This article forms the basis for the lecture I presented at Equitana Asia Pacific in November 2008, and Equitana in Auckland 2017.

Have you have ever suffered from nerves when you’re out competing?
Maybe you have lost your way in a Show Jumping round or a dressage test?  Or even out on a Cross Country course?
Have you had a fall or negative experience that affects your performance today even though you know it shouldn’t?

And here’s a big one – what about being psyched out by other competitors – people you perceive as being better than you?

You’re not alone.  I’ve certainly been gripped by fear – my mind’s gone blank during a dressage test and I just didn’t have a clue where to go next.  Course error – judge leaps out of the car!  Got even more rattled!  Sound familiar?

At least 60% of our success in any sport is in our mind!

Using our minds effectively is the key to success with our riding.

Our internal self talk and subconscious beliefs can make or break it for you!

Let me explain how we influence our actions through our thoughts, and what YOU as a rider can do to increase your effectiveness and be the best you can be – for yourself and for your horses.

I have a great love of horses so it was inevitable I would end up working with them in some way. Riding since I was 7, having bred my own horses and worked and ridden in England my current horse – Croftlea Callaghan, is an Irish Hunter – a successful Open Saddle Hunter and Show Hunter, and loves anything to do with running, jumping and generally having a good time.

So as a horse rider myself I well understand the pressures we can face when it comes to RIDING.

The two of us

Horse riding as a sport is unique in that we have more than just ourselves to take into account – in the horse we have another being, another mind.  And he often has his own ideas about what he wants to do.  Doesn’t always want to do what we ask of him.  Horses are very sensitive creatures with super intelligence.  A horse knows what a person is feeling and even knows what a person is thinking.  Horses can pick up what mood you are in from the far corner of the paddock well before you have even got near them or touched them.

So it’s up to us to establish mutual trust, and respect.  And most of all, to be an effective leader.

It’s a very special bond that forms between horse and rider – an intangible connection that develops through day-to-day handling, grooming, riding etc.  And it is the success of this bond that determines the success of our riding.

As humans dealing with such sensitive animals we need to be aware how acutely our thoughts and feelings impact on our horses.  It is our duty to be the leader for our horses.  If we have doubts, then they will have doubts.  Horses get their confidence from us.  And as horses are prey animals they will very naturally flee in order to avoid danger.  So imagine what the horse thinks when we can ride confidently at home, but when we’re out at a competition suddenly we become tense and anxious?  The horse very naturally picks up on this fear because he is used to us being relaxed and happy, then suddenly when it really matters we let him down.  He immediately senses danger so he prepares himself for the worst and his resulting behaviour is not exactly what we wanted or hoped for.

If a horse can feel a fly on its coat, it’ll very certainly feel tension in your legs, seat and through your hands.


Now there are 5 main attributes that we need for success.

How much is related to the physical and how much is related to the mental?

20 % Physical Fitness – of horse and rider.

The horse needs to be fit for the work it is doing.  The fitness for an Eventer will be different to that required of a Dressage horse, for instance.  Correct feeding, veterinary services, farrier etc is essential.

The rider has to be physically fit enough to manage the animal and ride it according to their chosen discipline.  The rider’s diet, exercise, adequate sleep and correct medical assistance, is just as vital.

20 % Coaching, training and the development of skills.

Both horse and rider must have adequate skills training appropriate to the level of competition and to the particular discipline.

20 % Concentration.

If our minds wander when we are riding it isn’t exactly fair to expect the horse to remain focused and perform consistently.

We need to be in the moment –always.

Things happen very fast when riding so it’s vital to be in the present at all times.  Being in the present enables us to instantly and instinctively make the right decisions and if something unexpected should happen then we are ready to take immediate action.  Controlling the controllables.  The time for assessing the performance is after the performance!!

20 % Confidence.

Riders need to have confidence in their own ability as well as faith and trust in their horse’s ability.  As well as total dedication and determination to succeed.  If we have had some previous bad experience then we will doubt this ability.  And there are certainly many other people and fellow competitors ready to put us down if we’re not truly on top of our game.

For example if we have had a refusal or fallen off at a water jump the last 3 times we have attempted one, then the chances of us doing so again are very high.  Why?  – Because we are expecting to have difficulties.  We are saying to ourselves oh dear, last time I had problems, hope I don’t have them again, oh no, I can feel my horse starting to back off…. And so on.  This kind of self-talk attracts us to the exact thing we actually want to avoid!!!

We become locked into a negative downward spiral of defeat and things going wrong.

Conversely if every time we approach a water jump we DO jump it well then our confidence will be very high, so of course it goes well and we feel good about ourselves, and we’re up in a positive spiral.

20 % Relaxation.

Being relaxed but very alert.  Now I don’t mean flopping about all over place.  I mean being free from unnecessary tension, not freedom from energy and being able to ride correctly.  Tension burns energy and blocks rational thinking – when your muscles are tight, your blood doesn’t flow properly, therefore your brain is lacking in oxygen.  So when it comes to making decisions you get that kind of mental block like I alluded to at the beginning when I was riding a dressage test.

Concentration – Confidence – Relaxation

These 3 things account for as much as 60% of our success!

We all spend so much time, effort and money, and we tend to focus on the physical aspects of training, often completely ignoring these 3 most important things that lie in the mind and thought patterns of the rider.

Our level of success as riders is determined by how well control these things.

Fortunately we have the power within us to do so – we just need to learn how.

Now the human mind has two parts to it

The conscious mind and the subconscious mind.  The conscious mind is the thinking mind – the mind we are operating in now.

It’s the doubting mind.  The mind that says yes, but.   Like last time you tried to do that you failed, so why do you think you can do it this time?

And the subconscious mind is the computer mind, which has recorded everything a person has ever seen and heard, felt or done.  These experiences commenced at birth and there are many trillions of them lodged there.  None of this is ever lost.  The subconscious never forgets anything so there is no such thing as forgetting; there is only a lack of ability to recollect.

It is the subconscious mind that controls the way we behave when we are competing and the way the subconscious is programmed determines whether we will be successful or not.

Confidence, Concentration and Relaxation are learnt behaviours and they can be reprogrammed in the subconscious mind so that performance is enhanced, giving riders an edge that puts them into a winning position.

What is winning anyway?

It is performing up to 100% of your ability on the day.  Winning is not necessarily getting placed first.  You know when you have gone out there and ridden your absolute best.  You may have actually got third place, but in your own mind you knew that you performed to the best of your ability.  And that’s what counts.  We can’t control other people or situations but we can control ourselves.   There will be time where we are well beaten by someone who is simply better than us, but as long as we can say to ourselves that we gave it our best shot, that’s all we can ask for.  There is nothing worse than feeling you missed out because you made some silly mistake.

A winner is one whose subconscious mind and conscious mind are in agreement.  If we make up our conscious mind to be successful then all we need to do is tell the subconscious mind also.  This result = two minds working together and when we do this we have a winner.

Direct instruction

In order to reprogramme the subconscious mind we need to talk directly to it and the only way to talk directly to the subconscious mind is when a person is in the Hypnotic State.

Oooooh now I can almost hear you thinking.  Dancing like chickens, eating onions etc.  I’ll come back to that soon.  Let me just explain what hypnosis actually is.

Hypnosis is really only a form of deep relaxation.  It’s a deeply relaxed state of mind where the body is very relaxed too.  It has been described by some of my clients as a feeling of being awake and asleep at the same time.  The person in Hypnosis looks as though they are asleep.  But they can hear my voice very clearly.  They can think and reason and have full control of their mind and actions. They are totally in control at all times.  It is very safe.

Hypnotherapy is the giving of structured positive suggestions while a person is in the state of hypnosis.  When a person is in hypnosis everything that is said bypasses the conscious mind and goes directly to the subconscious mind.

Hypnosis is not magic.  But if you have made a definite decision to help yourself and are prepared to spend some time working on it then you can definitely expect to gain in a positive way and achieve your goal.

Hypnosis is not new to the sports field; it is rarely used because there are so few specialised sports hypnotherapists.

How I learned to cope

I had my confidence built up using hypnotherapy in the late 1980s when I consulted Raymond Parker.  I then studied at Ray’s school – then known as The New Zealand School of Hypnotic Science.  Today this school, renamed the New Zealand School of Clinical Hypnotherapy, is run by Ray’s daughter Donna-Maree Parker.  It is the only hypnotherapy training school in New Zealand accredited with NZQA status. I am proud to have trained with people who have set the precedent and standards for hypnotherapy in New Zealand today.  I am a Full member of the NZ Society of Clinical & Applied Hypnotherapists and I am Vice President.  I am also a Professional member of the Australian Society of Clinical Hypnotherapists.

Hypnosis the incredible tool

As my practice expanded and developed I came to realise that this great tool called hypnotherapy could be applied to the horse world too.

I remember one occasion that started my journey into my work with horse riders.  I was at the National Dressage Championships in Taupo, New Zealand when Jody Hartstone one of New Zealand’s leading Grand Prix riders and coaches came up to me and asked me to help one of her pupils who had continually lost her way in all of her dressage tests throughout the whole competition.  She was despairing that this girl would ever get it!  So into the back of my horse truck we went – 20 minutes before she was due to ride her advanced test!  Emerging from the truck Jody’s pupil commented on how relaxed and recharged she felt.  Well she rode her test completely without any course error, and was truly amazed at how the test just came into her head as she rode, and that she was able to concentrate completely on her riding without having to worry about where she was going.  She then went on to compete successfully at HOY.

The more I learned about hypnotherapy, and the more I witnessed the fantastic results my clients experienced, the more determined I became to share it with others and that’s exactly what I hope to have achieved with you today.

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