We riders are truly lucky. Every day, we get to do what we love. We spend time with horses, the one thing in our lives that often makes the most sense to us. Horses are our partners, friends, teachers, and sometimes therapists, and time with them today defines who we’ll become tomorrow. Our sport is unlike any other because of the incredibly meaningful relationship between horse and rider. It’s even more than a sport to us. It’s our life: It’s who we are, what we stand for, and why we do what we do.
As unique as our sport is, it has some similarities to other sports. These include (but are not limited to) pressure, stress, distraction, fear of failure, and performance anxiety, and they remind us that riding is, in fact, a true sport. Because of these common emotional challenges, many of us struggle to love what we do. Sure we do what we love, but do we always love what we do? In a sport as special as ours, we must do everything we can to ensure that negative emotions don’t take away our positive experiences. In other words, we must do everything we can to become pressure-proof.
I’ve spent a lifetime training equestrian athletes how to pressure-proof their riding. Now I’ll show you how your protective emotions affect your riding, and what you can do to rein them in.
The Three Types of Emotions
There are three common kinds of emotions: (1) productive—like confidence and self-belief—that lay the foundation for success; (2) destructive—like show jitters and fear of failure—that hold you back from succeeding; and (3) protective—like avoidance and denial—that never give you the chance to succeed in the first place.
As a rider, you’re free to choose the kind of emotions you ride with. In the face of a challenge: you can choose to be confident, optimistic, composed, and happy; nervous, tense, anxious, and miserable; or avoid the challenge altogether. This last choice is a part of a group of protective emotions called defense mechanisms, and it’s these emotions that hinder success the most.
Defense mechanisms are called protective emotions because they can momentarily reduce the amount of anxiety, disappointment, or risk you might feel. Unfortunately, when you avoid a challenge, you interfere with your ability to overcome it. There are many different causes of defense mechanisms, but they usually all come down to reasons and results: We always have great reasons for why we don’t go for great results. Instead of playing the winning game, we play the blame game, blaming everything from our horse, tack, judges, and the bad economy for not riding well.
A defense mechanism can be as mild as avoidance or procrastination, or as serious as fear. Example: The knob on the tackroom door always gives you a static shock, and sooner or later you learn to anticipate and avoid reaching for it. This is called adverse thinking: Instead of spending your time figuring out how to solve the problem, you spend time trying to figure out how to avoid it altogether, even though holding a towel when opening the door—or changing the doorknob—would simply solve the problem.
Common Defense Mechanisms
Here’s a whole list of defense mechanisms and how they offer emotional protection. Identify whether you have the tendency to use any of them.
Denial: Refusal to take responsibility for something by saying it never happened. “I didn’t forget to tighten my girth, it just happened.”
Avoidance: Decreasing the amount of discomfort you might feel by avoiding the situation altogether. “I probably won’t win, so I’ll just scratch my entry now.”
Indecision: Struggling between two or more options, resulting in an inability to give 100 percent to any of them. “I can’t decide whether I should raise Miniature Horses or reining prospects.”
Repression: Coping with negative emotions by pushing them from your mind. “I don’t know what you’re talking about; I never get nervous riding in front of crowds.”
Projection: Feeling negative emotions but attributing them to someone else. “I’m not the one in a bad mood; it’s my parents, trainer, judge (insert your scapegoat here).”
Procrastination: Putting off actions until tomorrow when you can do them today. “I just fell off, so I should probably take a break and get back on tomorrow.”
Rationalization: Using protective thoughts to explain away negative feelings.
Tanking: Making excuses so that disappointments don’t seem so overwhelming. “I didn’t win today because I didn’t care. If I cared, I would have done better.”
Withdrawal: Expending as little mental energy as possible. “I always get nervous riding for judges, so why should I even try?”
Displacement: Directing negative emotions toward something else, like throwing gloves or smacking the horse. “It doesn’t make things better, but it makes me feel better.”
Anticipation: Lessening the potential of a disappointment by blaming something before starting. “I have a bad headache, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I ride horribly.”
Helplessness: Demanding assistance from others or believing something is impossible even though you haven’t tried it yet. “There’s no way I can do this, I just know it.”
Surrender: Giving up on the present because of the past. “Every time I compete against her she always wins, so why should I even try?”
Distraction: Purposely scheduling something at the same time as what you’re trying to avoid. “I can’t ride for that mean judge because I have to meet with my vet then.”
Causes of Defense Mechanisms
Defense mechanisms have many different causes, and each one can interfere with your ability to become pressure-proof. They include but aren’t limited to doubt, uncertainty, low confidence, poor willpower, inaction, and a lack of self-belief. The rationale behind them always comes down to something like, “If I wait, it might get easier,” or, “If I deny it’s happening, it might not bother me as much,” or, “If I blame it on someone else, people won’t lower their opinion of me.” Unfortunately, delaying productive tasks in favor of protective excuses always leads to underperformance, disappointment, low self-esteem, and unrealized goals.
I’ll go over several more causes. Do any sound familiar?
Having too many choices: When facing many equal yet challenging options, it’s often easier to just choose answer “D” (none of the above). To protect yourself from making the wrong decision (or the hard one), you simply decide not to decide. You choose not to choose. Choices can be hard. After all, if you have a hard time choosing between green or blue polo wraps or rubber versus braided reins, imagine how hard it can be to decide if you really want to turn that cow on the fence at full speed, or compete in front of a stadium full of spectators. It’s normal to struggle from time to time with important and challenging decisions, but it’s also normal to believe in your ability to accomplish them.
Making excuses: Excuse-making may lessen some of the short-term pain that comes with disappointment, but the long-term positives gained by overcoming a challenge far outweigh any negatives. Improved self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect are a few of the rewards. Making excuses is a self-defeating habit; we don’t like it when others do it, so let’s not engage in it ourselves. No matter how great your favorite excuse is, someone somewhere has had it worse and has succeeded in spite of it. You’ll learn to become pressure-proof when your desire for success surpasses your desire to make excuses.
Resisting change: Change is necessary for improvement; it’s not always easy, but it’s certainly possible. Working to your strengths is important, but you must also have the courage to identify your weaknesses and want to change them. One thing that makes it difficult to embrace change is that going against the status quo is very often met with resistance. Sometimes the effort to make a change is just as hard as the problem causing it. It’s as if you’re being tested to see if you’re really serious about making the positive change: you vow to start a diet and later that day find your mailbox stuffed full of restaurant coupons, photos of ice cream, and an invitation to a cocktail party. Perhaps this is why of the millions of people who resolve to lose weight on New Year’s Eve, only about 14 percent actually follow through. It’s not because it’s impossible, it’s just because change is very hard.
Some change can be undeniably stressful—it’s what puts divorce, moving, marriage, and childbirth at the top of the list of the most stressful events in our lives. What makes these events so difficult is that the change is often unexpected and usually more than we bargained for. Even adjusting to smaller changes, like moving up from a pony to a horse, requires energy and effort. To embrace change, remind yourself that you’re into horses and riding for the long term. Persistence and preparation are two keys to becoming pressure-proof.
Hanging on to preconceived notions: Negative thoughts and beliefs can hold you back from riding your best. “I’ve never ridden well in this arena, so I know I won’t ride well here today, either,” or, “My warm-up was horrible, so I know I won’t ride well in my class,” are two examples of a preconceived notion. Instead of creating your own destiny, you believe you’re limited by it and nothing can change it. To rise above preconceived notions you need to remind yourself, “I don’t have to win the warm-up.” You can actually struggle from time to time and still succeed.
Staying in your comfort zone: Preconceived notions also can create something called a comfort zone: the belief that you’re capable of only a certain amount of success and when you reach that level, you’ve gone as far as you can go. “I never finish better than fourth, so that’s probably where I’ll finish today.” Sadly, when you set these kinds of “expectation-based limits,” you hold yourself back from really giving or getting 100 percent.
Overcoming your comfort zone requires taking risks, and while living within it might feel comfortable—setting the bar so low you can trip over it—the true sign of a pressure-proof rider is one who identifies a risk and pushes toward it by raising the bar just a touch higher. Along with this may come the risk of not reaching the bar, but the confident rider never lets this hold him back. Instead, he stays focused on what he’s capable of and never doubts himself or gives up.
Scarcity Vs. Abundance Mindsets
When it comes to riding, you can make plans for tomorrow instead of doing them today; you can focus on doing what’s easy instead of doing what’s hard; and you can dwell on your mistakes instead of learning from them. When you do this, however, you develop something called a scarcity mindset: an attitude where you’re only aware of what you don’t have or what you don’t want to have happen.
The opposite of this negative mindset is an abundance mindset: an attitude where you’re aware of what you do have; what you do want to achieve; and what you do need to do to accomplish it.
When it comes to avoiding defense mechanisms there are only two simple rules.
• Rule 1: Never make excuses or give up.
• Rule 2: Always follow Rule 1.