Let’s Do This! Using Mantras to Elevate Our Ride

Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the competition. We are thrilled to include this ongoing element in our publication to help riders improve in all aspects of the sport. 

What is a mantra, and how and why do we use it in sport psychology? If you google the definition, you will find that a mantra is any repeated word or phrase, but it can also refer to a word or phrase used to assist meditation. “Mantra” is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning a “sacred message, charm, spell, or counsel.” I regularly use mantras in my work to help my riders focus, energize, and bring themselves fully to their ride. 

For my purposes, a mantra is a meaningful phrase developed over time that has emotional, mental, and energetic significance to the athlete. A mantra sets a powerful intention for performance. A mantra— 

  • Has specific meaning to the individual 
  • Streamlines and narrows focus 
  • Ignites emotional fire 

A mantra is a shortcut—it encapsulates experiences, knowledge, and skills into a quick soundbite. It helps shut out junk thoughts (see my Flying Changes column from November, 2020) such as negativity or doubt, focuses us on our task, and raises our energy to full flame. A mantra is tool that can be pulled out when you need it. An athlete might have many mantras for different situations. 

Photo by Grand Pix. Provided by Darby Bonomi

Here are some examples from my work: 

• M., a junior event rider, repeats the phrase “get it done” when she is feeling nervous about her cross-country run. To her, that phrase encapsulates how she needs to ride when she is at her best—forward, positive, and deliberate—not picky, timid, or perfectionistic. The phrase also reminds her to stay present and ride every stride—it’s her call to be workmanlike and efficient— not necessarily pretty. Repeating this phrase focuses her, calms her, and productively directs her energy. 

• S, a dressage rider, reminds herself to “ride each step” when she goes into the ring to perform a test. To her, this phrase reminds her to stay present and stick with it no matter what happens. By using this mantra, S. breaks her test into small bits (steps) that seem manageable and do-able—a perspective that calms her show nerves. This phrase also keeps her from letting down mid-test when things don’t go perfectly (which they never do) or when she gets distracted. If her mind starts to wander toward judgment (“that was a terrible transition”), she brings herself back to present and digs in with “ride every step.” 

• “Ride your horse” or “jump the jump” are my own mantras developed over many years. It’s what my trainer and I say when I start to get nervous or perfectionistic. We use it when I can’t seem to find a distance in the warm up ring and start to feel annoyed with myself. It’s also what I use when I’m nervous going into the ring for a big class. What it means for me: drop the perfectionism, the doubt, and just ride like you know you can. I also use it to raise my energy to performance level—an emotional and energetic state I can generate even now as I write this. 

• “You got this, you got this” is a phrase that one of my other athletes uses before her races. She repeats these words to herself like a chant, both to focus and motivate her, and to block out chatter from athletes around her. The mantra keeps her focus on her performance tasks, and keeps her protected from others’ anxious energy. 

A mantra is a shortcut—it encapsulates experiences, knowledge, and skills into a quick soundbite. It helps shut out junk thoughts such as negativity or doubt, focuses us on our task, and raises our energy to full flame. 

I offer these examples to help you see and feel that mantras are very personal, have complex meanings, and can be used in different circumstances. You can borrow a phrase from someone, but you need to imbue it with your own personal meaning and intentions for it to be maximally useful to you. Here is how to develop your mantra: think about— 

—when do you need one (going into the ring to show?) 

—what do you need to be reminded of (pace, focus?) 

—what do you need to block out of your mind (critical thoughts?) 

—what is the feeling you need to generate (confidence? courage?) 

—what energy level do you need (high flame or calm) 

To answer these questions you might refer back to a really great ride and encapsulate that experience into a phrase. Maybe your trainer said you were “on fire” or “smooth as butter,” and perhaps that phrase holds significance for you. Play around with different ideas until you find a phrase that feels powerful to you. You may discover that you already have mantras in your performance routine! If so, good for you! Be sure to develop and refine them as your needs change. 

Finally, a word of warning: make sure you are not inadvertently using negative mantras to interfere with your performance. If so, now is the time to give up that habit! Examples of negative mantras from my work include people who repeatedly tell themselves they’re going to crash, or that they “can’t do it” or are “going to miss.” That might sound odd, but I hear it all the time. If you are repeating a negative phrase in your mind, you are setting an intention to create that negative scenario. Toss those phrases out and replace them with positive, empowering mantras. 

You can do it. 

Learn more about Darby Bonomi and how she might help you and your riding at: www.darbybonomi.com