How to Handle Mistakes in Riding

Mental-skills coach Tonya Johnston and top hunter trainer and rider Louise Serio examine how to process missteps effectively.

I tell you this fact with respect and compassion: You will make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of life. They don’t ever go away. Yes, their size, frequency and impact may change over time, but they will always exist in your life and in your riding. Once you accept this fact you can get on with the most important work related to mistakes, which is how to be resilient and handle them effectively when they occur.

How you handle a mistake is 1,000 times more important than whether you make one. To handle a mistake well you need a strong base—a strong belief in yourself that will not be rocked by one hard moment, bad day or event. This requires dedication, effort, awareness and perspective. In fact, establishing a productive attitude toward mistakes is an absolutely crucial step in any rider’s development. If an error can distract you, undermine your overall confidence or make you doubt your worth as an athlete or person then you are ready for a major upgrade of the way you think about your mistakes. Let’s examine how to have a proactive attitude about processing your errors.

Louise Serio: Life is a Learning Experience

Louise Serio is a well-respected trainer and rider who has produced some of the country’s best hunters for her business, Derbydown, since 1975. Louise has walked into the biggest classes at the most prestigious venues for years and has become adept at handling pressure. She has accomplished amazing successes and, like any athlete, she has experienced mistakes along the way. Louise’s experiences helped her shape some effective attitudes and strategies to handle tough moments when things don’t go as planned.

“I’ve been riding a long time. Everybody has seen me do really well AND make mistakes … and it’s not a reflection on [everything] you have done in your career. I always say to myself that my world’s not going to change [if I make a mistake]; the people that love you are still going to love you. [For example,] I’m not going to dislike a person for making a mistake on course. I’m going to have empathy for her because we’ve all done it wrong. And that’s the thing about horses and riding: You almost have to do it wrong to then do it right. Your mistakes define you to a certain extent because you fix them. It’s like learning to drive—you drive too fast, you get caught, you slow down. Life is a learning experience.

“Horses make mistakes and riders make mistakes … . Usually I try not to fixate on it until I am finished for the day. You have to leave it behind you. You have to realize why it happened, you have to try to not make that mistake again, and then you have to move on and go for it.”

Preload Resilience

Here’s an essential plot twist to understand: The most important resource in mistake-recovery occurs long before a mistake takes place. The keys are to create and maintain a positive view of who you are as a rider and athlete as well as use compassion when you think about yourself and your efforts. These strategies enable you to successfully preload resilience.

Action Step: Regularly take stock of the skills and traits you possess as a rider. Put a reminder on your phone on the last day of every month that prompts you to review the top three qualities or skills you used to create success with your horse. For example, in your review of January you might say, “I am stronger since I started working out, and it’s helping my stamina.”

Action Step: Use compassion as you process your mistakes by asking yourself how you would support your best friend if she had made a similar mistake. What would you say to her? What positive reinforcement would help her remember to be kind to herself? How would you help her gain perspective about the event?

Be Mindful about Your Reaction

You finished your ride but you can’t stop thinking negatively about how you chipped the single oxer at the end of your beautiful round or missed your turn out on the cross-country course or picked up the wrong lead three times in a row during your big group lesson and caused a major traffic jam. We are talking about the mistakes that cut to the quick and feel particularly significant. You feel bad they happened and even worse every time you remember them. What can you do to process these mistakes effectively?

Step 1: Give yourself a set amount of time to experience these feelings of disappointment with the event. For example, maybe you allow these feelings to wash over you for two minutes or for the duration of the time it takes to do a chore like clean your saddle. Be sure to stay committed to your boundary.

During this time you don’t need to replay the specific memory in your mind’s eye, but allow yourself to feel your reaction that is likely a jumbled blend of negative emotions. You may feel sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger or embarrassment. Your goal is to acknowledge and accept whatever comes up in the vein of, “Yes, that was a total bummer.”

Step 2: Once the set amount of time has passed and you have acknowledged your negative emotions, switch gears and focus on creating success the next time you face that same situation. Strong emotions, whether positive or negative, create energy that can be directed toward anything. Rather than allow the energy to stay negative and use it to beat yourself up, use it to develop a solution.

Get fired up about figuring out why the mistake occurred and commit to using every resource available to you to understand it completely. Adopt the perspective of an objective researcher as you use your memory as well as feedback from your ground help or observers for this process. Then, select specific solutions you can use the next time you face that same situation on your horse. Write your ideas down, trust their usefulness and imagine them working beautifully during your next ride.

Mistakes Provide Learning Experiences

It may sound cliché, but it is absolutely true. Take the time to build a link between your mistakes, the lessons and the successes to help you develop or have continued faith in this process.

Step 1: Write two to three mistakes that happened in the last few months.

Example: “My horse cut the corner so drastically that we missed our turn to the last line in the 1.0 meter jumper classic.”

Step 2: Next to each one, write what you learned and committed to as a result of these mistakes. Be as specific as you can about mental and physical tools and techniques and put them in the present tense.

Example: “I visualize riding through my corners now instead of just the jumps. I remember to shorten my reins after each line so I can control my horse’s track.”

Step 3: Write down an example of a great ride where you executed these solutions successfully.

Example: “At the clinic last week we stayed out in the corner and got the tough direct six strides in the last line.”

Riders who succeed aren’t the ones not making any mistakes. They are simply the ones who acknowledge, understand and learn from them without losing faith in their skills. Allow yourself to react to a mistake within a boundary of time, get determined to focus on the solution and then execute it. Your belief in yourself will boost your resilience and streamline this process. Handling mistakes is a universal component of being a skilled rider—and of being human. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.

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