Yes, Teamwork Does Make the Dream Work

Mental skills coach Tonya Johnston and Olympian Ali Brock share tips for enhancing group cohesion at your barn.

U.S. Olympian Allison Brock and Rosevelt at the Achleiten CDI in June 2015 © Shannon Brinkman

Have you ever been to a barn where you could tell everyone was on the same team? You could sense the camaraderie, good vibes and togetherness throughout the facility? When it exists it’s accompanied by an energy that gets people working together in a positive way. You hear riders saying “Beautiful job!” to each other in a lesson, inviting each other to hack out on Sunday, coming together to get the barn shipshape for a clinician and heading off to a horse show as a united group.

In my work with teams, barns and riders I have seen firsthand what a positive or negative effect the health of your group can have on your personal enjoyment and success. I would bet you know exactly what I mean. It may feel like this sort of togetherness is out of your control or just happens by luck, but actually there are many things you can do to build positive team cohesion at your barn.

Allison Brock: Inspirational Teamwork

The very best competition teams purposefully strive for group cohesion, excellent communication and mutual support. Allison (Ali) Brock was on just such a team when she was part of the bronze-medal- winning Olympic dressage team that went to Rio in 2016. As she describes it, there was a clear commitment to foster powerful group synergy that originated with Chef d’Èquipe Robert Dover. It was achieved through extensive planning, coordination and willingness from all involved to truly come together, and in her opinion it played a significant role in their success.

“We were all showing together for at least a year before the Olympics … . We would make sure that we stabled together and our team group was all for one and one for all. We lived together, trained together … through all of the ups and downs … . [As a result of that process] you learn how to be a good support system to one another. When we got to Rio we were very, very tight. It wasn’t a group of individuals showing up to an event, it was a team.

“The people are so key, and we had like-minded individuals. All of us are highly ambitious, all of us were extremely focused … . We wanted to medal. We really believed in each other and we believed we were strong enough to do so. We made a pact that if we got a medal we were going to get Olympic ring tattoos—and guess what, we got a medal and so we all did!

“Being on a team forces everyone to communicate well. You learn how to be direct and tactful. You have to talk to each other. It doesn’t go perfectly all of the time, and feelings get hurt and this and that, so it’s a great opportunity to work on your communication skills … . Show with your friends and go as a group … . Operate as a team even if it isn’t a formal team. It makes it more fun.”

Ali’s experience is such an inspiring example of a successful team you may be tempted to take your horse and riding buddies to compete in another country for the rest of the year. (Wouldn’t that be amazing?) However, in case that is a tad unrealistic, here are some of my top tips for fostering a team attitude at your current barn.

Share Your Goals

Ali and her teammates happened to have some common goals, such as medaling at the Olympics, but it was also being open and honest with each other that built such strong bonds. It is up to you to respect, honor and share your goals with barn mates when you can. “I’m working on staying straight and using the whole ring at the show this week,” you say to your friend as you pack your tack trunks together. By taking the initiative to share, you are modeling openness, trust and inclusiveness that will help foster a supportive environment. Instead of being afraid that people are judging you or are focused on being competitive, you are taking the initiative to create positive energy for your process.

Find the Gold in Cooperation

Cooperation elevates your purpose and helps you gain perspective on your experience. Rather than running the risk of narrowing down your focus too much, over-thinking your rides or over-hyping your competitive juices, collaboration can help you create balance as you value your role as a team player. For example, “Hey everyone, let’s offer to be back-gate support for each other at the show this weekend. We can coordinate our schedules, keep bottles of water and supplies at the ring and then make sure everyone gets some TLC before they walk in.” Keep your mind on creative solutions for things like time management and chore challenges while you continue to believe that everyone can, wants to and will rise to the occasion. Then, on a personally challenging show day (perhaps your horse saw a monster in the corner of the arena), you can go home still feeling great about your contributions to the team.

Respect Each Other’s Process

As Ali describes, everyone was extremely focused and ambitious on the 2016 Olympic dressage team. She felt a similarity in their dedication, work ethic and attention to detail. However, remembering that most individuals will have their own slightly unique approach to preparation, riding and care is important. Your intensity and effort may be similar to your teammates’, but your road maps to achieve a goal may differ. You can likely point to some examples of this at your own barn. For example, you know that Rachel likes to have some time alone while she gets herself ready for an important ride, while Matt prepares for a clinic session by staying busy doing chores. Honor your teammates’ personal expertise by giving them space to do their routine and you will win in many ways, including generating positive feelings and greater team cohesion.

Be the Change You Wish To See

Lead by example. So many times I hear riders talk about difficult social situations at the barn as if they are playing a role in a script they cannot edit. Occasionally things are untenable, that is true, but more often than not you can absolutely change things for the better. As Ali pointed out, things aren’t always easy and communication skills are key in a group setting. Take the lead by brainstorming ways to affect the environment in a positive way. Greeting everyone with a smile and a kind comment no matter what is a terrific way of impacting a challenging dynamic, for example. Be sure to feel good about your efforts no matter what transpires as a result.

Remember That Success Fosters Success

Even if you aren’t riding for a team score like Ali was in Rio, be aware that every individual’s success is a potent catalyst. You want to be surrounded by success; it is catching. The momentum of a positive atmosphere is palpable—if you allow yourself to soak it up it will contribute to your progress. Happy horses and riders achieving their potential inspire everyone to put in their best effort. Don’t get stuck playing the comparison game, just appreciate your own and your teammates’ dedication to excellence in preparation and performance.

If you are a lucky person who has experienced riding in a wonderful team atmosphere or has your horse in that environment now, you know what a valuable impact it can have on the partnership you share with your horse. If you recognize some opportunities here to improve your barn’s cohesion, I encourage you to take constructive action right away—improving the time you spend with your horse is well worth the effort! 

Three Things You Can Do Today at The Barn to Enhance Teamwork

  • 1. Make a video sign-up list: Create a schedule where riders can organize and commit to videoing each other’s rides. Trading with your friends creates community, reinforces that you all have unique and personal goals and establishes an environment for growth and learning.
  • 2. Set a norm for positive reflection first: Create a goal where each rider says at least one positive comment immediately after another rider completes an exercise/test/course. Holding each other accountable in a friendly way will boost your trust, connectivity and good feelings about one another (as well as encourage the use of excellent mental skills!).
  • 3. Organize fun events: You can all wear blue on Saturdays, bring potluck brunch snacks on the first Sunday of each month or organize a barn movie night to watch a horse-related film. Spending time together will strengthen your positive relationships with your barn mates. As a result, these friendships will become stronger, more resilient and therefore better able to handle any rough patches you encounter at the barn.

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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