Sport psychology in equestrian sport: Merely mind games?
It is probably one of the most common problems of competitive riders in the world and across any equestrian discipline: in training at home, horse and rider perform admirably, with the horse reacting to the most subtle of aids, moving with elasticity and impulsion, clearing the most technical fences with height to spare, while the rider remains calm and in control throughout. But come competition day, the interaction between horse and rider frequently leaves a lot to be desired. The first signs of strain usually show in the warm-up arena. All of a sudden the horse fails to respond obediently, moving more stiffly or less ‘through’ than usual. Given a bit of time, the more competent or experienced riders might manage to resolve their most immediate problems, while their novice counterparts continue to work themselves and their horses into a frenzy. As soon as the combination enters the ring and the bell or starter gun sounds, things quickly deteriorate even further: the horse visibly tenses and either refuses to go or rushes forward, seemingly paying no attention to its rider. Most of the time, riders still manage to somehow ‘muddle through’ and
complete the dressage test, showjumping or cross-country course, or other competitive challenge. They might even be lucky enough that their apparent difficulties failed to show and they end up being rewarded with a decent score. Much more often, though, the competitive results do not reflect the kind of performance of which horse and rider are, in fact, capable. Considering the amount of time, money and effort that most riders spend to prepare themselves and their horses for competition, such outcomes are always frustrating and often enough simply devastating. This particular scenario is only one example where horse-rider performance
seems to be impaired by something other than riding ability, skill or experience. At competitive events, which, by their very nature are focused on performance output, the discrepancy between performing optimally and performing below expectation is particularly obvious. But there are a number of other situations in the daily life of a rider that, considered objectively, should not present a problem. Yet, due to the interpretation of circumstances by the rider, the relevant task turns into a challenge or, worse, a serious threat. A hack in the woods, for example,
really demands nothing different in terms of riding skills than an outdoor menage surrounded by trees. However, to many riders, taking the horse into an environment that varies from their daily routine is a cause for alarm. The horse might, so they reason, spook at birds in the trees (which it might also do in an outdoor arena). It might fail to respond to the aids and either bolt or refuse to move (again, if the likelihood exists while out on a hack, chances are that the horse does not respond particularly well to the aids at home either). And so the list goes on: a training session with a well-known trainer the rider might want to impress; a different or higher obstacle in showjumping; taking the horse to a different venue for the first time; and so forth. These are all examples of situations which, depending on their level of experience, riders should be able to deal with, but which often enough do not go as well as expected. The reasons are manifold: riders are worried or apprehensive; they feel the pressure of expectation from those around them; they lack confidence in their own or their horse’s ability; they lose focus at a crucial moment or aim for entirely unsuitable or unrealistic goals – in short, they often do not manage to develop an appropriate mindset to deal with the situation at hand. Suffice it to say that the problems outlined above are not unique to the rider.
Quite to the contrary, most athletes, no matter which sport they participate in, will have encountered the problem of not performing as well as they could have because of a suboptimal state of mind. It is therefore not altogether surprising that the scientific discipline of sport psychology has received considerable interest over the past few decades. As a way of definition, sport psychology is concerned with the investigation, analysis and evaluation of the impact of different psychological foundations, processes and consequences on sport-related performance. While published research on sport psychological concepts in equestrian sports is still relatively sparse, the psychological make-up of riders, including semi-stable personality traits and situation-induced mood and emotional states, is thought to impact considerably on the quality of the horse-rider relationship and on subsequent performance (e.g. Meyers et al. 1997; Pretty 2000a; Wolframm and Micklewright 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b). This chapter therefore provides insights into some of the psychological
processes likely to play a role in rider performance and how these might impact on horse-rider interaction. To that end, we will review existing sport psychological research, both in equestrian sport and other sporting disciplines, to support and explain relevant findings. Practical applications of sport psychology principles are discussed with a view to improving horse-rider interaction, both from a safety and a performance point of view.