Winning a national hunter-seat medal final is a tremendous accomplishment. It is rare for one rider to win more than one final in one year, but last year it happened twice. TJ O’Mara and Hunter Holloway each won two national finals in their last year of eligibility as junior riders. TJ took the 2016 National Champion USEF Talent Search Medal Finals and 2016 Pessoa/U.S. Hunter Seat Medal Final and Hunter won the 2016 WIHS Medal Finals and the 2016 Maclay Medal Finals. Had they been close before? Yes. Was there a lot of pressure? Yes. Did they ride beautifully and effectively, staying focused and poised throughout? Yes. Amazing! As the drama of medal-finals season concluded, I was immediately interested to talk to each of them to see what they might have had in common from a mental-skills perspective.
To be sure, both TJ and Hunter are talented equestrians with a lot of experience, remarkable work ethics, long resumes and excellent training that has served them well. However, as they describe here, their desire to actually relish and enjoy the experience of finals was also quite significant in the biggest equitation victories of their careers.
Hunter Holloway: “When I was younger, like starting out in my first grand prix [at 12 years old], I would just get excited in a positive way so it didn’t turn into nerves. Then, as I got older, I went through a period of time where I realized things were a big deal and I had a chance to win … . I would put so much pressure on myself that there was nowhere for it to go and it would get all bottled-up. [As a result] I think I got stiff and kind of froze a little bit and I wasn’t riding as natural and it wasn’t coming together. [Then this year] even though it was my last year, I didn’t put so much pressure on myself. I’d been second, I’d been third [in finals in previous years]. I said [to myself] ‘Just go in there and have fun. It’s OK.’ Don [Stewart–one of Hunter’s trainers] is so good at trying to keep things light. He’ll crack a joke at the in-gate, and he’ll make it all feel fun.”
TJ O’Mara: “Last year  I just really wanted to win [a final] and I think I got into my head too much. Coming into this year  I realized that it was my last few classes on my horse so I might as well just have a good time while riding her and make the best out of it. I’ve always loved the early morning lessons and I wanted to savor those moments. I also tried being at the in-gate for all of my friends, and it was a much better view than just sitting in the stands. One of my best friends was about to go and she was looking at me to say something and I said ‘Good luck and go have fun out there!’ and she ended up making the top 25 so we were really happy.
“For the final round of the Maclay finals [where TJ finished third] we were going over the whole course and what to do and what not to do and it started feeling stressful and Max [Amaya–one of TJ’s trainers] just looked at me and just said, ‘Just have fun out there OK?’ So that really brought my stress level way down and I just walked in with a whole new mind-set.”
Enjoying the Ride Even When It’s Important
Cantering smoothly toward a jump, creating an effortless transition and asking your horse for a big extension are just a few examples of the moments on your horse that ideally feel at the same time exhilarating, exciting and enjoyable—in a word: fun. Why then, when we ride in an important class or in front of people we respect or when we are asked to do challenging movements can fun suddenly feel so out of reach? There can be many reasons for that, and it is good to be aware of what triggers you: Things like focusing on results, worrying about what other people think of your riding or having a mental to-do list that is too long. These times can be frustrating and they often lead to mistakes or subpar performances.
During those stressful moments it’s one thing for your trainer/friend/mom to remind you, “Go have fun!” to try to help you take some of the pressure off. It’s quite another thing to hear him or her and understand how to then bring it into your riding. Shouldn’t you approach your big moments very seriously and intensely? This is a common misconception. Taking something seriously does not mean that it can’t also feel fun. In fact, it’s best when it does!
The Benefits of Having Fun
Let’s be clear on the benefits of enjoying the rides that are extraordinarily significant to you. Not only is fun, well you know, FUN, it also facilitates high-level performance. In equestrian sport, it helps you be present in the moment and put forth even more mental and physical effort as well as maintain a comfortable, positive attitude. Fun will also facilitate a sense of freedom, clear communication channels, appropriate decision-making and natural confidence.
5 Action Steps to Keep Fun in the Mix
1. Be in the moment: Being in the moment is both a benefit of fun and one of the steps you take to achieve fun. Connecting with your horse and effortlessly executing your plan together is fun, but when you are distracted by trying to predict the future or remembering the last time you made a mistake in an important situation, you won’t get to experience it. Instead, heighten your senses and increase your awareness, particularly of what you see and feel, to help you anchor in the present.
For example, take a moment to notice how your leg feels secure and strong as you step down into your heel. Or be aware of how balanced you are with your horse and how light and energetic each step feels as you go forward. The tangible physical awareness and enjoyment you experience will help you stay present on what matters most within the heightened atmosphere.
2. Mix it up: For example, TJ tried watching from the in-gate with a focus on supporting his friends and found it to be a very enjoyable addition to his normal routine at an important show like medal finals. What is a new twist you can add into your typical routine during a significant event? Add a funny cheer to say with your barn buddies at a show or play a fun new song as you polish your boots. You can also try changing your perspective by imagining your younger, more naïve self in your current position to appreciate how bright-eyed and happy she would feel to be in your shoes. Mix up your routine by using your creativity to develop new ideas and fresh options.
3. Use humor to keep perspective: As Hunter mentioned, she appreciated that her trainer is good at telling jokes and maintaining a sense of fun at normal horse shows and bigger competitions. If you are lucky enough to have someone who can appropriately use humor that is helpful to you, that is fantastic. However, even if you don’t have a trainer or ground person to provide you with this levity you can look for ways to use humor to maintain a healthy perspective.
Crafting a funny outlook or using out-of-the-ordinary ideas to create humor is one way to go about this strategy. For example, you can set the scene in your mind’s eye by saying to yourself, “Let’s go jump barnyard animals over lumber—it’s super awesome!” Or skip your way to warm-up and make yourself laugh before you get on your horse.
4. Appreciate the opportunity: “Pressure is a privilege. You have to earn it.” This quote from tennis great Billie Jean King embodies the concept of loving big moments by acknowledging and being grateful for the hard work it took to get you there. What’s more fun than getting to ride your horse on a big stage, whether that means an important class at a horse show or your first clinic with a big name trainer. Appreciating the opportunity is a great way to enjoy the moment instead of fearing it—as in, “I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. What a blast!”
5. Focus on performance goals: The fastest way to take fun out of your ride is to focus on outcome goals such as winning, qualifying, impressing other people or getting a certain score. These outcome goals are ultimately out of your control and only increase the pressure you feel. Instead, concentrate on specific goals that will help you ride effectively, such as keeping your elbow soft or looking up and ahead of you through each corner. These keep you feeling empowered and channel your energy in productive, enjoyable ways to create a beautiful ride.
Having fun is one of the most powerful ways to improve your ride from a psychological perspective and it can also be one of the hardest things to do. Therefore, before you head out to an important event/show/clinic/training day, brainstorm some new methods or choose some of those mentioned to help you keep perspective, enjoy yourself and focus on the process.