Mental Skills Coach Tonya Johnston: Inside Your Ride with Phillip Dutton

Sports psychologist Tonya Johnston shares some practical tools for increasing your mindfulness during a ride after catching up with eventer Phillip Dutton.
Phillip Dutton
Phillip Dutton rides Fernhill Cubalawn to a fifth-place finish at the 2015 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. This two-time Olympic gold medalist knows how to focus in the present to get the best from himself and his horse when the pressure is on.
© Amy K. Dragoo

It’s an experience like no other: You and your horse are joined together in the moment with a clear focus on the task at hand. Immersed in the here-and-now, you harmoniously perform a half-pass, execute a careful approach to a delicate vertical or adjust your balance to jump down a bank. The experience is fluid, exhilarating and fun. Mind you, this does not mean “perfect”—you may be preventing and correcting mistakes as you go or switching to Plan B (or C), but you are doing so instantaneously and to the very best of your capabilities.

All top riders have mastered this ability to be in the moment and stay mindful during their ride. It is also, thankfully, something you can successfully enhance no matter what your level of physical expertise. This month’s column is designed as an introduction to some basic, practical tools you can use to increase your capacity to stay in the moment during your rides.

Phillip Dutton: Single-Mindedness in Action

As a two-time Olympic eventing gold medalist, Phillip Dutton is a terrific example of an athlete who knows how to focus in the present to get the best from himself and his horse when the pressure is on. You can watch Phillip navigate any course or test with sharp attention and appropriate spot-on reactions—evidence of his ability to stay single-minded in every step. When we recently spoke about mental skills for riders it was no surprise that the theme of mindfulness ran throughout our conversation.

“The best thing you can practice is being in the moment when you are riding,” he said. “You can then react appropriately when needed, rather than things becoming a big blur or having outside distractions ruin your focus. For example, you can practice this while you are riding at home. Instead of talking to everybody, answering phone calls or chatting with your ground help, practice just being focused and attentive [to the situation and your horse] during your ride. Then it won’t be a stretch for you when you get to a competition. 

“You can also think about it in everyday life, not just when you are riding. You can practice being in the moment doing simple stuff like tying your shoes or when you are talking to someone by actually listening rather than thinking about the next thing coming up.

“You need to come up with your own way [of dialing in your focus]. I have a certain song—which I just came upon naturally—and every time I am close to competing I find myself humming that song. As soon as I start to do that I know I am concentrating and getting ready to react in the moment to whatever I need to do. It’s never going to happen exactly like you walked it … you have to be sharp enough to react, get through it and be successful.” 

Mindfulness: Building The Skill

In today’s world it seems that multitasking and splitting your attention to get more accomplished in a day is omnipresent. These habits of mind can pop up at the barn as well, even when you least want or expect them. For example, preparing for a canter transition by thinking, “What time did my daughter say to pick her up this afternoon?” is probably not ideal. When people discuss the best antidote to this distraction phenomenon, mindfulness is the buzzword that pops up most often—and with good reason.

Mindfulness is maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, emotions and experiences along with the ability to accept them without fighting, denying or judging reality. You can look at it as both awareness and acceptance working together. When riding, you are also engaging in the moment when you are instantaneously taking appropriate action for whatever situation might occur. 


One of the best ways to build your ability to be mindful is to develop a meditation practice. This can be as simple as five or 10 minutes per day in which you stay present with your breath. Including a mantra with your meditation can also help you dial in your focus to the present moment. For example, sitting in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, take some deep belly breaths. As you breathe in, say to yourself “Here,” and then as you exhale, “Now.” Notice how you are placing your awareness directly in the present moment with an acceptance of your mental and physical state.

There are so many variations and instructions for meditation. It is best to experiment to find what feels right for you and then use your creativity to adapt a practice that fits your style. Remember, this doesn’t have to be something you commit to forever. If meditation sounds too daunting, give yourself a trial period, perhaps two weeks of consistent practice. This will build your understanding and skill so that meditation and quieting your mind will be a tool that you can go back to anytime.


Another way to build mindfulness is through visualization practice. As you visualize riding a course, exercise or test in your mind’s eye, you are rehearsing your ability to stay in the moment with awareness of your horse’s every step or stride. Your heightened awareness and ability to stay within what you see, feel, hear and react to in your visualization is in fact mindfulness itself. 

As an added bonus, the places and times you lose focus and fall out of the moment in your visualization will mirror the times and places you tend to lose focus in real life. This gives you an opportunity to catch yourself, refocus and then reride that specific section with a heightened awareness (and without overtaxing your horse). Visualization is an invaluable combination of mindfulness training and mental and physical rehearsal.

Integrating Mindfulness Into Your Ride

You can increase your attentive, focused time at the barn by integrating some of these specific practices into your regular riding time. 

• Mindful moments: Rather than rushthrough your chores, experiment with bringing meditative awareness into your routine by creating mindful moments with your horse. For example, designate one of your soft brushes as your “mindful” brush. Slow down your thinking and your speed as you use this brush. With each pass over your horse’s coat pay attention to how it feels in your hand, how it follows the shape of your horse’s body and the effect it has on his or her coat.

• Transition cues: Phillip mentioned a song he starts to hum to initiate his heightened level of focus in the moment; this is an example of a transition cue. This preparation need not be lengthy or dramatic, but it will signal you to shift gears, match your focus with your actions and provide a foundation for staying in the moment during your ride. Before you begin an exercise you can use a cue such as looking up at the sky to clear your mind and then back down at a target with purpose to organize your focus or say a phrase to yourself like, “Every step.”

• Ready breaths: Ready breaths can be an excellent way of syncing up your mind and body anytime you need to refresh and reset your awareness into the present moment. A ready breath is simple: Fix your gaze on a stationary focal point and inhale a breath through your nose in four short, succinct bursts. Then blow out through your mouth in one long, steady exhale. A ready breath takes an unconscious act (breathing) and makes it a conscious action, which helps you be present and aware.

Note: Transition cues and ready breaths are things that you want to do before you get on your horse or at the halt or walk. They are used for shifting your attention into the moment. This alignment of your focus can take a second or two to perform and, as such, can be distracting if done during a more technical part of your ride. 

Success in any discipline occurs when you and your horse harmoniously communicate, perform and react together in the same instant. As you go forward in your riding, be curious about what helps you stay in the moment, experiment with different creative ideas and take note of the best strategies that work for you.

Preparing to be Mindful at the Barn

Here are some ways to set yourself up to be mindful during your time at the barn: 

• Begin in the car. Have a designated marker as you get close to the barn where you quiet your mind by ending phone conversations and shutting off music, podcasts, etc. Once you are parked at the barn, but before you get out, create a routine to join up with the present moment. For example, try closing your eyes, placing a hand on your belly to feel it rise and fall as you take three deep belly breaths. 

• Make a “To-Do” list. You may have been thinking about things you need to remember or attend to during your commute (a shopping list, emails to respond to, etc.). To clear your mind, jot down a “to-do” list so that you can free up the needed mental space to pay full attention to your horse and your ride.

• Leave electronics behind. Limit your time on electronics and, in particular, social media as you prepare to be present with your horse. Leave your phone in the car or your tack trunk during your ride.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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