When do you ride your best? Do you even know? Many athletes cannot answer this question, no matter the sport and I find it curious. If we are always striving to do our best, how is it we don’t know the conditions under which we perform well? Then there is the other perspective of this topic, which would come from a trainer or sport psychologist, and it would say you should perform well no matter what. Wouldn't that be lovely?
Conditions matter, for sure, but just how much they matter is up to us. There is a more powerful way to consider the impact of the conditions you ride in than just saying something like, “deal with it.” And of course, it has to do with preparation.
Begin by examining your “performance record” (both at home and at shows) to really answer the question of when you ride your best. Knowing this component is powerful because it not only gives you a place to start but also a course to follow to continually improve. The number of times I have seen a rider come out of the ring from a great test and not be able to tell my why it went so well is overwhelmingly high. They say something like: “It was my horse,” “It was the full moon last night,” “It was the oatmeal I ate for breakfast,” or something so distant from the self, you wonder if they rode at all.
Part of that comes from our cultural bend toward humility and that I get, but the ability to own your success is equally important and critical for being able to reproduce it. So begin to populate a list of what you do well. Cover as many areas as possible because so much goes into a great ride other than what you do in the saddle, in the ring. This should be a living document of sorts because not only will it take you days to connect with and remember them all but you want to continually add to this list as you add new skills.
Then next part is to examine when you ride poorly. And while this is not as fun, this different list is sadly easier to populate. But let’s not get caught up in the drama of the bad rides and simply work to identify the things that trip you up. Again, look for extenuating circumstances—or things out of the ring that get to you. I worked with a wonderful Young Rider once and her mother was as lovely as could be and couldn’t have been more supportive. Their relationship was honestly great, however, the pressure the Young Rider put on herself when her mom was around was hurting her performance. It made no sense, which is why it was never considered, but as soon as mom became a fixture in the stands versus the barn, the Young Rider really started to perform well. So, the things that trip you up might not be obvious or make sense, but everything you encounter on the way to the ring impacts your energy and focus, the two things you need to be amazing and perform well.
These first two “lists” are like a database with the goal to identify things you want to work on: make the good list stronger and longer by addressing the bad list. Now comes the interesting part: What kind of performer are you? Do you love the big shows? Do you love the schooling shows? Is it important to have people around you because of the social element?
An analogy: Not every boat is designed for every condition or body of water. Some boats do better in shallow water and some do better in deep water based on design. If you have a boat designed for deep water and decide to take it in shallow water, no matter how awesome it is in deep water, it will fail in shallow. Does the boat suck? No, the design matters. The first two lists about when you ride well or not are all about the conditions, the third is all about what kind of “boat” you are. Not all of us are designed for the Olympics—actually, most are not—so what are you designed for?
When you know the answer to this, you can play to your strengths and be mindful of your weaknesses so you can create the best conditions for your design. Stay focused, stay committed, and most of all, be kind to yourself.