Expanding Your Mental Fitness

Jenny Susser, PhD, explains how to strengthen your mental fitness for improved riding success.
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Let’s define “mental fitness” as the current strength of your brain and your level of knowledge. If information is power, then let’s get some more power! 

This month’s column is meant to be a guide for you to create a personalized plan for increasing your mental fitness. If we can put our emotions aside (until next month’s column on emotional fitness), we can look at our goals, our progress and our methods with a more objective and evaluative mind, giving us true power. 

I repeatedly see riders stuck at a certain level and completely at a loss for how to move forward. This happens partly because the ability to accurately assess their current system is failing and their level of knowledge stagnates. So, how do you accurately assess your progress? 

The first step is to identify your goal or goals (see January’s column). Take the time to set your goals, since they will guide you to success. Once you have written goals, then you need to identify your predicted pathway to reach these goals. The predicted pathway to your goals is a list of actions to take or skills to improve or acquire—what do you need to physically do in order to reach them? Many of us set goals but miss the part where we figure out the path. The actions are key, but because we get all caught up in the feeling part of the goal, we can forget about the work it takes to get there. As you look at your goal, what is its current status and how is your progress? Be data-driven here and void of emotions. “Just the facts, ma’am” will give you that powerful evaluation. What actions are you taking currently that are helping you get there and what actions do you need to start taking? Figuring this out can be difficult, but don’t let that stop you. As you evaluate your current progress, whatever little (or big) course corrections you need to take should become visible. I am a big fan of writing things out—it helps not only to record our thoughts, but access deeper parts of the brain. These two steps involve your trainer or support system and your horse. When you know your goals and you have an idea of how to pursue them, then you have to fill your metaphorical toolbox for the journey. 

So you now know you need more information, and learning provides the access. Have you ever thought about how you learn? We spend a great deal of time as young people being students and learning how to learn, but what happens after we graduate? Typically, we forget how to learn and forget that it’s an essential part of pursuing goals and growth in general. What kind of learning works for you? Do you know? 

There are three main types of learners: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. A visual learner digests information best by seeing. Videos, graphics, written material and demonstrations are great for visual learners. An auditory learner learns best by hearing information. Lectures, instructions and stories help these learners. Kinesthetic learners do best by feeling, touching or trying something. Most people are a combination of visual and kinesthetic: They like to watch something and then try it. It is important to know which way you learn best so you can design your educational system to match. This is also helpful to share with your trainer so he or she can help you learn the best way possible.

Now that you have identified your goals, created a working model or pathway to success and designed your instruction with your learning style in mind, the last area to consider is what you need to learn. What do you need to know more about? I don’t know about you, but the more I know and understand, the better I feel in any situation. New research has also proven that even your intuition can be improved by information, education and experience. The more you know, the more power you have to create desired results by making informed and empowered decisions. 

Where do you feel powerful in your riding, horsemanship and horse care? Where do you feel powerless or wish you knew more? And the most important question is: Do you wish to change any of this? Look to see which areas you want to learn more about and then become systematic in approaching them. 

When you rediscover your passion for learning, many of those seemingly immoveable roadblocks will begin to disappear and your success will take on a new look, filled with happiness and fulfillment. We ride dressage after all, and the mental element is a powerful reason we are attracted to this complicated, challenging and wonderful sport. As you strengthen your mental fitness, your riding success will follow.

Next month: Emotional Fitness—Can You Take It?

Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages— collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with Human Performance. 

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