a half-halt to cen­sor my speech—even af­ter do­ing this for 30 years … but you [can] do some­thing proac­tive to re­pro­gram your­self.”

When you re­flect on your own self-talk, what do you no­tice? Are you im­me­di­ately aware that you can im­prove what you say to your­self? Or do you not have a clear sense of your self-talk? Of­ten these mes­sages run like a soft­ware pro­gram that starts up au­to­mat­i­cally when you power up your com­puter, and there­fore it is crit­i­cal to re­mem­ber that they are un­der your con­trol.

To be more aware of your pat­terns of thought, try us­ing a spe­cial re­minder at the barn for sev­eral days. You can put a Post-it on your hel­met bag or even in­side your hel­met, tack an in­dex card in the lid of your trunk or set the lock screen of your phone to say some­thing like, “Think smart” or “Sup­port your­self.” These sorts of tar­geted re­minders can tune up your aware­ness be­fore a ride and en­able you to make more positive choices to sup­port your psy­cho­log­i­cal strength and fo­cus.

Halt­ing Neg­a­tive Thoughts

“You need to make some kind of ‘Stop’ [if you catch your­self say­ing some­thing neg­a­tive],” ex­plains Jane. “You might say some­thing to your­self like, Oh, I am such an un­co­or­di­nated id­iot, but then you could put a stop sign up at the end of the road in your mind’s eye. Or you could see your­self eras­ing the [neg­a­tive] words from a black­board or see a big red ‘X’ through the words … You then have to re­place them with some­thing positive.”

Once you have height­ened aware­ness of your self-talk, you want to have a sure­fire, con­sis­tent method in place for halt­ing your neg­a­tive lan­guage in its tracks. This method is called a “thought­stop­ping cue,” as its job is to com­pletely stop the neg­a­tive and give you a chance to switch gears. Jane pro­vided some great ex­am­ples of vis­ual cues (the stop sign, red “X” and eras­ing a black­board). You can also cre­ate a word or phrase (“change gears” or “delete”) or a phys­i­cal cue (a deep breath with a big ex­hale out of your mouth or glanc­ing up at the sky and back down to a spe­cific point in front of you).

Note that what­ever thought-stop­ping cue you use, a positive, so­lu­tion-ori­ented state­ment to chan­nel your en­ergy to­ward suc­cess must come next. For ex­am­ple, pre­tend you say, “I al­ways chip the sin­gle oxer” to your­self as you stand ring­side at the horse show. You im­me­di­ately use your thought-stop­ping cue of shak­ing your right hand while imag­in­ing your neg­a­tive thought fly­ing out of your fin­gers. In this case, you would fin­ish by telling your­self two spe­cific positive things that could help you ride a con­sis­tent rhythm ef­fec­tively: “I count loudly in my head and keep my el­bows loose on the way to the sin­gle.”

Words to Per­ma­nently Delete

“Elim­i­nat­ing words like ‘don’t’ and ‘what if’ are a good start,” says Jane. “I hear train­ers teach and ‘don’t’ is such a com­mon in­struc­tion. Elim­i­nate the word ‘don’t’ from your vo­cab­u­lary. One of the other words that stu­dents say out loud or ver­bal­ize in­ter­nally is ‘what if’… As soon as you hear your­self say ‘what if,’ stop your­self and say ‘so what if’ and then fol­low it up with ‘I can han­dle it.’ For ex­am­ple, ‘So what if I get bucked off, I can get back on.’”

As you can see from Jane’s sug­ges­tions, there are words and phrases that can be per­ma­nently cen­sored from your self-talk. She men­tions two that are a great start: “don’t” and “what if’.”

“Don’t”: You may know in­tel­lec­tu­ally what “don’t” means, but your body only un­der­stands the ac­tion word it is con­nected to and im­me­di­ately starts work­ing on how to make that hap­pen. “Don’t look down” trig­gers your mind’s eye to imag­ine what look­ing down feels like and then you end up strength­en­ing a bad habit. Each time you are tempted to say “Don’t ____” to your­self as an in­struc­tion, re­place it with what you want to have hap­pen in­stead. “Don’t look down” can become some­thing like, “Look up at a fo­cal point,” which is a spe­cific positive ac­tion that your body can eas­ily help you achieve.

“What if”: You cre­ate stress with your self-talk when you start sen­tences with “what if” be­cause it is fo­cused on try­ing to pre­dict the fu­ture—which is ab­so­lutely out of your con­trol. “What if he spooks?” It’s true, your horse may spook be­cause he is an an­i­mal and is not 100 per­cent un­der your con­trol at any time. You can change your lan­guage to fo­cus on the present: “I keep my heels down to stay con­nected to my horse.” Or, as Jane sug­gests, fol­low up a “what if” with how and why you can han­dle that sce­nario: “What if he spooks? I am keep­ing my heels down and eyes up to stay in bal­anced in the tack.” Ei­ther way, the em­pha­sis is on the so­lu­tion and not the wor­ri­some un­cer­tainty of the sit­u­a­tion.

In ad­di­tion to these sug­ges­tions, be sure to brain­storm and add other words to delete from your vo­cab­u­lary. For ex­am­ple, “never,” “if/then” and “can’t” are un­pro­duc­tive and can be terms you elim­i­nate.

As you go for­ward in these next few weeks of rid­ing, be aware of what trig­gers your neg­a­tive self-talk. Stay on the look­out, catch it early and then change your in­ter­nal mes­sag­ing so that it helps you rather than hurts you. As we learned from Spi­derman, “With great power, comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity.” Never un­der­es­ti­mate how much you and your horse rely on your positive mind­set to meet the chal­lenges you face as a team, and do what it takes to keep it locked in place.

Note that what­ever thought-stop­ping cue you use, a positive, so­lu­tion-ori­ented state­ment to chan­nel your en­ergy to­ward suc­cess must come next.

Jane Savoie and her 20-year-old semi-re­tired Grand Prix Friesian geld­ing, Moshi.

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, is avail­able in pa­per­back or e-book...

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