For many years I have had the privilege of having a front row seat observing greatness in the equestrian world. I observe, critique and assist high-level performers achieve an even greater level of success. My clients range from young prodigies to Olympic Gold Medal champions like Will Simpson, Olympian Everado Hegewisch, or multiple award and champion, Burt Mutch all have at least one common goal and that is to be the best that they can be.
Not all of my clients have been at the proverbial top of their game, but like elite athletes, they are in search of methods, tools, new ideas or routines on how to deal with issues impeding their success. For those of you who desire improving your equestrian riding, I hope you’ll enjoy this small glimpse into my life as a sport psychologist.
I have traveled extensively with many of my athletes of differing disciplines such as dressage, jumping, hunter, equitation, 3-day Eventing, Rodeo, horse racing and very soon Vaulting.
In addition to assisting equestrian riders, I’ve had the privilege of working in other professional sports such as the UFC/MMA, boxing, baseball, basketball, volleyball, racing, lacrosse, football, wrestling, and many others. As a teacher observing greatness, I’ve spoken with thousands of people who have shared their stories of struggle and perseverance. Each of these interactions has provided me with fascinating and unique lessons which weave into my lectures.
My work in the equestrian world began with an introduction to Will Simpson back in 2008. My immersion was intense, fascinating and arguably taken for granted at because I had no one to reference his work against. It wasn’t until I got to watch him compete that I realized how lucky I was. During my career, I’ve been very fortunate to have studied under one of the best mentors and pioneers in the field of sport psychology, Dr. Ken Ravizza. He taught me to quickly observe and notice the subtle things that separate good from great and with Will my time was well spent reinforcing this high standard.
Words like “feel”, “finding your distance”, and “putting more leg on” became part of my new vocabulary. For weeks I watched him ride, teach students, and asked questions about his riding and Olympic experiences. It was several weeks before I offered any advice with one of the first being something along the lines of “Remember to Breathe”. After establishing trust, I’d might see that he was distracted by outside factors just before a show and make a more deliberate comment such as “You’re not present right now so you’ve got to be where you need to be”. Riders are all competitive creatures of habit so it’s pretty easy to notice when one is struggling. Body language, distractions or inability to focus, negative self-talk and hanging onto a mistake tend to be common themes I address and deal with.
The language of performance is common. Coaches and trainers use words or sayings coupled with stories as examples to place an emphasis on a point to be made so that the result is a stronger performance. Regardless of the level, we are we all are searching for an edge. This year alone I’ve done seminars and worked with riders in Texas (2), Penn, Thermal, San Juan Cap., and it’s only the start of the show season and with new mental game students showing their appreciation for the knowledge to help them enjoy what they love to do.
In baseball, players must deal with the reality that it is a game of failure. If you are successful 3 out of 10 times at the professional level, you are a potential Hall of Famer and making a very comfortable living. However, this concept of failing 7 out of 10 times is challenging to grasp. In the equestrian world you will fail more times than you will win blue ribbons. How many times have you beaten yourself up because you didn’t place or get a ribbon, carried that “last ride” with you into a ring and sabotaged your opportunity, or failed to enjoy yourself because your ride wasn’t as “perfect” as it should have been according to your standards?
Issues like time away from home, job or family, logistics of getting your horses there, dealing with grooms, trainer or barn drama, equipment, hotel or rental management, event scheduling, and of course life’s surprises all come into play just as you are about to enter into the ring and create chaos in your head. Sound familiar? Absolutely, especially if you are without any tools or skills to learn how to get yourself out of what I refer to as the red zone. So, as I share with my athletes, I am going to provide you with a few grains of wisdom so you can put your riding and show experience into a more positive light and outcome.
1. You are choosing to be here
There are worse places where you can be. Take a moment to look around, take in what you are so blessed to be doing and start enjoying yourself. Tiger Woods was once asked what he thought of after a shot during competition and his response was, “I take in the sights and put one foot in front of the other until I get close to my ball. Then I start the process of thinking about my next shot”. Take in the sights and have an attitude of gratitude.
2. Be here and be Clear
What I mean by this is that once you’ve decided to make the commitment of spending the necessary resources to get yourself here, now make a commitment of leaving your outside world out of the saddle so that you can give yourself the best opportunity for success. Leave your past rides, distractions, and mistakes out of the saddle until the ride is over. There’s a time and place for them and it’s not while you are preparing for your upcoming ride.
3. No one is perfect, so don’t try to be
Work on getting better, doing the best you can so that over an accumulation of time, you’ve steadily improved. By the way, how can you expect perfection when you have a 1,200 lbs. variable called a horse that sometimes has its’ own agenda? They are imperfect creatures who like us have bad days so try having a realistic goal and have fun trying to attain it. Perfection is an unfair and unrealistic standard and will only lead to disappointment. Focus on being the best version of you that day, that moment within the ride, and be ok with that. It’s all that you have control of.
4. Self doubt will distract you from doing your best
If you are bringing doubt or anything other than confidence and focus into your rides (an argument with your trainer moments before), those thoughts will distract you from doing your best. It’s like having multiple riders join you in the saddle while competing. Take charge of the ring, have the horse know who is in charge of the performance through your thoughts and actions, and then go do what you have chosen to do with a smile.
Have a Safe and Blessed Year, I wish you many blue ribbons but even more life lessons. If you see me at a show, please introduce yourself and say hello.
Mario Soto, MS
Sport Performance and Psychology Consultant
Graduate Program Adjunct Professor – Cal Baptist University and Santa Ana College