Mental Focus Means Not Trying Too Hard


My friend and I took yoga while we were in high school. It was 1971 or so, and I can’t remember if the group met in a church basement or at the “Y”, but I will never forget my red leotard. It had long sleeves and was a garish scarlet color, with matching semi-transparent tights–think Red Snapper–the fish.

The class began, we were asked to close our eyes, and take some deep breaths. I didn’t bother because trying to breathe made my chest tight, so I squinted my eyes open just enough to critically compare myself to everyone around me. As the class continued, I evaluated my limberness, strained muscles pushing for the most extreme position in each pose, and all  the while squinting to see who was watching me. It wasn’t because I thought I was so good; it was the exact opposite. When it was time for savasana, that meditative time at the end, I fell immediately asleep. It was probably due to a lack of oxygen and relentlessly judging myself.

My keen ability to let my mind run like a rat-on-a-wheel was even less helpful when I began riding seriously–something I had actual passion about. It was the biggest change I had to make to partner with a horse. I get reminded of my Time of Red Leotards sometimes when I’m giving riding lessons. Can we even tell when we’re trying too hard?

You climb on your horse, and with great diligence, pick up the reins, clamp your body into a position, and set our jaw for the work at hand. The horse takes the cue and does the same. Then, you set about correcting every answer your horse offers for the next hour because you want to be really good at this.

It degenerates to a rat-on-a-wheel death spiral: The worse it goes, the harder you try; the harder you try the worse it goes. About now, you hear a Neanderthal voice in your head saying, “You can’t give in and let your horse win. He will never respect you again; he will be ruined.” Because you have passion and it feels true that riding is about the hardest thing in the world, you double down, choking on loud emotions, and ride harder. Things don’t improve but you clutch desperately because you think you’re being tough.

The most common trait I see in clients who want to improve their riding is a misunderstanding about what it means to be focused in the saddle; to be mentally strong.

And have you checked in with this horse through this? He’s the one who actually decides what good riding is, after all. Beneath appearances, he is the one who knows who you are–a mess.  And as kind as he may be, he won’t give you the benefit of the doubt forever.

Still, there you two are; you’ve wrestled him into a hole by trying too hard. With good intentions, trying to get it right, but your horse is tense. Is he belligerent, or confused, or does it even matter? Now what?

Is it too late to remind you that the first runaway is usually the one inside your own head? Because riding isn’t about putting up a huge fight; it’s about having the mental control NOT to. It’s about behaving like a leader instead of a petulant child in the saddle. Do not take the bait. As tempting as it is to throw a fit, don’t lose control of what matters to your horse.

“There is one principle that should never be abandoned when training a horse, namely, that the rider must learn to control himself before he can control his horse. This is the basic, most important principle to be preserved in equitation.” –Alois Podhajsky, 1965


Start by breathing deep and letting him hear you exhale. He might not mimic you on the first try, so in a clear soft voice, say “Good boy.” Not because he is being good right now; throw it to him like a lifeline in the ocean of confusion. Then slack some rein, ask for something simple, like a step forward, and reward him for that. Not because it’s a complicated task, but because you want to remind him that you are capable of not complaining about everything he does. The priority here is to change the tendency of behavior. Yours.

Mental strength, or the ability to focus, is at the very core of who we are as riders, at any level. It sounds counter intuitive but in order to become a more advanced rider, you have to find a way to do less, do it sooner, smaller, and confidently. In other words, you have to behave as if you have character.

If we become blinded by the goal; if a task–like cantering exactly at a certain letter, or doing a certain obstacle–becomes more important than our connection with our horse, we lose sight of who we are and our character suffers. That’s the moment a horse loses trust in his rider. And they are right to do it. How is a rider being distracted by a task any different than your doctor answering his cell phone during your surgery?

It begins here: Ask your brain to think less and feel more. It will take discipline to train your mind in the beginning. Humans are burdened with self-awareness; the place where our egos live. It’s our nature to over-think; it isn’t a crime. But if you’re on a horse at the time, it creates a separation. It’s selfish.

So start again, embrace this new moment. Bring yourself back to stillness within his movement. Be calm and receptive. Have the strength to not jump to conclusions, to not react with emotion, but rather respond with acceptance, keeping your body soft and your cues small. Patiently maintain a quiet mental place, free of anxiety, where you can feel your horse and he can come to trust you. This mental place is the only part of riding that you will ever be capable of controlling. The good news is that it’s all the control you’ll need.

Riding technique is necessary, but it isn’t enough. Horses respond to our character first. Our temperament matters most. It’s their nature to seek a leader who makes them feel safe. The other word for that is respect.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Comment by Jackie Cochran on December 2, 2016 at 2:40pm

Excellent post!

I hope every rider in the world reads it.

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