Horsemanship 101: Reach New Goals With a Positive Attitude

Grand prix show jumper Debbie Stephens explains how to achieve new goals with the right mindset.

In the last two months, I shared my techniques for building a stronger partnership with your horse and developing a strategy for success in the show ring. I stressed the importance of learning as much as possible about your horse—what he needs to be healthy and happy and how you can help him perform his best. This month, I’ll tell you how to put that knowledge to work toward achieving new goals with added emphasis on one final, critical factor: an unwavering positive attitude. With the right mind-set, you can accomplish things that you and others around you might not have thought possible. I’m living proof of this: I surprised some experts when I cleared a 7-foot-8 puissance wall in 1982. They hadn’t seen that potential in me, but I wasn’t afraid to dream. I don’t want you to be afraid either.

Everybody’s goals are different. Riding for the first time in a schooling show can be just as rewarding for one rider as winning ribbons at a big recognized show is for another. Whatever goals you reach successfully, be proud of your achievements.
Susan J. Stickle

Aim High

Whatever your discipline or level, take time to identify meaningful short-term and long-term goals. Many people fail to achieve their personal best because they don’t set their sights high enough. Just going to a show, for example, isn’t the same as going to a show with a specific goal in mind. That doesn’t mean you have to win every class or even bring home a single ribbon. It means you accomplish something that gives you a sense of joy and satisfaction.

Everybody’s goals are different. Yours may be anything from showing for the first time to competing internationally. A good short-term goal should span several weeks or months. Rather than put all of your eggs in one basket—because you never know what might happen at any given show—create a goal that encompasses a number of events. For example, if you’re a jumper, aim to jump “clear or four” (clear round or four penalties) at four consecutive horse shows. Such consistency is a far greater accomplishment than an occasional win. If you have one disaster show—your horse blows up in a dressage test or gets eliminated on course—prove that you’ve learned from it by making the next show not a disaster.

Long-term goals can be anything from earning an end-of-year regional or zone award to qualifying for Indoors or finals or some significant series you haven’t aspired to before. Dream big!

Next, sit down with your coach to verify that you’ve chosen realistic goals and ask her to help you design a plan for attaining them. If you don’t have a coach, I strongly encourage you to seek professional guidance during this process. At every level of any sport—from skiing to tennis—all athletes improve fastest under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable coach. Many sport-governing organizations maintain databases of certified trainers. Even if you can’t afford regular lessons, reach out to a certified trainer near you, explain your situation and ask if she or he might be willing to consult with you, perhaps just by email or over the phone, for a small charge. Or submit a video to an expert offering online critiquing services.

Write down your goals and find a quiet moment to review them with your coach. She can help you determine what is or isn’t realistic and begin to shape a step-by-step plan for achieving those goals.
Susan J. Stickle

As you select your goals, consider everything in your life that might influence your ability to pursue them. Look at a calendar and identify the most demanding periods in your school or work schedule as well as family vacations and other obligations. To succeed in competition, you need to be able to clear your mind. That’s much harder to do if you’re showing during exam time or with a major work deadline hanging over your head.

One of the biggest considerations that almost all riders struggle with when choosing goals is money. Horse-showing is very expensive even for people like me with successful track records. When prioritizing your horse expenditures, quality instruction should always come first. If you have to decide between going to more shows or going to a great clinic, choose the clinic. If you can’t afford the fee, ask the sponsor if you can audit the clinic or check to see if your sport-governing organization, region or zone offers any grants or scholarships that might help. If you’ve never written a grant application before, go online. There are plenty of free resources explaining how to write one properly.

As I said before, attitude is everything. There are more opportunities for financially challenged riders than you probably realize. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the top experts in your discipline for advice and suggestions. You’d be surprised at how approachable they are.

Another good trade-off is to go to fewer horse shows but choose higher-quality ones. Find competitions that you enjoy—well-run events with good footing, respected judges and nice amenities. Even if they’re less convenient—farther away or more expensive—your higher standards will lead to better experiences. You can compare costs of most shows online, including good unrated ones. Before signing up for new shows, attend them as a spectator. Then decide where you and your horse would have the most positive experiences.

Get in Shape

When identifying your showing goals, allow plenty of time to get yourself and your horse in the best competitive shape possible. Regardless of your discipline or level, you both are athletes who need to be fit and sound to perform successfully.

Your horse should be training five days a week and, if he’s a jumping horse, schooling over fences at least once a week to maintain the necessary muscle strength. If you don’t have time to ride him that frequently, find a friend or hire another rider to help you out. Provide some additional form of activity for your horse as well. Horses are not meant to stand in stalls 23 hours a day. They evolved to be moving and grazing most of the time. Ideally, your horse should be turned out at least four hours a day. If that’s not possible, supplement his daily activity with hacking, hand-walking or exercise on a treadmill or mechanical walker.

Honestly evaluate your own fitness, too. Riding for an hour a day isn’t enough physical activity to keep you in show shape. Good riding requires strength, agility, balance and cardiovascular fitness. You don’t want to finish a course more out of breath than your horse! Adding a fitness program to your regular routine not only will enhance your performance, it can also prevent strains and injuries and help you recovery faster from falls. Particularly if you’re a “weekend warrior”—working or going to school all week and showing on the weekends—you’re not being fair to your horse or yourself unless you’re supplementing your riding with a good fitness program.

Making time to exercise is a challenge for everyone. We all have long, cluttered to-do lists. But just committing to 20 minutes a day can make a huge difference in your performance. Your workouts can be as simple as doing sit-ups and jumping jacks or following an online video in your living room or garage.

To stay motivated, instead of asking yourself how much you want to compete, ask, “How much do I want to compete well?” After a long, tiring day at the barn, I often drag myself to the gym, even knowing that I still have a lot to do at home. Once I get there, I’m always glad I made the effort.

Another component to getting yourself in competitive shape is good nutrition. As I explained in the beginning of this series, you can’t expect an athlete to perform his or her best on a diet of junk food, whether it’s you or your horse. To me, healthy eating is not a matter of going on a series of diets but rather making a commitment to change your lifestyle permanently. If you eat more fruits and vegetables and less soda, candy and preservatives, your body is going to perform better. As with everything, it pays to think ahead. Stock up on healthy snacks when you know your schedule is going to be busy. That way you can grab an apple or carrot for a pick-me-up instead of a cup of coffee and a candy bar.

Plan the Ride and Ride the Plan

Once you’ve chosen your goals and tested the new show strategy I described last month, it’s time to work on the final key to success: maintaining an unwavering positive attitude on competition day. As Dutch Olympic show jumper Emile Hendrix wrote in an article in the Dutch magazine De Paardenkrant last year (translated by Liz Barclay on, “A top rider has to be able to deal with emotions or stress. In my opinion, calmness is the greatest asset of a top rider. As a top rider you need to see the greater picture and [possess] the intelligence to stay ahead of the situation.” Calmness and ability to rise above the fray are critical. For example, if you’re walking a course and hear other riders expressing concerns about a particularly difficult fence or combination, instead of allowing yourself to get drawn into the drama, focus on something positive about the course and tell yourself, “I have a plan and I’m sticking to it.”

After walking the course with your coach, walk it again on your own, concentrating on your specific plan and visualizing how you want the trip to go.
Susan J. Stickle

Having confidence in your plan depends a great deal on how well you researched and prepared for the show. As I explained last month, this will help you minimize surprises. Never try to teach your horse something new at a show. For example, if he has not jumped a water jump—a real one with actual water in it, not just a piece of reflective material—confidently at home, don’t expect him to do it at a show. You’ll not only waste your entry fee, but you might scare him and set his training back months. Instead, introduce all the possible new challenges he may face in competition at home first, in a progressive, systematic manner so that you never enter the show ring thinking, “He’s never done this before. I wonder what he’ll do.” 

As you walk your course, keep your and your horse’s strengths and weaknesses in mind. If he tends to drift right, for example, realize that a right-bending line may ride a little shorter for him. If you sometimes have trouble remembering your courses (this is one of my personal challenges), add extra details to your plan to help trigger your memory—colors and descriptions of fences, etc. For example, when you go through a course in your mind, think, “Turn right after the red CWD fence.” Go over the striding in the related distances and the places where your horse might peek at the jumps or get distracted. Look at the time allowed and identify places where you can go faster without losing control or letting your horse get out of balance. Then review the entire course over and over again in your mind until you know it so well that you could recite it weeks after the show.

When you enter the ring, it’s time to replay the video of the trip you visualized in your mind earlier. Focus on one jump, line or combination at a time. Be ready to react to anything your horse does unexpectedly, but then get right back on track.
Susan J. Stickle

Before your ride, give yourself time to sit alone in a quiet place and get into your show zone. As you visualize your performance, set all extraneous thoughts aside. Find a way to let worrisome things go so you can clear your mind and focus on your ride. If you’re preoccupied about an aggravating personal situation—maybe a disagreement with another rider or a complaint about the showgrounds—try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to make sense of his or her actions. He or she is probably under just as much stress as you are. Whatever the situation, focus on the positive. If it’s raining hard and other riders are scratching, but you know your horse has the right traction (for example, the correct studs), tell yourself, “Now’s my chance to practice in the rain and maybe even get a good ribbon!”

In between classes, be sure to find time to review the previous trip with your coach. This is a great way to learn from both your successes and mistakes—and to revise your strategy accordingly for the next class.
Susan J. Stickle

By the time you enter the ring, your mind should be so focused that you don’t even hear the announcer say your name. Take a deep breath and tackle your ride with determination. If there is something spooky in the ring that you think might distract your horse, go by it during your entrance, riding in a manner that tells him clearly, “It’s not your call. I’m the boss.” If you tend to feel a little stage fright in the beginning of a performance, don’t count on your horse to hold your hand. You need to hold his. Be assertive and tell him, “Come on, let’s go. Let’s gallop down to that first jump!” If you convey the attitude that he can trust and believe in you, then he will.

Focus on riding one section of your course or test at a time. For example, think, “I’m going to create compression to Fence 1, then ride steady down the line to Fence 2.” If something goes wrong during your ride—he flubs a movement or knocks down a rail—take a breath and ask yourself, “What do I have to do to reset myself and my horse and get back on track?” Then ride forward positively.

Tweaking the Formula

When you exit the ring, take another deep breath and give yourself a moment to decompress. Walk your horse somewhere quiet to cool him out. Then review the ride in your head. What do you think went right? What went wrong? How would you ride the difficult sections again if you had a chance? If your coach is there with you, go over the ride with her, concentrating on the positive. If 70 percent of the ride went well, that’s great! Having a friend videotape your ride is another helpful way to analyze your performance. You may be surprised: Sometimes the ride you see on the video isn’t the same as the ride you felt.

If you have another ride that day, incorporate the review of this first ride into your new plan. Evaluate your horse’s behavior. Was he too fresh? Too tired? Did he hesitate because the footing was a little slippery and his studs weren’t adequate? Make any small changes you can to address these issues, and then visualize what things you plan to do differently before the next class.

The look on Erin Turkel’s face here says it all: “I got it, I did it and it worked!” At the end of the day, this is the relaxed, satisfied feeling you want to have.
Susan J. Stickle

Small is the key word when it comes to adjusting your competition strategy. Never make any radical changes before or during a show. Just tweak your plan in ways that might produce positive, incremental differences. For example, if your horse seems really tired at the end of a show, consider giving him a mini-break, beefing up his fitness program, adjusting his diet or scheduling his classes farther apart at the next show. If he backed off of the bridle, experiment with a milder bit or loosen his martingale slightly.

Horses are sensitive and conditions change from one show to another, so there’s never going to be a single perfect formula that works for you and your horse. Instead, you’ll accumulate a number of successful formulas for different situations—different weather, different competition levels, etc. You may even discover that your horse has an aversion to competing at a certain facility or at a certain time of year. Try different venues at the same time of year to determine which may be the influencing factor. Don’t feel as if you have to fix absolutely every variable. I have no idea why, but I prefer riding and showing in a grass field rather than a sand ring. Similarly, some horses like certain venues more than others. If your horse has a preference for a particular venue, plan your show schedule accordingly.

Sometimes show problems are too serious to solve with little tweaks. If your horse’s performance suddenly changes dramatically and you can’t identify an obvious reason, go into detective mode. Do you think you or your horse might have been overfaced? Maybe you moved up a level too soon. If he seems to be losing confidence, it might have nothing to do with your riding but rather with something that happened in his past. Either way, if you’re not sure how to rebuild his confidence, it may help to ask a more experienced person to ride him a few times.

If you suspect something might be wrong physically, consult a veterinarian. Conditions like ulcers, Lyme disease and equine protozoal myeloencephalitis may be hard to detect but can have a big impact on a horse’s performance.

As you adapt and refine your competition formulas, use common sense. If you keep doing something and continue to have disappointing results, try something new. Sticking to a failed formula is like driving the wrong way down a one-way street again and again. One unsuccessful show isn’t the end of the world so long as you learn from it and don’t repeat the same mistakes at the next show. Take time to evaluate what happened and contemplate how the event might affect your short- and long-term goals. Some things may be beyond your control and may require a slight change of plans—say, a stone bruise, for example—but regardless of what happens, keep your goals in sight.

As you reach each goal, continue raising the bar for yourself. If it falls down, put it back up. With an unwavering positive attitude, you will achieve great things. If you want it, will it. If you will it, it will happen. Never say never!

About Debbie Stephens

Show jumper Debbie Stephens has graced the grand-prix circuit for more than three and a half decades. She won her first grand prix in 1980 in Cleveland on the gray stallion Abdullah, who went on to win team gold and individual silver medals in the 1984 Olympics with Conrad Homfeld. In 1982, Debbie set the ladies outdoor high-jump record by clearing 7-foot-8 with Spindletop Rocky Raccoon. Since then, she has represented the United States in many international competitions and won countless grands prix, including last year’s $25,000 Equestrian Sport Productions Fall III Grand Prix in Wellington. Her long list of successful mounts includes Volan, VIP, Poor Richard, Texas T, Blind Date, Don Carlos, Pacifica, Chappie, Callaway 4, Cosequin’s CEO, All Star, Swagger, FYI and Dryden, among many others.

Debbie and her husband, Steve Stephens, a course designer, jump manufacturer and horse-show manager, are now based at Centennial Equestrian Farm in Palmetto, Florida. Debbie continues to teach, train and refine her own, long-successful show-ring strategies.

Practical Horseman thanks Erin Turkel and Emily Snack for their assistance in producing the photographs in this article. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Practical Horseman

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