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Image courtesy of Tonya Johnston

Motivation. When things are going well with my horse, it can seem like there’s an endless supply. I don’t have to think about why I’m slogging through ankle-deep mud in biting cold temperatures to bring this giant, hairy beast inside to ride.

I just do.

But when things start to slide into the zone of “not quite right” (or even worse straight down to the pit of despair) with my horse, motivation starts to feel like a non-renewable resource.

What was easy to get done one day will be a herculean task the next. And if I’m not careful, I start to lose sight of why I started riding in the first place.

Staying motivated, defining success, and keeping your own compass

If you’ve been riding for long enough, no doubt you’ve had your moments of struggle with motivation too – no matter how much you love your horse and the sport.

With show season upon us, it’s an ideal time to talk about ways to find and maintain motivation even when things get tough.

Because if you’re going to hit a few rough spots, chances are they’ll happen in the ring… or in the warm-up… or the day before you leave… or… You get the idea.

To help make sense of all this, I spoke with Tonya Johnston, a top mental skills coach who specializes in working with equestrians all over the world. As a sought after clinician, presenter, and author, who literally wrote the book on mental skills and riding, she has a unique understanding of how to deal with the ups and downs in the horse world.

Here is the interview.

Q: What are some of the best ways that you’ve found to help riders find and sustain their motivation even when things get tough during show season?

Tonya: So one of the things you really need to do is define success. And you can do that by tracking some goals that are small, personal, and completely within your control. When you do that, you’re able to see improvements throughout your season. Those goals become a sort of guiding light more than outcomes.

Sometimes when you’re showing a lot, you start leaning on results to tell you how it’s going, if you’re having fun, or doing well. This is when it’s important to keep your own compass so you can feel satisfaction, happiness, and excitement over the small gains.

Also, people really need to think about their mental goals as much as their physical goals when they define success. Let’s say you’re at a show. It’s July. It’s hot and humid. Just getting yourself to the ring in a focused, organized manner can be a win.

Q: Talk a little more about the mental aspect. What sort of things should people be thinking about? What does that look like?

Tonya: Having a mental preparation routine that you can stay disciplined and positive about is so important. For instance, you want to make sure you’re giving yourself a big pat on the back to remind yourself of a job well done. Tell yourself something like, “I feel good about that” or “I feel happy that I was able to overcome the situational and environmental challenges of this day to get myself in a good place.”

Maybe your horse had an issue or your test wasn’t as clean as you’d like, you still have to be able to pick out those moments where you can shine a light on the process and feel good about what you’ve done.

Q: Are you talking about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation? Can you explain the difference?

Tonya: So intrinsic motivation is really just based on your own personal enjoyment, satisfaction, happiness – things like developing your skills as a rider, mastery in certain parts of how you ride. That something that feeds itself. You feel yourself get better, you get excited about it and you keep working hard.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation comes from external factors like praise from a trainer, winning a class or getting a particular score. The problem with this kind of motivation is that it leaves you in a very vulnerable position.

Because when things aren’t going your way it’s very easy for your motivation to be affected. You find yourself not even wanting to go to the barn or wanting to go into your next show.

And the reason why it’s so vulnerable is that those extrinsic factors are really out of your control.

You may have influenced your score, your horse, and the judge’s opinion, but you don’t 100% control them. Which means relying on external reinforcement can really start to erode your core happiness and joy with your riding.

Q: As an amateur, I know it can be a tough balancing act, wanting to achieve certain results while not focusing on outcomes while at shows. What has been your experience with professionals who are highly goal-driven?

Tonya: They have the same challenges. When I work with professionals, I find it’s a lot about how they handle themselves outside of the ring, the pen, or the arena. People are watching them and modeling their behavior, not just when they’re winning but when things aren’t going so well. We talk about how you prepare, how you respond, and how to reflect on what’s happened. When you’re talking about attracting clients, those things are extremely important.

Sure you’ll have clients who just want to work with people who are winning all the time. And I understand that’s a part of the mix. But there’s a bigger view they can have which has to do with conducting themselves gracefully, being good sports and putting the horse first.

Q: How we can manage expectations for both ourselves and our horses to make sure we continue to have positive experiences throughout the season?

Tonya: I think there’s a part of that which has to do with your reflection process, and to your point with your journal, just making sure that you’re pulling out of every ride a couple of things that went well, you found joy in, or found connection with your horse.

It could just be a moment of harmony or of peace together. Certainly, it can also be an advancement on a goal – even along the lines of that corner felt better. Maybe not the whole ride, but you want to be learning how to pick out these moments. You want to be looking for ones that are really shining examples of why you’re riding in the first place.

In every ride, there are some of those moments. It’s a matter of us sorting through them and being able to not lead with our negativity bias.

Q: What do you mean by “negativity bias?”

Tonya: So, the negativity bias is something that we all have inside of us. It’s that tendency to look first at the problem and always focus on what we want to be different – or leading with the negative. That can really affect your motivation and be demoralizing over time when all you’re doing is picking on your weaknesses.

Instead, we need to be in the habit of finishing a ride or even being mid-ride and asking ourselves, “Okay, what’s working? What can I build on?” We want to get out of the habit of just looking at what’s not working or what I need to change.

Image courtesy of Tonya Johnston

Q: What are the best ways to focus on those better habits?

Tonya: There are different ways to go about that. One of them is making sure you’re jotting things down in a journal type of format. Pick out goals you made progress on or what I call” highlights.” A highlight is just a snapshot, a moment in time that made you light up inside like that special, amazing, wonderful moment of connection.

Maybe that moment expressed itself as one transition or this one section of your course. Being able to put that into a written format even if it’s just a bullet point.

Then the next step involves getting at the underneath layer of how and why those moments happened. When I work with my clients in the hunter jumper world, we may talk about their approach to a jump. A typical first answer may be, “Today my single oxer was so great.” So, I’ll ask them to go deeper and ask themselves why that single oxer worked out.

A deeper answer would be something like, “The last single oxer we jumped was amazing because I kept my leg and I kept counting in my head. We kept a beautiful rhythm all the way up to the base of the jump.”

That’s understanding how you had an impact and you took positive action to help create that highlight. You’re really understanding your role in how you joined with your horse.

Q: So it’s about taking some responsibility for how you view what’s happening with our horse?

Tonya: So it’s not just like, I went to the barn that day and my horse was in a great mood, so I had a great day. Sure horses have moods and some days are better than others. Yes. But if we’re really just throwing our hands up and hoping for our horses to be in a good mood, that’s a really out of control feeling. That leaves you very vulnerable to feeling like nothing you do really has an effect. And that can be demoralizing in and of itself.

We need to break it down so that even if our horse isn’t in the greatest of moods, is fresh and not really paying attention, we can still see small improvements or small moments as successful.

Another great exercise you can do to help with this is something I call the Two Positives Rule. You can say to your trainer two things that were in the ride that you really liked and appreciated in the way your partnership with your horse worked together. That’s a way to bring the positive into the moment with you. And it’s great if a trainer can be a sounding board for that.

In a training situation so often we’re just listening and being a receptor for a lot of feedback. But it’s nice for you to also be an actor in that and to say, “Hey, here are two things that I’m going to pick out,” instead of going straight to the criticism.

Q: For me, part of that deeper why is, is understanding what I truly value. Are there some ways or exercises that people can do to help them figure out what they value most, what experiences they want to be having that will be in line with those values?

Tonya: The one that I talk about most with clients is creating a motivation statement. That’s really just a process of brainstorming.

You’re asking yourself things like, “What do I enjoy most about my riding? What excites me? What kind of experiences bring me the most light and happiness within the context of my riding.”

To start the process, you sit down and draw a circle in the middle of the page. Then, you write something like riding or your horse’s name in the middle of the circle.

Anything that occurs to you that you really love about your riding, that you really enjoy, you’re going to write outside of the circle. Think of it like rays of the sun radiating from the center connecting back to your riding or your horse.

With this brainstorming process, one thing that’s useful is for you to take the time to walk yourself through some of your very best rides. Think about the times when you felt the most joy, the most happiness with your horse. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was there?

These memories of wonderful rides can be such a powerful way to access what’s truly important to us. Because memories help to shine a light on what we care most about. When we write them down we can start to see themes.

For instance, you may start to see a theme of peacefulness and being really quiet while communicating with your horse. This could be the core of your motivation statement.

Q: How could you apply your motivation statement to your daily life?

 Tonya: So if you’re in the middle of a busy show season sometimes that piece of your motivation can get a little lost. If you know you value peacefulness then you can craft your calendar and your days at the horse show to make sure you have that time.

That way you can avoid feeling burned out because you’re prioritizing those experiences you value and keep you motivated.

TL;DR

KEY TAKEAWAYS ON BUILDING BETTER MENTAL SKILLS FOR MOTIVATION DURING SHOW SEASON

  1. Figure out what success means to you –  Success isn’t the same for everyone. Instead of comparing yourself with the rest of the world, give yourself the opportunity to create some small, manageable goals you can track. See where you’re making improvements and build on those. (Not sure how to do that? You’re in luck. I wrote this post on goal setting just for you.)
  2. Focus on what drives you from the inside – When you put too much stock in outcomes or results, your worth becomes tied to factors completely out of your control. Instead, turn your attention toward those aspects of your riding you can directly affect such as improving your skills in the saddle. (How many 75 cent blue ribbons do you need to keep you warm at night? Trust me. There aren’t enough.)
  3. Reflect on the positive – Leading with the negative can kill your motivation over time. Instead, make a habit of pulling out at least two positives from every ride and reflect on how that made you feel. (Think of it as being an actor in your own little drama… but without the drama.)
  4. Dig deeper by asking “why” – Once you’ve found your positive moments to reflect on, push yourself to look beyond the surface at why those moments stirred something in you. Consider what impact you made in defining a particular moment and how you might be able to do that again. (No one said this was going to be easy.)
  5. Create your own motivation statement – Tonya suggests a brainstorming session. Write down everything you most enjoy about your horse or riding. You’ll start to find themes relating to what you value most. Tie those together into a statement that gets to the core of why you ride. (Use the Notes section of your planner for this exercise. Don’t have a planner yet? Go grab yours here.

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