Corey Cushing remains cool and calm during a practice run. * Photo By Jenna Evans

Brain Game: Sports Psychology Can Be The Key To Success For Many Riders

It’s show day, and you are feeling pretty good about your chances to do well. After all, your lessons and practice at home have been great.

In the warm-up pen, as you begin to size up the competition, you notice the nervousness start to kick in. You experience physical sensations such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, a racing heart or butterflies in your stomach.

Mentally, you feel confused, forgetful or irritable. Suddenly, the maneuvers you were nailing last week aren’t happening. You start to focus on potential weak areas of performance for yourself and your horse. Self-doubt creeps in. You question your ability to remember your pattern. Do you start with right spins or left spins? Which brindle cow were you going to cut first?

Once you hit the show pen, you feel rushed. Your experience in the arena is a blur, and you’re not able to remember the details of the performance.

Maybe everything was going great until you made a minor mistake and found yourself unable to recover. One small penalty broke your concentration and snowballed into bigger mistakes. A half-point over or under spin, or a late move on a cow, and your mind went into failure mode – “This always happens to me. I do great in practice but not at the horse show. I might as well call it a day.”

It can be especially frustrating to watch other competitors who seem to have “ice water” running through their veins. They appear calm and collected no matter what, even when unexpected problems crop up. But how do they do it?

Mental Strategy

Are some riders born with the ability to stay cool and focused in the show pen while others aren’t? The answer is no. While some people might be more natural showmen and women, there are some key traits of top performers that can be learned and developed by anyone.

The starting point for understanding how to develop these traits is learning to separate the mental signs of nervousness from the physical signs. Top performers tend to experience extreme physical signs of anxiety, but not mental ones. Yet, they are still able to perform exceptionally well.

Because they can maintain their mental focus, they tell themselves the physical feelings are just part of being “psyched up” to perform their best. This allows them to step out of the mind/body anxiety spiral and channel the anxiety in a positive way. They are able to anchor positive thoughts to the physical sensations of nervousness. They tell themselves, “This is how it feels when I’m ready to do my best.”

In short, top performers use their mental game to hone their physical game.

“I don’t think people pay enough attention to their thoughts and attitudes, and how it affects their performance,” said Arizona reiner Haley Dake-Anderson. “I think this is true of any sport, but especially as an equestrian. We have to not only stay calm, collected and on our toes, we have to feed confidence and calm to a 1,500-pound animal. If we are uptight or stressed, the horse will definitely notice that, and it will affect their performance, as well.”

In sports psychology, the “big three” tools that top athletes rely on to achieve successful performance are: present focus, positive self-talk and visualization. Dake-Anderson, an EquiStat $20,000 rider, incorporates all of them into her pre-show routine.

Practice Run * Photo by Jenna Evans
Practice runs offered at shows can help hone in your horse and your mental game. * Photo By Jenna Evans

“Before I show, I like to relax and meditate, even if only for 10-15 minutes. I repeat to myself that I am confident, and that I will always give it my all and remain calm. I know it sounds silly, but I am a very busy-minded person, so I take the time to just focus and remind myself to slow down and have confidence in myself. Then, I like to visualize my pattern going just like I want it to.”

Her strategy works. In 2013, her professional training career was cut short after getting bucked off a colt and breaking her back. Three years later, she returned to the show pen after gaining her non-pro status.

During a 2016 futurity in Scottsdale, Arizona, she and her trainer made a last-minute decision for her to show just two days before her class. Since her accident, there was a period of time when it wasn’t certain if she would be able to ride high-level horses again, so the class was especially meaningful to her.

“I had hardly ridden the horse at all, and had just changed trainers a few weeks before that. I did my visualization just like I always do,” she said. “This time, there was a lot of emotion involved. I remember tearing up walking into the pen and really making myself focus on what I needed to do.”

Flow and Focus

Dake-Anderson’s pre-show mental strategy paid off with a clean sweep of all four levels of the Non-Pro at that event. Her ability to focus on the task at hand is the foundation upon which a successful mental strategy is built. It’s often referred to as present focus or being “in the zone.” Rather than replaying past mistakes, or worrying about the score or the competition, a rider’s sole focus is on executing their next step. The focus is process oriented, instead of outcome oriented.

During this peak performance state, riders are usually unaware of the passage of time. Outside distractions fade into the background. It’s as if they are on autopilot, focusing only on the details that let them get the job done.

Many athletes say they can tell what will happen next and anticipate how to handle the situation. It’s as if everything falls into place. There’s no wonder this state is also called “flow.” What often separates top performers from the rest of the competition is their ability to create a flow state when they need it.

Most people have experienced being in a flow state at some point. An everyday example is being totally engrossed in a book or movie. The reader or moviegoer might lose track of time; the person sitting next to them might get up and leave or say something, and they don’t even notice.

The best starting point for initiating a flow state is through controlled breathing. Begin by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, with the emphasis on the exhale. A breath in for a 4-second count should be matched with an exhale for an 8-second count.

With the exhale, imagine the nervousness leaving the body. Inhaling through the nose triggers a calming response in the nervous system, slowing the heart rate and oxygenating the body’s systems. It also induces an alpha state, with an enhanced ability to concentrate, as well as handle anxiety and negativity. This is how top performers short circuit the cycle of confusion, irritability and forgetfulness.

Corey Cushing remains cool and calm during a practice run. * Photo By Jenna Evans

Positive Self-Talk

Once a rider takes a few breaths, it’s time to redirect any negativity and self-doubt. Positive self-talk forms the next building block of a strong mental skills game. The subconscious mind works behind the scenes to create reality from the information it receives from the conscious mind. Because of the nature of the mind/body connection, the body often can’t tell whether a phrase or image is real or imagined.

When a rider feeds their subconscious positive messages, their body and nervous system treats those messages as if they were real. Once a rider understands this, they can take full advantage.

Start by choosing two to three power phrases – short affirmations that are designed to create a mental blueprint for how to perform well. State the phrases in the present tense, using expressions like “I am” or “I am becoming.”

Instead of saying, “I will be focused and calm,” for example, a rider should say, “I am focused and calm,” or “I am becoming focused and calm.”

Use the statements to create a positive outlook. Avoid words such as “don’t” or “won’t.” Instead of saying, “I won’t look down,” the rider should instead say, “I will look up through my whole pattern.”

Everyone can fall into negative thought patterns when they feel stressed. Thoughts like, “This always happens to me,” or “I never do well with this pattern,” are common indications one is experiencing those negative patterns.

A rider should work to develop awareness around their thought patterns. A great place to start is for them to take notice of how they talk about showing to their friends or trainer. Is it positive and exciting or a stressful ordeal? Negative thought patterns can be insidious, and most aren’t even aware they’re falling into these traps.

Use the power phrase guidelines to rebuild the negative thoughts as positive ones. “I never do well with this pattern,” should become, “I am getting better at this pattern every day.”

Start by creating two or three positive affirmations and repeating them three to five times a day. Experiment with a few variations until finding what feels right.


Once a rider takes a breath and redirects their thoughts, it’s time for them to put the last building block – visualization – in place.

Visualization creates “mental muscle memory.” Remember, the mind/body connection is so intimate that often the body can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. With visualization, the act of vividly imagining an activity sends electrical impulses to the muscles involved in carrying out that activity, so the effect is a bit like creating a mental and physical blueprint for an upcoming performance.

While visualization can’t replace practice, it can greatly enhance it. For the purposes of handling show-ring anxiety, visualization acts as a rehearsal. When most people are asked to visualize a performance, they do so in a haphazard way, more like daydreaming. They often spend 30 seconds or so thinking about performing the actions or doing a quick review of the pattern.

Proper visualization is a skill that takes practice and concentration to be effective, but the payoff can be great. There are a few key components to effective visualization:

Timing: Especially for beginners, it’s helpful to choose a quiet environment without a lot of distractions. Visualization is most effective when the rider is able to relax their mind and body.

“I like to relax and visualize a few hours before I show. I at least want to sit down, but if possible, I will lie down for a few minutes,” Dake-Anderson said.

Breathing: During visualization, a rider should use deep, abdominal breathing – in through the nose and out through the mouth – to create a state of present focus, just as they will during their performance.

The rider should incorporate all five senses as much as possible – imagining hearing their name called on the loudspeaker, the smell of tractor fumes, fly spray, how the reins feel in their hands. What sights, sounds and smells say “horse show” to them? These are the ones they will want to incorporate into their visualization.

Pacing: Whenever possible, visualization should be real time. If the pattern should take five minutes to complete, the visualization should also take five minutes. The goal is to ride every step of the pattern just as one will in the arena.

For beginners, visualization often takes much longer, since there is tendency to get distracted and lose the train of thought. This isn’t a problem; with practice it gets better, and it is still highly effective.

Positivity: It is essential for riders to see themselves doing it right when they visualize. Many people engage in negative visualization, which is simply replaying their mistakes over and over. One of the most productive ways to use visualization is to erase mistakes. A great exercise is to mentally re-ride the last run and replace the mistakes with correct maneuvers.

“I tell my non-pros, ‘Think about what you did right, and do more of that,’” said NRHA Professional Terry Wegener. “Then, we erase the mistakes and do things differently in the areas that need improvement.”

For some people, visualizations can be quite vivid. They say that it feels just like they are at the show. For others, it doesn’t feel as real. If a rider falls into the latter category, there is no reason for them to feel discouraged. Visualization is equally effective in both cases.

Visualization is very useful at all levels of performance. The person using the skill doesn’t have to be a top-level competitor. And by utilizing it, a rider increases their chances of moving up in the ranks.

Present focus, positive self-talk and visualization are skills athletes must develop. They just require consistency, not a lot of time. Set aside five to 10 minutes several times a week to work on these skills.

The goal is to create a pre-show “ritual” that can be repeated as many times as needed leading up to an event. At the horse show, when the nervousness begins to creep in, take a few breaths, repeat the affirmations and visualize “doing it right.”

This article on sports psychology was first published in the print edition of Quarter Horse News on Dec 1, 2017.