Airplane Mode

Equestrian mental skills coach Tonya Johnston shares top tips for managing your phone at the barn.

After winning all four of her sections at the Devon Horse Show this spring, Taylor St. Jacques went on to win 3-foot-6 Overall Grand Champion at the USEF Junior Hunter National Championships East this summer. © ESI Photography

Christine from work left you a voicemail, Steve sent a text about rescheduling your daughter’s voice lesson, your brother emailed you about dinner on Saturday and Alice commented on your new profile picture on Facebook—but guess what? You don’t know any of that because you are with your horse and your phone is the furthest thing from your mind (turned off, in the car, in your tack trunk, on airplane mode or at home). Bravo! You have successfully navigated a significant challenge to maintaining clear focus in this day and age.

Wait a minute, are you sure this sounds like you? Or did some of those calls, texts or posts manage to get through as you were tacking up, leaving your mind jumbled and your attention split as you started your lesson? If so, read on for some inspiration and practical methods that will help you control your phone at the barn.

Taylor St. Jacques: A New Preparation Strategy Pays Off

Junior hunter and equitation star Taylor St. Jacques made a big splash at the Devon Horse Show this past spring by winning all four of her sections of the ASPCA Maclay, USEF Medal, WIHS and USET Talent Search medals as well as winning the prestigious Ronnie Mutch Championship. Obviously, there are many ingredients that contribute to that sort of championship performance, such as great talent, a wonderful horse and top training. But at Devon this year Taylor also added a new element to her preparation routine. Her new strategy was part of trainer Andre Dignelli’s and her mom’s desire to have her reduce her distractions and stay more focused throughout the competition. We discussed the strategy as well as the positive impact it had on her experience.

“My daily routine was to get there at about 4:30 a.m. and be on at 5 or 5:30. As soon as I got there I would put my phone in the bottom of my tack trunk with stuff on top of it so I was never tempted to go near it. I wouldn’t touch it until I was walking back to my car to leave for the day.

“I thought it really helped me focus. I wasn’t worried about what was going on with my phone, who to talk to, social media, all of that. It was a new thing. Usually I am not that dedicated to really focusing because I think, ‘Oh, maybe my trainer needs to get a hold of me’ and stuff like that, but it is such a small showgrounds that everyone knows how get a hold of each other. It was the first time I have ever done that and obviously it paid off.

“I think it really helped me, so I will definitely be using that again in the future. I honestly have never felt so focused in my life. I had nothing to distract me or put my mind off of what I needed to focus on,” explained Taylor.

Sure enough, and true to her word, this summer Taylor used the same strategy to help her win the 2017 Hunterdon Cup and be named the 3-foot-6 Overall Grand Champion at the USEF Junior Hunter National Championships East.

Best Practices for Managing Your Phone At the Barn

It’s possible that your phone has been distracting you and sapping your good-quality energy at the barn without you even realizing it. For example, there you are about bridle your horse and your phone alerts you to an incoming text. You look down and your attention is immediately absorbed in some other aspect of your life—you momentarily forget how important it is for you to be aware of your horse and surroundings.

If you would like to create some positive change, here are some fresh ideas about how to keep your phone usage under control at the barn:

1. Create a phone routine: Stuffing your phone in the pocket of your breeches is a routine. It may not be a conscious (or an ideal) routine, but nevertheless it is one. Therefore, if you would like to rein in your phone usage at the barn, it is useful to brainstorm a new, realistic phone routine. For example, can you make it a habit to leave your phone in the car? Or put it in your tack trunk before you greet your horse? Commit to a set amount of time, like a week or two, to experiment with a different behavior pattern.

2. Replacement solutions: Brainstorming alternative solutions to some of your phone’s functions (and your internal justifications) ahead of time will help you control your phone. For example, do you need to time your trot sets? Wear a watch. Worried about missing an important call? Record a content-specific voicemail message and/or create a default away response for texts. Want to take a picture or video? Try creating specific times and places to do so or even enlist friends who aren’t riding at that time for help.

3. Track communication threads: When you are in the middle of exchanges on email or text, it can feel like you have unfinished business and you need a way to effectively disconnect. Experiment with jotting down names of the contacts you are engaged with and/or details you need to communicate with a pen and paper or a whiteboard in your trunk to help you step away from the communication stream without losing your place. Once you trust that you won’t forget an important response or message, you will feel more calm and centered and able to walk away from your phone.

4. Manage social media habits: Here’s the thing, social media is a fun way to stay in touch with friends, but the potential downside is significant when it comes to getting ready to ride (see sidebar page 18). When striving for focus, the last thing you want is to be distracted from the present moment, comparing yourself to others or passively scrolling through tons of edited life stories. When you are heading to the barn, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the temptation to scroll feeds, including turning off notifications, deleting the applications for the morning (or day or weekend at the show) and/or placing your phone on airplane mode if you need to keep it with you.

Your phone creates incredible opportunities for streamlining your daily tasks and increasing your efficiency in today’s world. However, make no mistake, riding and communicating with your horse are not on that list. When it compromises your mindfulness, mental strength and peace of mind, it becomes a threat that requires careful handling. In the weeks ahead, be extra conscious of how you blend your phone into your riding routine—your horse will appreciate your undivided attention! 

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

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