Ride Big

by John Haime

In John Haime’s new book he discusses the crucial role confidence plays in equestrian sports, how to cultivate your own confidence, and offers exercises and examples on how to develop a winning mindset. The following excerpt covers several areas of the book, presenting a diverse offering of how riders can gain the confidence needed to Ride Big.

Photo provided by Shutterstock

Proactive vs Reactive Confidence

Proactive Confidence

Proactive confidence is a decision that you will be sustainably confident from all the great, positive experiences you’ve had in your riding life, all the work and training you have done, all the helpful advice from coaches, support from parents, and general success at a variety of levels. These experiences, support system, and successes are the foundation of your belief in your ability to perform and “knowing” you can do it.

Proactive confidence is your choice that you will rely on a solid, fundamental foundation no matter what happens. When you have proactive confidence, your belief in yourself does not disappear and is not shaken by small periods of less-than-ideal performance. The focus is on the positive “foundation” in your memory—all those great things you’ve done. Your proactive confidence should be a thick wall of “knowing” and belief that cannot be penetrated by short down cycles. With proactive confidence, you are “owning it” and taking full responsibility for your confidence. It becomes your bulletproof vest.

Reactive Confidence

I find that many equestrian athletes get caught up in what I call reactive confidence—deciding that one small collection of challenging circumstances or difficulties will overcome all their successes and create a noticeable crack in their “foundation” of confidence. As the young rider who called explained to me, she was upset that her confidence had lowered as a result of not achieving short-term results—in her case, not winning a class for a few weeks.

In choosing to make recent, short-term results the foundation of her confidence, this client had decided to only focus on the small picture and forget about all the great results she’d had over a longer period.

I hear so often how a rider has lost confidence after a month, a week, or even just a day of so-so riding or results. These riders let a few mistakes suddenly become the basis for their confidence and tend to allow coaches, supporters, and others to have an impact on their confidence in a negative way.

So, for my young rider client, and all the other riders I hear from who have “lost their confidence,” the truth is, you really haven’t lost it at all. You chose to lose it by allowing the short “down cycles” of sport to be the basis for your confidence. It is funny how, even with top professional athletes I work with, some retrospect can turn things around. After reminding them that confidence is about everything they have achieved and all the work they’ve put in over time, things shift. Suddenly their confidence mysteriously returns, and they find themselves in a positive cycle again.

Remember that anything that involves performance goes in cycles, and there will be ups and downs. This is important for you to know. If you feel confidence slipping away, you have the choice to reel it in. Remind yourself that your confidence is built in steps over time and will last through small down cycles in your performance. You don’t lose confidence. You ultimately choose to lose it. 

You must take responsibility and choose to be proactive with your confidence.

What would you say about your confidence? Is it proactive or reactive?

How the Best Equestrian Athletes Shape Their Voice 

What Stories do the best equestrian athletes tell themselves to help them get extraordinary results? 

Photo by Trent Hancock via Unsplash

Don’t worry, everyone has similar challenges to yours. Even the leading riders and coaches in the world must address their voices, find the truth, and not allow the voice to limit them. 

Their stories, like yours, result from a variety of circumstances, experiences, and perceptions. Olympic gold medalist in dressage Laura Tomlinson had challenges with her voice, but she overcame the stories that she told herself in order to rise to the top of the sport. 

“Early in my career—growing up—the story in my thoughts was that I was privileged and blessed, so my voice was repeatedly telling me two stories, based on my results,” she says. “The first was that if I didn’t do well, it was a massive failure. And the second was that if I did do well, I couldn’t really be happy and pleased with it because I felt like I should have done it anyway. I felt like I didn’t have the right not to do well. So, growing up I’ve battled with this judgmental voice. I did well in Young Riders, but never as well as I thought I should have.” 

Things changed for Laura with a new partner: the Danish Warmblood Mistral Hojris, or “Alf.” 

“The story in my head shifted when I got Alf,” she explains. “He had a reputation for being a difficult horse, and I worked very hard to build a partnership with him. When I eventually started doing well with him, I felt more confident, and I felt I earned the respect of my peers because of the progress I made with him. That’s when the voice started to change from ‘I should be doing well because I’m blessed with things given to me,’ to ‘I’ve worked hard, overcome a difficult challenge, and I know I can ride because I’ve done some great work with a difficult horse.’” 

For Laura, a shift in the story her voice was expressing to her changed the game in her riding as she moved forward and won an Olympic team gold medal and individual bronze with Alf in the 2012 London Games. The confidence and trust she had built with her horse elevated her to the top of the sport. The shift from a judgmental voice, creating unrealistic expectations and intolerance, to a more liberating, tolerant voice, creating confidence, was a turning point in her dressage career. 

This is a great lesson for you. Laura’s early stories emerged from a place of what she perceived she should achieve, based on her background and status. But when her perception changed and she felt she deserved it because she had done the work and it was more her accomplishment, the voice shifted. She gave herself permission to believe that she could legitimately excel in dressage and be a part of an elite group of riders. 

Beezie’s Perspective on Pressure 

Photo: Jim Hollander/EPA, via Shutterstock

If anyone in equestrian sport knows pressure, it’s Beezie Madden. After 35 years in world-class, competitive show jumping—the Olympics, Pan Am Games, Nations Cups, FEI World Cup, WEG, big Grand Prix events—Beezie has experienced her share of pressure and, as she says, “I used it to my advantage.” 

How do you use pressure to your advantage? You might be surprised, but in talking to Beezie, and my experience with many other athletes at the top of their sports, pressure can be extremely positive and add that little extra something to help ignite great performance in a competitor. It is a reality of competitive sport and, with the right mindset, can be leveraged for great gain. 

In 2004 at the Athens Olympics in the final team medal round, Beezie entered the arena with an opportunity to get to a jump-off for the gold medal. Despite the relative inexperience of the U.S. team (Peter Wylde, McLain Ward, Chris Kappler, and Beezie) and a few young horses (two nine-year-olds, Authentic and Sapphire), those riders found themselves in a position they didn’t expect to be in: within reach of the gold medal. Beezie was the final rider for the United States. 

Because of the distractions in the warm-up ring and everything else going on, she wasn’t exactly sure what she needed to do until she arrived at the in-gate and was told that a clear round would get the team into the jump-off. 

No pressure, right? 

Bad pressure is the pressure you put on yourself by not looking at it as an opportunity but as a threat… I think riders create bad pressure. — Beezie Madden 

She admits that not having a lot of time to think about it helped. And immediately after hearing what she needed to do, she embraced this unusual opportunity to help her team, show what she could do, and contribute something special. After having an initial slight feeling of uneasiness after hearing she needed a clear round, here’s what she thought right before riding through the in-gate: 

1: “My horse just jumped clear in the first round, so, even though he is young, I have the confidence in him that he can do it again.” 

2: “Okay, I’m just going to do my job and find a way to jump clear.” 

Beezie jumped clear, and the United States went on to win the gold medal in the jump-off. Her final thoughts before starting the course cleared the path for the opportunity to “do her job,” take advantage of a unique opportunity, and Ride Big. 

When asked specifically about confidence and pressure, Beezie’s response can help all equestrians to be able to process pressure in a positive way: 

“Yes, there’s pressure because there are situations that are asking you to do things maybe just beyond your capabilities and that challenges you to see if you can do it,” she says. “And there is some urgency with the clock to get it done or beat the time of another rider—it’s not quite like training. And, of course, there are rewards, whether it’s making a team or winning a million-dollar class, and you want to do well and take advantage of these opportunities.” 

Beezie makes an important distinction in any discussion about pressure: “I think there’s good pressure and bad pressure. Good pressure is thinking about the opportunity you are being given. It’s exciting to be able to achieve something. It’s inspiring, it’s meaningful—which is great. It also should be exciting to you that someone trusts you enough to put you in that position. But you have to recognize that you just have to do your job and do what’s in front of you. 

Bad pressure is the pressure you put on yourself by not looking at it as an opportunity but as a threat—thinking too much about what could happen, what could go wrong. And not looking at the situation positively and as an opportunity to do something well or great. I think riders create the bad pressure.” 

A final, simple thought for you from Beezie about what to do when pressure creeps up on you: “Really think about showing how good you are from your training and your program, instead of thinking about trying not to make mistakes and the fear that can bring.” 

McLain’s Perspective: An Evolving Mindset 

Photo: Andrea Evans/US Equestrian

“First, yes, for sure pressure exists,” he admits, “and for me, how I react to it is constantly changing. Sometimes, it really helps me become focused. I know what the goal is and what I need to do to execute. 

“There are also times I need to downplay it to get into the right mindset. It’s constantly changing for me. I’ll downplay a situation sometimes, or maybe I’m at the Olympic Games and have to jump a clear round and there is no option but to do it. That brings real meaning to the round—it’s exciting for me and focuses me. 

“I’m always figuring out, depending on the situation, the best way to get my head in the right place at the right moment. 

“You know, I think preparation is also so important in ensuring confidence in all situations that matter. No matter what the event, I know that if I have a program I believe in andeveryone on my team is doing their job correctly, I just trust the program and do my job. It comes down to that.” 


For the past seven years, John Haime has worked with dozens of equestrian clients, from young hunter riders and adult beginners to the world’s top show jumping, dressage, and eventing athletes. He has coached Nations Cup winners, Grand Prix winners, and national champions, and has worked with individuals competing at top events like the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Florida, the American Gold Cup in New York, and the Badminton Horse Trials in England. 


This excerpt was printed with permission from www.horseandriderbooks.com

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