For today’s post, I decided to delve into the psychological side of riding, so I decided to share some of my thoughts on how self-talk can harm or enhance your riding. Please enjoy this industrial-strength pep talk from my heart to yours.
Even the most seasoned of riders will deal with some level of negative self-talk at some point in their careers. The unchecked inner critic is like a seed that can grow into a massive obstacle to achieving equestrian goals, choking the fun right out of your riding time. Here are a few thoughts on how to get control of your negative inner critic:
Don’t Magnify Your Failures by Overgeneralizing Them
Instead of berating yourself after a bad ride by saying “I’m a terrible rider! My canter work sucks!”, narrow your problem down to distance yourself in general from an instance of poor riding. Instead, say “Man, my rhythm was off on those canter departs.”
Use positive self-talk on a regular basis to remind yourself what you love about your horse, your discipline, and the sport of riding in general.
Make a regular habit of starting each riding session with a simple mantra or affirmation. A good time to practice this is while you are walking out to catch your horse, or during your grooming time while tacking up for a lesson. For example:
“I am blessed to ride my horse today, and simply to have access to horses. I recognize that I do not yet ride with the skill that I desire to have, but I am excited to be on this journey of discovery. Today I will treat my horse and myself with respect and have as much fun as earthly possible.”
Realize that Other People’s Success is NOT your Failure
We all grew up hating child prodigies. The mere thought that some little kid was slapping out Beethoven’s fifth symphony on the piano or developing some ground breaking math proof while we were just starting to figure out how to spell “Mississippi” is enough to suck the wind out of anyone’s sails. This same mindset tends to follow us into adulthood, especially in the vulnerable teen and twenty-something age range when some lucky kids are getting great scholarships for college or enviably field-related jobs right out of college, while others are just scraping by and second guessing all their life plans so far. There’s always that one girl from pony club who is now an international event rider, sponsored by Adequan and importing horses from Ireland. The others feel like they somehow failed because they have average horses and only ride in schooling shows. I find myself feeling this pressure quite often, but I’ve been trying to catch myself before I give it any audience.
As cliché as it is to say, we are all on our own paths. We are responsible for defining success in our own terms and setting goals to achieve that success. YOU are your only competition. As long as you are pushing yourself and your horse to perform to the best of your abilities, or simply finding ways to have fun with your horse, then GOSHDANGIT, you are just as SUCCESSFUL as any professional rider out there.
Don’t Let Guilt Spoil Your Fun
This brings me to my next point: avoiding the vicious cycle of guilt. Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes (accurately or not) that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard and takes responsibility for that violation. The key here is “accurately or not.”
I heard a really interesting podcast talk on Horse Radio Network’s Stable Scoop rider fitness segment about “good foods” and “bad foods” and how our perception of the food can actually alter the way that we maintain weight. For example, if I crave a piece of chocolate cake, tell myself that the cake is really bad for me, put off eating it as long as possible, then eat it and feel guilty about it later, then I will have subconsciously triggered the hormone cortisol to maintain the weight that I gain from the cake. When we make food “forbidden,” we want to eat it even more. However, if we put all food on a even playing field (there is no “good” and “bad” food), and allow ourselves to indulge a craving when we want it instead of entering cycles of fasting bad food and binging, we are less likely to maintain the weight.
All that being said (now I’m hungry!), guilt can have tremendously bad side effects on our bodies and riding pursuits. Sometimes guilt is accurate and it will lead us to correct our mistakes. If I realize while driving home from the barn that I was maybe a little too rough with my horse, then I can correct that behavior by taking extra care to show him some love the next time I come out. But sometimes the feeling that surfaces as guilt is actually your inner critic trying to beat you down. I feel unfounded guilt most often when I give myself or my horse more than one or two days off in a row. Sometimes life gets in the way of my riding goals and I can’t always find the time (or energy) to ride. My inner critic grabs hold of this; I start telling myself that if I were really a “serious rider,” then I would be riding every possible day I could (crazy, right?), that if I really cared about gaining any ground with Shiloh’s training I would be following a regular training schedule and ticking off milestones on a crisp clipboard checklist.
I try to stop myself every time I feel my inner critic start to accuse me of “not caring enough” or “not trying hard enough,” and point out that I have absolutely no reason to feel guilty.
Well, Inner Critic, here is the skinny: I DO care about Shiloh’s training. A lot. And I think we’ve made stunning progress. But I’m not a professional rider. I have to work for a living, and I simply can’t ride five days a week. I count myself lucky if I get to ride three or four days a week. I do the best that I can, and that is enough.
And finally, we have our old standard,
Set Realistic Goals and Enjoy the Process of Working Towards Them
Goals are dreams with deadlines. I love goals. It’s so exciting to make a plan and actually watch that plan blossom into the beautiful flower of incredible, exhilarating horsey achievement. I actually got to see this goal making business in action when I took the dearly departed Lesson Horse Lena to my first ever clinic back in August. It works, people! If little old scatterbrained me can actually take a horse to a clinic by herself, then anyone can do basically anything!!!
Happy riding, and may the positive self talk be with you!