When working with horses, training cognitive skills, like attention and mindfulness, is priceless. Equestrian Sports rank high in risk factors and with that comes higher mental pressures and higher consequence. Losing your cool on a baseball diamond is unlikely to have fatal consequences, but losing focus on the back of a 1,200 pound animal can. Being confident and calm is not just important for us in competition but in every interaction we have with our horses.
“[It’s] ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”
- Yogi Berra
Just as it applied for one of baseball’s greats, equestrian sport requires intense mental rigor. We equestrians have a unique dynamic, a partnership unlike any other, with the horse. Unlike exclusively human teams, we must be able to communicate with, and interpret signals from a non-verbal partner. At the most basic levels, this is a pretty impressive skill set to develop, but as our performance level increases, our skills as a partner for our horse must advance to meet the increasing cognitive demand.
1. The mental process of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment.
2. That which comes to be known, as through perception, reasoning, or intuition; knowledge.
No, we aren’t talking about needing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience to understand your riding. You’re already doing this! When we discuss cognitive demand and building each layer, it can refer to the unconscious processes we naturally go through as we advance in our riding. Here are a few examples of key cognitive skills for equestrian athletes:
Recognizing that your saddle fit needs to be reevaluated.
Navigating a packed warm up arena. Enough said.
Training above the level at which you compete.
Knowing when it is a good day to lunge instead of ride. We’ve all been there!
Reading your partner
Feeling and stopping a spook before it happens.
Identifying cranky behavior as a symptom of something your horse needs addressed rather than just a bad mood. You can’t blame everything on being a mare!
Realizing your immediate need to add a stride to make the distance to your next fence.
Offering the exact half-halt timing that your horse needed to stay balanced and light. Turns out, that may not just be a stroke of luck!
In addition to improving performance, training the mind helps speed up skill building by
freeing up space to process information quickly, increase physical capabilities, and aid in recovery. It gives us the ability to act rather than react, respond rather than shut down. Ultimately, training the mind makes us calmer, more focused humans, which helps our horse to stay calmer and more focused as well.
Edited by Alexandra Grant and Catherine Respess