Inga Wolframm - Equine Sports Psychology Blog

A Measure Of Success

It’s a question that plays a central role for most competitive riders.

How to measure success.

We live (and ride) in a world where one record score is chasing the next. I’m not just talking about that international lot either - even at local, regional, national level reports focus on “highest score of the day”, “the week” or “the competition”. And because of the ever-present social media, it’s become almost impossible to not know about it. So, being a competitive rider striving for some level of recognition, some small measure of success, is tough. Perhaps tougher than ever before.

Therefore, you and many other riders, might tell yourself that being successful equals… exactly, winning! So you tell yourself that if you want to make your mark in the horsey world - be that at local or international level - you really must win.

You go to a show thinking that you’ll do just that. Win. And why not? You’ve practised hard, you’ve got a good horse, you know your test. So, really, you deserve to win. By the time you get to the show ground, you’re wound up so tight nobody in your entourage dares to talk to you anymore.

And then you find out who’s judging today.

Oh no! That judge hates your horse. But you’ve set yourself the goal to win. You’ll never manage now. But you must! You really, really, must.

So you get on your horse. You manage to calm yourself, telling yourself how hard you’ve practised and you walk him to the warm-up arena.

But there, heaven forbid, is your biggest competitor. What is she doing here? She rides that really expensive horse, and her trainer’s always by her side. That’s not fair! You were going to win, and now you probably won’t.

But you’re here now, so you might as well go through with it. You warm up your horse - keeping an eye on your nemesis the entire time. Her horse is more collected than yours, isn’t it? And in the extended trot, her horse has got a lot more reach.

But it’s almost time to go in, so you rush through another few of the movements. Your horse feels less through than usual. But how can that be? You’ve been practising so hard…

Never mind, you’re in the ring now. Just before the judge (that dreaded judge - she isn’t even smiling. Gosh, she really hates your horse), rings the bell, you notice your old trainer (friend, owner of your horse, etc.) standing at the enclosure, watching you. What will he think of you? Oh dear, he might think your horse is going much worse than the last time he saw you. And now your horse is dropping off your leg, and going against the contact.

That’s when the bell goes.

You muddle through as best as you can. The final score is not great. You didn’t win.

You go home. You’re so disappointed.

Okay, I admit, that example was perhaps a little over the top. But many of you will recognise yourselves in some, if not all, of details of the above micro-scenarios.

The problem almost always starts with the wrong definition of success. To many riders today, success equals winning.

And this is where the problem starts…

If you focus on winning from the outset, you’re putting yourself in a situation that is almost impossible to control. There’s simply too many variables to control: The judge, other riders, the horses other riders sit on. But if you want to win, everything needs to go in your favour. That’s luck, not skill. Deep down, we all know that we cannot influence luck - and it makes us terribly nervous. The result is that we keep thinking about the things we can’t control, rather than the things we should control - namely the horse we sit on.

Much better than to shift your mindset from wanting to win to riding the very best test you possibly can. That means thinking about all the things you can do to make sure your test really sparkles: solid practise, good management, leaving on time, knowing how to ride your warm-up, and, most importantly, knowing how you need to ride your test (e.g. do you need to keep him sharp throughout, or does he need to stay relaxed instead, that sort of thing).

If you manage all that - if you manage to achieve everything you yourself set out to do - then you are successful. No matter where you end up compared to the rest of the world (in all honesty though, if you’ve done all of that, in all likelihood it’ll be reflected in your final score anyway).

Why Challenging Goals Work

Challenging goals.

Goals that are challenging.

Goals that challenge you. Goals that make you push your limits. Goals that make you excel.

It’s the stuff performance psychology is made of.

Motivation, perseverance, commitment, even flow - all depend, at least to some extent, on effective goal-setting. And effective goal-setting always, always means challenging goal-setting.

So here’s what’s been baking my noodle for some time now.


Why, why, why?

Why is it that challenging goals help us perform when it matters most; stay committed against all odds; persevere in the face of failure; concentrate to the point of time utter absorption?

And why don’t easy goals have the same effect on our performance and our mental state?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that challenging goals help you improve simply by forcing you to acquire new skills. After all, if you know you’re about to climb a treacherous mountain, you’ll go out and buy decent equipment.

Simple enough, right?

There’s more...

And it's called “cognitive load”.

Cognitive load, as scientists will tell you, refers to the level of mental energy spent on a task. It’s about how busy your mind is as you set out to do something. Really, it boils down to this: if the cognitive load of a task is high, there’s not a lot of mental energy left for other stuff.

Imagine the following scenario: you’re driving along, chatting away to your friend, partner, child sitting next to you. Suddenly though, you realise you’re lost. Did you miss an exit? Can you see anything to help you reorient yourself? Are you able to turn around at the next junction? Chances are, you’ll stop chatting immediately, because trying to figure out how to get back on track is taking up too much of your mental resources.

Having to stop doing something that is nonessential in order to concentrate on a more important task is the reason why challenging goals work.

Challenging goals engage all of your mental resources (or at least most of them) and leave little room for distractions. Your brain simply doesn’t have the energy to think about inconsequential titbits, when it is about to go that extra mile.

Challenging goals eliminate the proverbial white noise that, otherwise, would only lead you astray. Without diversions, there’s nothing to stop you. Nothing to stop you from being motivated, committed and focused. Nothing to stop you from decimating your personal limit, and laugh out loud as you do.

Challenging goals - they keep you and your brain on the right track.

P.s.: Remember this though: tasks with a high cognitive load are to your mental energy level like an old-fashioned SUV engine to a diesel tank - they’ll guzzle it bone dry! So after a day chasing your goals, give yourself time to recharge - and forgive yourself for being unable to resist the bar of chocolate or bag of crisps sitting in your cupboard. You simply have no mental energy left to fight that battle, so you might as well leave it for another day.

5 Sentences Riders Should Stop Saying Right Now

We live in a world that likes to think in absolutes. We like to categorise and stereotype. Good is good and bad is bad. Black is black and white is white. There’s no in between, there’re no shades of grey. We do this because it’s easier and faster. Life is already complex enough as it is. So much information to take in, make decisions about, assess and react upon. If it’s possible to categorise in order to make decision-making processes slightly easier, then, generally, we jump at the chance. This kind of categorical thinking has helped mankind to survive, by reacting quickly and decisively, so it’s not all bad.

But sometimes, thought patterns that categorise, label, and only ever tend to go in one direction, can wreak havoc with your emotional state of mind (and subsequent behaviour).

So here’re the top five sentences any rider should stop saying to him or herself RIGHT NOW!

1. “If I’m not going to be the best, I won’t bother.”

This is a prime example of “dysfunctional perfectionism” (meaning it’s the kind of perfectionism that makes you end up a long way away from perfect). It doesn’t leave any room for compromises, especially not when it’s about the perfectionist’s own level performance. The problem, of course, is that we’re all human, and being perfect all of the time is pretty much impossible to achieve. And come to think of it, whose definition of perfect are we talking, anyway…

What’s more, even if you are very, very good, at some point there is going to be someone else who’s going to be better than you. If you need an example, think of Isabell Werth, Anky van Grunsven, Edward Gal, Adelinde Cornelissen or Charlotte Dujardin. At some point, they were all winning one competition after the other. They seemed unbeatable. Until they were beaten (and then they came back again a couple of shows later). The notion of ultimate success is even more fleeting in most of the other disciplines. Expecting yourself to be perfect or the best all of the time, means you’ll lose out on a lot of the enjoyment that goes into simply doing it for the fun of it.

2.      “I should have been able to ride that horse.”

Using should statements implies criticism, and unnecessary or unfair criticism at that. First of all, ask yourself by whose standards should you do anything? By your own, or someone else’s? If you are trying to live up to other people’s expectations, you need to ask yourself whether they conform to your own. If they do, and you agree that you need to handle a situation differently, develop relevant coping strategies. Take action. Set goals. Discuss with others. If, however, you realise that your (or other people’s) expectations are, in fact, unreasonable… Well, stop beating yourself up about it.

3. “It wasn’t my fault. My horse is just so naughty”.

Unfortunately, there are still quite a few riders out there who tend to blame their horse rather than take responsibility for their own actions. But failing to take responsibility or assigning blame to external sources will only result in you not taking the necessary steps to improve on things. Setting appropriate (SMART) goals and focusing on things you can control will help to break the vicious circle.

4. “Things will never get better.”

Are you guilty of thinking that a negative situation will always stay exactly as it is? Are you convinced that you’ll never live down a mistake you made or that you’ll never get over that one terrible show? Then you’re guilty of attaching false permanence to things. But whether we like it or not, time does tend to “heal all wounds”. Convincing yourself that things will never change also means you’re effectively denying yourself the chance to improve on things. You’re declaring yourself helpless by attaching far too much importance on one single event. Much better to focus on how to shape a future you like.

5. “If I only had more money, I’d be a brilliant rider.” (or, for that matter, any other “what if” statements)

Welcome to Fantasyland! If only you had a fairy godmother, who would grant you every wish, then you’d be happy. True? False! Unfortunately, most of the problems we experience are not solved by the stroke of a magic wand - and only very few by a wad of cash. That’s because the solution to any problem usually lies within you. While an external source might perhaps be able to ease the strain for a little while, there’s no way it can fix everything all of the time. You have to do that all by yourself. So you might as well stop waiting for that knight in shining armour and pick up the sword yourself.

And? Did any of this sound familiar?

Never fear. It’s perfectly normal. Even though it’s not constructive, it’s perfectly normal to think like this once in a while.

The key is to recognise it and, most importantly, do something about it!

Six Steps To Get Your Ride To Flow

Imagine your perfect ride.

Go on, indulge me.

So, what does it feel like, that perfect ride of yours?

I bet it’s as if time stands still. In fact, time loses all its meaning, because you’re so focused on what you’re doing, on the way the horse moves underneath you, that minutes ticking by are no longer relevant. Only one thought, one feeling dominates; everything else fades into the background.  Immersed in the here and now, you feel in control. What is more, at that moment, anything and everything is possible.

I'd like to argue that this (or something very close to it) is what all riders want.

It’s what they hope to feel every time they get on their horse.

Here's the thing: This amazing and widely coveted mental state has been called all sorts of things. Focus. Optimal concentration. Being in the zone.

Yet it was a psychology professor with an unpronounceable name, who coined the actual term, having devoted most of his career to the concept. When interviewing research subjects about their experiences with absolute focus they kept describing the experience as being carried along by water.

The professor, of course, is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

The name of this, most incredible of all mental states is called “flow”.

And according to Csíkszentmihályi, flow encompasses several distinct features:


1. Challenge yourself

First of all, you need to feel like you’re being challenged. At the same time, you need to believe you’ve got what it takes to succeed. Note the word “believe” - in sport psychology circles, this is called “perceived skill level”. Actually having the necessary skills is, of course, a bonus, but believing you do is even more important. That is how people rise above themselves. By believing that they can.


2. The here and now

Your entire being needs to be focused on the here and now. No thinking of what happened yesterday (or even five minutes ago) or what might happen tomorrow (or in ten seconds’ time). Feel your horse move, see the flick of his ear, hear his breath, taste the wind.

Allow your body to react to the moment.


3. Action = awareness

This is when action and awareness merge. Behaviour becomes thought, and thought becomes behaviour. Simply put, whatever you think, you do; whatever you do, you think.


4. Shut up

Or, more politely put, reflective self-consciousness recedes into the background. Instead of being continuously, and often uncomfortably, pre-occupied with yourself, your actions, and what you or others might think of them, you simple are. No preconceptions, no judgment.


5. Control

You feel it: absolute, perfect control. You become the sole driving force behind all of your actions at that particular moment in time.

There’s no fear, no doubt. There’s just riding.


6. Want it!

In order to experience true flow, whatever it is you’re doing must feel intrinsically rewarding. So you must really want to do it. It must be part of who you are, and what you want from life.


7. There’s no such thing as time

Time stands still. Or speeds up. Or seems to be doing both. One thing that is certain is that the subjective experience of time alters considerably.


Interesting, right?

But not as interesting as this…

How to get your ride to flow!

Try this:


1. Know what to do. 

Actually, most things in life are about this one vital step. Know what you want to do. Set the right kind of goals. What do you need to do to ensure that you and your horse perform? Make sure you have it clear in your head before you even get on, and keep reminding yourself as you ride.


2. Make it challenging.

Stretch yourself a little. Go the extra mile. It doesn’t matter how you put it, you need to feel that whatever you do is just outside your comfort zone. Note the word just. It moves us onto the next point…


3. Believe that you can do it. 

It’s all about the perception of your own ability in the face of the task you’ve set yourself. If you struggle with a self-doubt, write down on paper what it is that you want, what you need in order to get it, and how to go about getting those skills. You’ll probably find that, most of the time, you’ve already (almost) got what it takes.


4. Feel ready

How much tension do you need to be able to perform at your best? Rate it on a scale from 0 (totally relaxed) to 10 (very tense) and remember that you might need a little bit of tension to feel “ready”. Once you've got your score, try and figure out ways to get to that state of positive tension (or relaxation). Try listening to your favourite music, do some breathing or progressive relaxation exercises or visualise yourself feeling just the way you want to feel. Being physically ready and able to keep pre-competitive nerves in perspective is another important pre-condition for developing the right focus.


5. No distractions. 

Being in flow means focusing on just what matters, nothing else. Sometimes, that can be easier said than done. Quite often, focusing on winning or comparing yourself with others will entice you focus on those around you rather than yourself. Instead, try and focus on what matters most: you and your horse, as selfish as that may sound.

Focus on actions, not results!


6. Decide to concentrate. 

Lastly, decide to concentrate. Sounds weird, but try to make it a conscious decision. It works like a reminder to yourself to get yourself in the correct frame of mind. After a while, your body and mind will actually remember, and start getting into flow out of their own accord.

After that, there’s only one thing left to do.

Let your ride flow.

Give Yourself A Good Talking To

First things first.

Talking to yourself is perfectly normal and not a sign of impending mental illness.

In fact, all riders (and people) do it (even though riders frequently pretend they're talking to their horses instead). This is called self-talk and resembles a running commentary on your actions, thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

But because it’s there all the time, you frequenly don't even notice it. In fact it’s as if someone’s continuously whispering sweet little nothings in your ear.

The only difference is that the someone is, well, you. And those “little nothings”… more often than not, they are actually quite something!

Sport psychological research has shown time and again that self-talk can have a considerable effect on your moods, your behaviour and, ultimately, your performance. Not surprisingly either, it works both ways. Negative self-talk has a negative effect, positive self-talk a positive one.

So, really, all you need to do is talk to yourself in a positive, constructive way, and you’re good to go!

Simple, right?

Errr… if only!

Here’s what I think happens:

The minute we get on our horses, we become perfectionists. In many ways that’s a good thing, too, because we owe it to our horses to become as good as we possibly can. Still, there’s a difference between wanting to do well and beating yourself up over every single mistake you’ve just made.

And that’s, unfortunately, what a lot of us still do a lot of the time. Being critical without being constructive, derogative without a reason, negative and punishing to the extreme.

The result?

Your confidence goes down the drain, you feel even more like you can’t ride, and the level of tension in your body will turn your horse into a ticking time bomb.

So what can you do about it?

Here’s one idea:

  1. Give yourself specific instructions.

In principle, every rider knows what he or she wants to achieve in any given riding lesson. It’s what goal-setting is all about. Just one or two clear, specific, achievable yet challenging goals per session, and you know what you’re aiming towards. Now think about how to achieve those goals. What precisely do you need to do? (And yes, it really is as simple as “leg on” or “soft hand” or “sit tall” - if, of course, that is what you need to do to get your horse going the way you want to.)

Got it?

Seriously, it’s that simple. If things go wrong, you make a mistake, your horse doesn’t react the way you want him to, don’t fret. Just talk yourself through your goals. You’ll soon realise that you’ll stay calmer, more focused and ultimately more relaxed.

Okay, here’s another one.

  1. Stay positive.

And no, I don’t mean that you need to tell yourself you're amazing all the time (even though, if you are, go ahead and tell yourself). No. I’m talking language here.

For example, what happens if I ask you to not think of a pink elephant?

Exactly! You’ll think of nothing but a pink elephant!

So, in self-talk terms this means avoiding words such as “not” and “no”. Because by telling yourself that you shouldn’t do this and that, you’re essentially still encouraging your brain to register the actual activity - more importantly, as you’re not providing your head and body with a valid alternative to what you should be doing, you’re likely to end up doing exactly what you were trying to avoid.

And one last one.

  1. Use catch-phrases.

Sometimes life as a rider is tough. Things go wrong, you’re exhausted, your horse isn’t doing what you want him to, in fact, the entire world seems to be conspiring against you.

But you know that you need to keep going. Of course you do. But it’s so hard…

That’s where motivational catch-phrases come in. Yes, they might be cheesy, or stereotypical or run-of-the-mill.

But seriously, as long as they work, who cares?!

And they do!

They help to encourage you, both in the long term or right there, in the ring, when you need a bit of a boost.

My advice? Use as many cheesy phrases as you can get your hands on (as long as they convey the message they need to hear, of course).

Phrases such as “Whatever it takes!”, “Just do it!”, or, for Barack Obama fans “Yes, we can!”.

Because, indeed, we can!

Why Making Mistakes Is Good For You

When was the last time you made a mistake, and, as a result, had a rubbish ride, a terrible lesson, an awful competition? This month? This week? Today, even?

I bet you weren’t particularly happy with yourself.

In fact, you were probably annoyed, pissed off or even downright furious with yourself for letting this happen.



I doubt I’ll have to tell you this, but most people hate making mistakes.

It makes them feel incompetent, which makes them feel awful about themselves.

Nobody wants to feel awful about themselves.

In fact, according to Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at the University of Rochester feeling competent is one of the most basic, intrinsic human needs.

It all boils down to this: People want to be masters of the world they live in. No one wants to feel like the blundering village idiot. Not even some of the time, let alone a lot of the time.

That’s why there’re quite a few people (including riders!) out there who’d rather not put themselves in a situation where they might possibly end up making a mistake. They prefer to stay tucked up in their safe little bubble, where they know everything, can predict everything, can handle everything. It’s their safe little world.

A world without mistakes.

But here’s the thing:

Making mistakes is essential if you want to get better.

I’d even go as far as to argue that making mistakes is one of the most important ingredients to becoming a better rider.


Because - you guessed it - people (riders) hate making mistakes so much.

Because when they do, it feels so awful.

So they vow never to put themselves in that position again. Ever!

Which is why some of them end up creating their own perfect little bubble, where they’ll never have to face their mistakes ever again.

But that’s not what you’re going to do.

You’re going to tackle that mistake head on, like you would the pesky horse fly, that’s been zooming around your horse's head for the past half hour.


Feels better, doesn’t it?

Action usually does.

So then, how about determining the cause of your mistake.

Was it due to a lack of preparation? Or lack of a particular skill, perhaps? It might have been your lack of experience in dealing with unforeseen circumstances. Or your inability to regain your focus after having been distracted.

Doesn’t matter what it was, as long as you know what it was.

Because now you can take some real action.

Now you can stretch yourself, step outside of your comfort zone (or your bubble) and work on improving.

Perhaps you need to put more thought into your preparation routine.

Perhaps you need a new trainer or coach to take you up to the next level.

Perhaps you need to ride in the rain, the wind, with or without other horses around you to help you prepare for the unpredictable.

Perhaps you need to work on your mental skills to help you keep your focus.

Once you’ve done that, once you’ve put your time and energy into improving yourself, you’ll no longer feel like the village idiot. In fact, you’ll feel much more in charge of your own, bigger, world.

In a word, you’ll feel competent.

And all because of that one mistake...

Don’t worry, it's unlikely to have been your last.

Five Things Every Rider Needs To Know

1. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

Quite a few riders still think sport psychology is only for people who are “not quite right in the head”, who have “issues” or are “mentally ill”.

And that’s a shame, because IT’S JUST NOT TRUE.

Sport psychology is for anyone wanting to improve their performance. It’s for anyone wishing to optimise their thoughts, their emotions and their behaviour in order to make the most of their time spent riding.


And here’s the bit riders tend to forget: What you think and how you feel will, without fail, affect your behaviour. If you’re angry or scared, you’ll behave differently to when you’re relaxed, happy and at ease. What is more, your own behaviour will immediately and irrevocably affect your horse. A half-halt performed when you’re angry (or scared) will feel very different to the horse than one performed when you’re relaxed.

So, really, optimising performance is all about figuring out how to control and, if necessary, transform unhelpful thoughts and emotions into helpful ones.


That’s what sport psychology does.

It helps you to become the best you can be.


2. It’s not rocket science...

So even if I’ve managed to convince you that sport psychology could benefit pretty much anyone (or you knew this was the case all along), you might still think that “using” sport psychology will be too complicated, too time consuming, or too expensive.

Again, not true.

Sport psychology IS NOT rocket science. Yes, it might take a University degree to be able to teach it, but it's easy enough to learn.

Sport psychology focuses on optimising human behaviour in order to help you perform (and when I say "perform", I don't just mean at a show).

Here's the cool bit: the moment you've managed to get yourself into that right state of mind, you'll know straight away. It’s that “lightbulb moment” when it all makes perfect sense, and you keep thinking “Why haven’t I thought of that before?”


That’s what many sport psychological theories, techniques and practical interventions are like.

Once you try them, they make perfect sense.


3. … but it does take a little bit of practice.

Still, understanding something and implementing it are two very different things. We’re all creatures of habit, and breaking one habit and developing a new one takes time and effort. This means that in order to make sport psychology work, you need to keep practising mental skills, preferably every day you train. After a while, those new, helpful patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving become second nature.

They become automatic, allowing you to perform in an optimal state of mind all of the time.

Need another reason?

In times of stress, we tend to fall back into patterns of behaviour we're familiar with. So if you've practised mental skills, you'll be more likely to keep an optimal frame of mind even when worried, anxious, nervous.


That’s why sport psychology isn’t a one-off.

That's why sport psychology requires practice.


4. It’ll help you understand what makes you “tick”…

So once you include the various mental techniques into your daily riding and training routine, you’ll become much more self-aware. You’ll recognise more quickly what triggers a bout of anger or fear - and what you need to do to stop it right there, right then.


That kind of self-knowledge is invaluable in a sport that revolves around two living beings, but in which only one of them - you - decides what to do.

Only once you understand what makes you you, will you turn into the rider you want to be.


5. … turning you into a more consistent, considerate, committed rider.

So there you have it.

Effective mental skills can help you become a consistent, considerate, committed rider: consistent in your aids, considerate in your reactions, committed to the welfare of the horse.


Who wouldn't want that?

Want to know more? Watch out for the next blog or visit my site.