Sport psychology for the equestrian

Are you tough enough to cope with the demands of the equestrian sport?

Are you tough enough to cope with the demands of the equestrian sport?

Sport psychology, or mental toughness if you prefer, applies to both amateur and professional equestrians. Sport psychology began as early as 1898 when research showed that cyclists performed better when they rode as a group rather than as individuals. In the 1960s, sport psychologists began to accompany teams to competitions, including the Olympic Games, and the International Society of Sport Psychology was formed in 1965. Notable riders who have used sport psychologists include Pippa Funnell and Adelinde Cornelissen.

What is sport psychology?

Sport psychology is the effective use of mental skills to improve performance. Mental skills refer to anything that you feel (emotions) or think (thoughts). Both of these affect how you ride. Your trainer teaches you how to ride your horse effectively by teaching you position, timing, use of aids and much more above that. Your sport psychologist helps you to perform well in competition by focusing on the importance of your emotions and your thoughts. A good trainer is aware of the effects that a positive or negative mindset will have on your performance.

Sport psychology for competition begins long before the actual event. It does not matter what level you are competing at. What is more important is that you have identified the goals that you would like to achieve for yourself. Goals are best set according to the ‘SMART’ technique – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. Completion of a clear goal directly contributes towards a sense of achievement, an increase in self-confidence, and greater motivation – all of which improve performance. When she was 20 years old, Charlotte Dujardin set herself three goals: to ride in a team with Carl Hester, to ride at the Olympia Horse Show, and to represent Great Britain at the Olympics – all of which she has now achieved!

Preparing for competition

Another important element of sport psychology is competition preparation. This starts at least a week before by checking that you have everything you need for the competition. It’s advisable to try and get a good night’s sleep from two nights before the event. We often find that we are too nervous to sleep properly the night before, so if we have already managed to have one good night’s sleep, we should be fine. Pack everything you need the day before a competition, or have it all ready to pack. One of the lessons I have learnt over and over again is to give yourself more than enough time on the day.

Is poor performance due to a physical or a mental problem?

Here are some red flags that indicate there are some areas that your mental toughness could improve:

  • You perform much better in practice than in competition.
  • You have a tough time performing well when others are watching you.
  • You maintain many doubts about your performance before or during competitions.
  • You feel anxious or scared when you perform in competition.
  • You lose focus or have mental lapses during critical times of the competition.
  • You can’t perform the way you did pre-injury, but you are physically fine.

Setting goals and preparing for competition will certainly help in combating some of these. Other mental skills that will help you develop mental toughness include self-belief, positive thinking, and visualisation. As Muhammad Ali said, “To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.”

What you think, you become

How we think certainly impacts on how we behave. Positive thinking induces positive behaviour. This also applies to how trainers instruct. Focusing on the positive will enable the rider to believe that he or she can do it. Focusing on the negative could very well lead to someone believing that they are a failure. What I have noticed many times when trainers are walking the course with their pupils is that they will very often tell them what not to do. This places a focus on the negative. What trainers should do when walking the course is tell their pupils what they should do. For example, ‘make sure you have a straight line into this jump’, as opposed to ‘don’t angle this jump’.


Visualisation or imagery is the mental image we have of ourselves performing, whether it is in practice or competition. Visualisation is popular among top riders all over the world. This image needs to be positive, realistic, and incorporate as many senses as possible – smell, touch, sight and hearing.

Sport psychology encompasses many different elements. However, the very first step in increasing your mental toughness is to first be aware of what you are thinking and how you are feeling. Once you are aware of this, then you are able to do something about it. I would suggest, the next time you go to a competition, to make a note of how you feel and what you think during the week leading up to the competition, and at the competition. Once you have brought these thoughts and feelings into your consciousness, you can turn them to your advantage.

If you wish to explore the benefits of sport psychology further, contact Lylie Beukes on 078 044 0853, or at

Text: Lylie Beukes

The full article appears in the September issue of HQ. Order your copy at