Jenny Susser: Mental Strategies to Improve Your Ride

Top sport psychologist Jenny Susser offers tools to help you flex your mental muscle to improve riding at home and in the show ring.

Sport psychologist Jenny Susser gives a Riding with Confidence clinic earlier this year in New Jersey. | © Nancy Jaffer 

Life was not going well for Jan Nierzwick seven years ago. A kick from a horse broke the pelvis of the Lapeer, Michigan, real-estate agent with two kids, horses and a farm. In the follow-up to the fracture, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told she had only a year to live.

Eventually, the fracture healed and the pancreatic tumor was discovered to be an extremely rare benign cancer. Great news, right? But when Jan returned to riding dressage on Martin, a young Friesian, the once-confidentrider had nothing but issues in her “new body and new mind-set.” At competitions, she scored in the 40s and received scathing comments from the judges, such as “not competent to ride this horse” and “shouldn’t be riding at this level.”

“My horse was looking to me for confidence, and I didn’t have it,” Jan says. “He melted down. I melted down. I was at a crossroads about whether to give up on this horse and myself or work through it somehow.”

Similarly, Canadian Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Holzer recalls almost giving up on one of her horses when struggling to get a particular movement. No matter how much Ashley drilled him, he couldn’t master it. “I think I sort of got crazed about it,” she remembers.

What do this amateur rider and the Olympian have in common when it comes to their training problems? They needed to retrain their brains, not their horses, says sport psychologist Jenny Susser, PhD, who worked with both to resolve their issues.

Sport psychology strives to help athletes improve their performances and satisfaction with their sports by addressing psychological and mental factors. Being a former competitive swimmer and an avid rider, Jenny had first-hand knowledge of competition-day nerves and dealing with horses as sporting partners.

Jan first met Jenny at the latter’s Riding with Confidence clinic on the grounds of the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University. Jenny first observed each person riding to determine what makes him or her nervous, frightened or just emotional. “We all have apprehensions and fears when we ride, and they come from different areas,” Jenny says.

Jenny was able to establish that Jan was having a difficult time clearing the clutter in her head. Even in the show ring, she worried about everything under the sun: “Who was watching? Was I going to disappoint my trainer? Was I going to hit my marks? Was my geometry going to be correct? I spent a fortune and I need a good ribbon to justify the cost! What was going on at work in my absence? And of course the big one—was I going to crash and burn?

“Simply having this pointed out to me helped me to understand what needed to be fixed,” Jan says. “I needed to get into the zone. Everything else was going to have to wait.”

Understanding the root of Jan’s problem helped Jenny figure out the best approach to help Jan resolve it. “She gave me some tools and techniques when I started to feel anxious and things seemed not to be going my way. It enabled me to take a breath, sit calm and have the confidence to go, ‘You’re good—ride through this.’”

Flex Your Focus Muscle

There are many tools to help you take control of your mental state so you can achieve your goals, both in your training at home and in the show ring. “Focus, thoughts, preparation. Those are the keys,” Jenny says. “Can you control your focus?”

“The thing about handling outside forces is that focus is a muscle. We are lazy with our focus,” she adds. “Accidents happen predominantly because people don’t focus.”

Jenny cites Jan Ebeling as a master of focus. He was in an incredibly stressful position in 2012: His mount for the 2012 Summer Olympics, Rafalca, was partly owned by Ann Romney, wife of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The public and media attention was intense, often not in a positive way. Luckily, Jan had spent time with a top sport psychologist in California and was “already set up to block all that out. He had all his tools on board on how to manage and control his focus. He was really preparing,” and he handled it beautifully, Jenny says.

“Jan has a huge focus muscle. So when that stuff was going on, he just flexed it. And what that looked like was, ‘What am I focusing on? No, I’m not focusing on that.’

“We can only think one thing at a time,” Jenny notes. “There is no multi-tasking. There’s serial tasking. So pick the powerful thought, the powerful thing to focus on and then do it. That’s when things improve. You can train yourself to do it instead of thinking, ‘Is that so-and-so in the stands?’ or ‘I hate this part.’”

To develop focus, you first need mental energy. “There’s a lot to think about, and every thought requires some degree of mental energy,” Jenny says. “You have only so much energy every day. You wake up with a gas tank of energy. What are you going to spend it on?”

One simple suggestion Jenny gave to Jan Nierzwick to help her focus was to develop a routine for her ride. By systematically following the same steps while grooming and tacking up, Jan could focus on her goals for the ride and how she was going to achieve them.

A similar way to free up mental energy when getting ready for a show is to make sure that you’re prepared in your environment and your training. “If you’re prepared, you know what you’ve done and you have confidence in your level of preparation. That helps you direct your focus and use every ounce of energy that you can in the right direction,” rather than being distracted by extraneous circumstances, Jenny says.

One strategy to make sure you’re prepared at a basic level is to develop a check list of everything you need to bring to a competition for yourself and your horse and to pre-pack it all in the days leading up to the competition. In addition, put together a just-in-case kit for yourself, tossing in everyday items like analgesics, Band-Aids, a breakfast bar and a sewing kit.

“If you don’t have to worry about, ‘Did I bring this or bring that,’ then you can take that energy and use it to control your focus when the crowd erupts or you go into an arena like that for the first time,” Jenny says.

Similarly, leading up to competition, you want to make sure you’re prepared for the unexpected in your riding so that you don’t have to spend a lot of energy thinking about how to handle those situations as they occur. To do so, Jenny recommends taking a hard look at your riding by asking yourself questions like, “What does your horse typically do in certain situations? Do you have strategies to handle those situations and, if not, what can you do between now and the competition to prepare your horse for that?”

“Stuff happens, unfortunately,” Jenny says, but you want to do the best you can to reduce the odds of these things taking your focus away by having a game plan in place. “If you’ve prepared, then you know the different scenarios,” she adds. An extreme example may mean backing off how much you can ask of your horse on a particular day or knowing when to excuse yourself and come back another day. “It’s not that you’re going to stop [the behavior] from happening, but how can you be better prepared?” Jenny says. “Everything is an opportunity to learn.”

Use Imagery and Visualization

Once you have streamlined areas that were sapping your mental energy, you can focus in more positive directions. Research has shown that positive affirmations and imagery can permanently change how your body perceives and reacts to stressors. But the help has to be specific to your needs and resonate with you. “If you can develop thoughts that are authentic, you can say, ‘I can do this.’ But you have to believe it,” Jenny says, noting unsupported mantras and positive affirmations typically don’t work.

In Jan Nierzwick’s case, by developing a mental image for a particular short-term goal, such as getting through a test, or a long-term objective, such as riding Prix St. Georges, she would stop obsessing on faults and missteps and start picturing, and thus focusing on, what she wanted to happen.

“Since I am a visual learner, this was particularly effective for me,” Jan remembers. Jenny suggested Jan think of herself as Olympian Debbie McDonald and Martin as Brentina. “In my mind, Debbie would never have self-doubt. She would ride with confidence, and Brentina would never let her down.”

Holding this image in her mind, Jan was able to get rid of negative thoughts and stop being her own worst critic. You want to become the president of your own fan club, Jenny says.

Another dressage competitor Jenny worked with had lost the intensity that used to go into her freestyle. To help her with the fine-tuning, Jenny says, “I gave her an image of a thermometer and told her to see the temperature of the energy rising like the mercury would. The rider used the image to create intensity and energy and called me afterward to say, ‘It worked!’ She won the class and really liked the new image/tool.”

Jenny also encourages competitors to visualize riding the course or test before going into the ring. See yourself riding it at your absolute best. This is a common—and highly effective—technique used by elite sportsmen and -women throughout the world.

Develop a Breathing Habit

Another positive technique to focus on is your breathing. “When we become nervous, we tend to hold our breath, which is biologically driven,” says Jenny, explaining that it traces back to the dawn of mankind as a way to keep quiet while hiding. “It’s a nervous system response.”

By making sure you keep breathing during stressful situations, such as a competition, you can lower anxiety. The key is “to teach yourself to breathe all the time,” Jenny says. “You need an awareness and a habit.” At first, she explains, you must “do it with great intention until it becomes a habit. Set an alarm on your watch while you’re riding so it goes off every minute to remind you to breathe. These are habits you need to develop long before the morning of the horse show. Just start doing this. Who cares how long it takes? You’ll make incremental progress, as you do with everything else.”

Jenny noticed at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games that before entering the arena on Totilas, Edward Gal of the Netherlands would stop in a corner and take a deep breath before picking up the canter to go down centerline.

Think About Your Horse

You also need to be realistic about what to expect of your horse both at a show and at home. “When you set your level of expectation to reality, then you’re set up more powerfully every time,” Jenny says.

To this end, in addition to understanding your own nerves, you also have to take into consideration your mount’s jitters. “The golf club doesn’t have a bad day,” Jenny says. “You don’t take it out of the bag and say, ‘Are you stiff today?’

“We practice in this perfect, insulated environment and expect when we go to a different environment for the horse to say, ‘Oh, OK.’ When you take horses out of their normal environment, they’re going to react to things.”

Adequate training and exposure are as critical for the horse as for the rider. When dealing with horses who don’t have show mileage, Jenny recommends holding full dress rehearsals at home: braid and tack your horse up exactly as you would on show-day, dress yourself in your show clothes and ride the test or course in front of friends and family to simulate a show situation in familiar surroundings before upping the ante by going to a different venue.

In other situations, you might need to change your perspective about why your horse is responding to you in a certain way. Jenny helped Ashley Holzer by having her think differently about the horse that she was struggling to teach a particular movement. “Maybe he’s doing [the dressage move] the best he can. Have you thought about it that way?” Ashley recalls Jenny asking her.

“She showed me a different perspective, telling me, ‘Instead of being someone who’s disappointed, why don’t you be realistic and realize it’s probably very difficult for him?’” After she followed Jenny’s suggestion that she become more of an encouraging cheerleader, “it totally changed the way I approached it, and he improved immensely,” Ashley says. She wound up encouraging and rewarding the horse in the movement, the opposite of her previous approach of trying to drill it too much.

“She changed my mind-set,” Ashley says. “That’s what sport psychologists should do. They’re not there to tell you how to ride. They’re there to tell you how to think about things and be the best you can be.”

As a result of embracing some of the tips Jenny described above, Jan Nierzwick found that her dressage scores skyrocketed from the 40s to the 70s. She ended up being the 2012 Midwest Dressage Association Schooling Show Novice Rider Training Level Champion, Adult Amateur Reserve Champion and 2013 Adult Amateur First Level Schooling Show Champion.

Sport psychology is not a cure-all, but it is an important tool to take advantage of. “Did [all of my riding problems] miraculously go away?” Jan remembers. “No, but Jenny gave me more of a lighthearted view. She gave me terminology and phrases to make me smile: It’s just a horse show; just have some fun. For most of us, fun is what it’s supposed to be about.”

Making a Difference
Although sport psychologist Jenny Susser helps competitors in many sports, from lacrosse and golf to tennis and fencing, she has a special link with her equestrian clients because of a background with horses. Surprisingly, though, initially she actively avoided working with equestrians.

A devoted and fearless rider as a child, Jenny was 14 when she stopped riding completely after her family moved to California. Instead, she became an All-American swimmer who competed nationally and internationally, and she also went on to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology.

The next time she got on a horse was during a “city-slicker vacation” when she became hooked again. A friend who rode dressage drew her into that discipline. After moving back east to Long Island to work at the Hospital for Special Surgery Sports Medicine Center in New York City and at Hofstra University on Long Island with its sports teams, she bought a boarding stable. Yet in an attempt to keep her horse interests separate from her work, she decided not to work with equestrians.

Olympic dressage rider Lendon Gray altered that decision by asking Jenny to participate in her Dressage4Kids’ Weekend Educational Program. “I started working with the kids, and it took off from there,” Jenny says. She helped some of the young riders and went to the North American Junior and Young Riders Championship with Lendon, assisting riders in the warm-up.

From that experience, she developed a two-day mounted clinic. As part of the clinic, Jenny gives a lecture about sport psychology and then those in attendance ride in front of her and their trainers. “They get nervous, as they would at a show, so I can see what’s bothering them in the moment,” says Jenny, whose practice is now 75 percent equestrian.

When Jenny ran into Anne Gribbons at the 2010 U.S. Dressage Federation convention, Jenny invited the U.S. dressage technical adviser to the lecture she was giving for amateurs and young riders. “She said she could drop by for 10 minutes,” recalls Jenny, but “she stayed the whole 90 minutes. She got into it and believes in it.”

In 2012, Gribbons approached Jenny about working with the hopefuls for the U.S. Olympic dressage team. “It was an extraordinary opportunity and a privilege,” says Jenny.

Asked how he felt about Jenny’s involvement, Olympian Steffen Peters says, “I love how calm and reassuring she was. We just sat down and talked a little bit about the situation. I’m looking forward to working with her in the future.” Although Jenny was unable to get credentialed in time for the London Olympics, she was available by phone to help the riders accomplish their best ride while under pressure.

Jenny has neither the desire nor the time to compete but just enjoys riding her three horses: a Dutch Warmblood by Gribaldi, a 20-year-old Holsteiner schoolmaster and an Andalusian. “I have a wonderful horse life,” she says. “I get to make a difference and help people.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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