How the best riders motivate themselves
People ride for many reasons—it’s fun, it’s good exercise, it builds mastery and confidence, it offers time with human and horse friends. Usually, these incentives are enough to foster improvement. But all of us tire of drilling a particular skill. We know we should post without stirrups for 15 minutes, but, aww… maybe tomorrow?
1. Take responsibility for success—and failure
So how can you inspire yourself to follow goals over the long term? Cognitive science offers many techniques of fostering passion for a sport, each tested for real-world effectiveness. You can find a trainer who uses these evidence-based techniques, or you can learn them yourself and become your own best motivator.
Motivation comes in two basic forms: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is supplied by rewards—prizes, cash, jobs, praise, salaries, attention—that other people provide. Rewards fuel our interest in today’s goals, but they don’t do much for next week. They also undermine the long-term drive for improvement that is critical for outstanding performance.
By contrast, intrinsic motivation is a feeling from inside that we want to progress for the sake of our own well-being. This inner drive encourages us to master skills through hard work, set and achieve goals, overcome tough moments, and focus on personal growth. These are good traits to develop no matter what we do in life, on horseback or off.
Intrinsic motivation is often seen as an inborn trait, one that some people have and others don’t. When you see an impassioned rider working at her craft day after day, you might assume that she came out of the womb with a burning desire to achieve. And to some extent it is true that mental impulsion varies with personality and genetics. But for every rare equestrian whose passion is a force of nature, there are hundreds of thousands who grow their own zeal. Drive is stimulated or stifled through daily experiences—the way others respond to our successes and failures, the guidance our trainers offer during lessons, our approach to solving problems, internal beliefs about our own competence. These factors make the difference between the rider who challenges herself at every turn and the saddle potato who only daydreams about being an Olympic contender.
How can you offer yourself the kind of feedback that sparks inner motivation? One way is to encourage the sense that you control your outcomes. If you can get a jittery retired racehorse to plod across a wooden bridge, recognize that you did something to cause that outcome. It didn’t happen because you wished hard, or because you were lucky, or because the horse suddenly changed her mind about loud, hollow footing. It happened because of you. And if you think of it in that way, your inner motivation will increase.
2. Focus on factors you can control
People function best when they have a sense of personal control over their lives, even if that sense is partly illusion. Add half a ton of potential equine panic to the mix, and the need for control becomes even more important. The first step to building control of performance is to take responsibility for it. Begin by considering the factors to which you attribute success and failure.
Suppose you win a jumper class. Why did you win? Was it because your competitors were slow on the final gallop? Because their horses slipped exiting the double combin-ation? Because your horse’s sire passed along the ability to jump practically anything in front of him regardless of the approach? These are external factors over which you have no control. Pondering them—even if they played a role—is a good way to dishearten yourself.
Instead, focus on factors that you can control. You won because you practice tight turns and slingshot impulsion. Because you keep your horse fit with daily exercise, top veterinary care and good nutrition. Because you create performance strategies based on your strengths. Because you face your weaknesses and implement long-term solutions to overcome them.
Controlling attribution that explains failure is equally important. Imagine you finished the class with the slowest time and the largest number of jumping faults. Why were you slow and sloppy? The rider who relies on external attribution will point to imperfect weather, poor footing, a flawed instructor, a sluggish horse. Some people go so far as to claim they are jinxed, as if bad things happen only to them. Those who believe that these factors thwart their performance have surrendered their control.
The rider who uses internal attribution seeks very different reasons for failure. Maybe he didn’t prepare well, blew off his gym program, partied too hard the night before the class, or allowed nerves to get the best of him. These internal factors can be changed. External factors depend too much on others—we end up wishing that strong competitors might move away, the perfect trainer will take us on as a client, the show fairy might touch us with her magic wand. But while we’re waiting for those pipe dreams to come true, we’re not developing skills or improving the horse.
To raise inner motivation, the best athletes retrain their attributions, focusing on those they can control. The more control you have over your horsemanship, the more success you enjoy; the more success you have interacting with horses, the more competence you build; and with greater competence comes added control.
3. Recognize your own competence
An important force in performance is “self-efficacy,” a fancy phrase with a simple meaning—your perception of your own competence. Self-efficacy is especially powerful in women, accounting for as much as 25 percent of the variance in their inner drive for sport success. That’s significant in an area like mental motivation where so many different factors play a role.
Riders who don’t believe they are competent often use erratic problem-solving strategies, slack off at the first sign of trouble, and avoid challenges. They tend to cave in to stress, giving up rather than pushing on. Why bother working hard at a problem when you feel you don’t have the ability to solve it?
Riders who believe they are competent persist long after others stop. They believe they can achieve a goal, so they treat problems as incentives. This kind of grit requires the mindset that Winston Churchill referred to when he said, “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Hard to do, but very important.
The athlete in other sports has to work every day for many years to achieve independent skill. The equestrian never has the luxury of total independence—he has to rely on his horse as well as himself. All other factors held equal, it will take a horse-and-rider pair much longer to develop the same degree of skill. Tenacity is vital.
4. Set challenging but reachable goals
To boost self-efficacy, a good coach selects tasks just barely beyond the rider’s level so that meaningful success is experienced frequently. If you’re jumping advanced courses, posting around the arena once without irons is not a meaningful goal. You’ll succeed, but so what? Jumping a quadruple bounce without irons or reins is more likely to spur your enthusiasm. But the same task would scare the pants off a novice rider and risk her welfare to boot. So task selection is foremost in building self-efficacy.
Having selected the right task, consider its frequency. Small daily successes are more motivating than a big win. Triumphs are exhilarating but don’t happen often enough—they’re too far apart to remember after the glow fades. In addition, big challenges on horseback set us up for big failures, endangering our horses in the process. You know that cliché, “Go big or go home”? Not in horse sports.
In setting goals, consider potential obstacles that will hinder you. Plan for them in advance. What are your horse’s weaknesses? What are your own? How can you address them, and what will you do when (not if) they occur during performance? Planning will help you deal with setbacks as they pop up—and they always do.
5. Learn from the accomplishments of others
We can also expand self-efficacy and stoke inner motivation by observing peers accomplishing goals similar to our own. Nowadays, a good number of novice riders are in their 50s or 60s. Watching a teenager hop her first fence doesn’t have much effect on their willingness to believe they could learn to do the same thing. Seeing a friend their age learn to jump—or trail ride, barrel race, leg yield, rope calves, whatever—is much more inspiring.
Group lessons offer excellent chances to observe peers meeting their goals. The secret is to be sure that all parties sustain one another. A supportive group cheers your success and consoles you when you fail. They offer advice when you ask for it and keep mum when you don’t. The best trainers head off negative attitudes within the group by dissuading gossip and helping all members of the barn to encourage each other.
Mirror neurons in the brain are responsible for the benefits of goal observation. They become active when we carry out a motor skill and when we watch others perform that skill. In other words, when you hop a cross pole, certain neurons fire to allow your muscles to execute that action. No surprise there. But when you watch a friend hop that cross pole, the same mirror neurons fire inside your brain. They don’t distinguish between your action and your friend’s. With adequate balance, strength and muscle coordination, this means we can train motor neurons by watching as well as doing.
6. Be positive when speaking to yourself
Inner speech has a strong effect on mental motivation. When you talk to yourself, the neurons representing those words fire just as they do when someone else says them to you. And every time they fire, they reinforce a physical connection that allows the concept to come easier the next time. So when you make a rookie mistake in the arena and mutter “loser” to yourself, you’re damaging your own self-efficacy. Instead, use inner speech to give your brain a leg up: Reinforce the ideas of confidence, competence and mastery … not fatigue, doubt or blame.
Even the order of words in inner speech affects motivation. Silent words in the form of brief questions or challenges are more inspiring than silent words in the form of sentences. Motivation is improved by asking yourself “Will I sit tall?” instead of stating “I will sit tall” while riding through problems on a horse. Curl up into the fetal position, add some negative inner statements, and you’re more likely to hit the dirt.
Suppose your cutting horse spins out from under you one bright happy morning, and suddenly you’re sitting in a cowpie. What do you say to yourself? “Oh, no, everyone can see what a bad rider I am”? That kind of talk destroys self-efficacy. How about, “That darn horse bucked me off”? No, you fell.
Instead, just get back on the horse and talk to yourself like a motivating trainer would: “OK, can you ride more on your seat bones, pull your center of gravity way down, and relax your hip joints so they rotate when the horse turns?” This kind of language implies self-responsibility, internal attribution and personal control over the next outcome. It’s specific, positive and goal-driven.
To beef up belief in your own competence, avoid self-deprecation as a form of humor. We all joke around now and then about our imperfections, sometimes to make friends or soften the effect of our skills on tender egos. And there’s nothing wrong with laughter around the ranch. But if you disparage yourself often, please reconsider. Those words chew at your self-efficacy one small bite at a time. Instead, share your success cheerfully with people who appreciate it, and delight in theirs as often as you can.
7. Adopt the right measures for success
The next step in rousing inner drive is to study your orientation toward performance. Many people are outcome-oriented, interested more in the product of their work than the process. They tend to assess their skills by social comparison. Am I a better rider than my peers are? Can I perform tasks on horseback that they can’t perform?
Outcome-oriented athletes often fall into two categories: They seek success or avoid failure. Success seekers challenge themselves relative to the field of near-by riders. They figure out where the bar is set, then apply just enough effort to show superiority. They often attribute failure externally and build skill only for as long as they believe they can remain on top. When a better rider comes along, they avoid risky learning opportunities in an effort to retain status. Success seekers evade damage to their egos, and the best way to do that is to do less. Met with setbacks, they tend to jump ship and blame their peers for the splash.
Failure avoiders concentrate on social comparison, too, but they don’t really believe in their own ability. They often set goals that are either much too easy or far too difficult. An easy goal leads to an easy victory, allowing failure avoiders to display success to their peers. Wow, look at me, I turned left! A very difficult goal relieves shame if they don’t succeed. Darn, I couldn’t get the pony to leap the five-foot wall; well, no worries, no one could. Rarely does the failure avoider select a moderate task that builds skill and motivation. Failure avoiders respond to setbacks by conceding early and often.
Because they’re focused on others, outcome-oriented athletes usually have intense social anxiety. Anytime you assess your performance using someone else as your measuring stick, tension builds. Suddenly, the power to control an outcome is not within us—instead, it rests with other people. And they may not have our best interests at heart.
To kindle intrinsic motivation, shift your performance orientation away from outcome and toward mastery. Mastery-oriented athletes love the process of skill development for its own sake. Work on a skill set for a month. Are you better at it than you were before? Then you’ve succeeded! Whether the rider down the barn aisle does the same skill better or worse than you do is irrelevant. By focusing on your own improvement, you teach yourself to create competence.
Mastery-oriented equestrians—regardless of skill level—value learning and progress. They choose moderately challenging tasks, regardless of whether such tasks cause public mistakes. They work long and hard with singular focus, applying effort to a problem for months at a time. They respond to setbacks with increased effort, and they know that failure is caused by factors under their own control. They do not give up on themselves or their horses.
If you want to ignite your passion for riding well, develop inner motivation instead of seeking rewards. Identify factors over which you have control. Seek internal attributions for success and failure, rejecting the easier path of external attribution. Build self-efficacy by setting moderate goals that allow small but frequent victories. Reinforce yourself with inner speech that is positive and helpful. Refuse to give up entirely, but learn when to change tactics, call for a trainer’s help, or give the horse a break and try again tomorrow. Focus on personal mastery rather than social comparison. How others ride just isn’t that important—how you ride is.
Soon you’ll find yourself bounding out to the barn, impelled from within by the satisfaction of learning. Go ahead, drop those irons for 15 minutes. You’ll feel better for it all day long.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #456