Emotions Run the Show in Equestrian: Build Emotional Muscle for High Performance

By John Haime

All performance areas are similar, if you can manage your emotions when the pressure rises, you have a chance to do well, if you can’t you probably won’t. If you don’t have an answer for your emotions, you may struggle to perform to the best of your ability, or ride as well as you’d like.

I know in my own professional sports career, negative emotions were a major cause of grief. I just didn’t have the answers when emotions spiraled downward sometimes escalating from hesitation to confusion to frustration and even anger. I was continually knocked off my focus by lingering negative emotions, and in my opinion, it was a game-changing factor in an inconsistent career.

I think we can all agree that equestrian is a difficult and an emotional sport. In fact, understanding emotions is as complicated in equestrian as any other sport.


Three main reasons …

  • You are alone. While you have your partner, you are the pilot and cannot blame or

lean on teammates when you aren’t at your best.

  • Your emotions impact your partner. You have to be at your best and be aware of your emotions because those emotions not only impact you but can be transferred to your partner and affect your partner’s performance.
  • Chemicals don’t help. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that can help boost aggressiveness and performance in other sports won’t help you in equestrian.


Check Your Emotional Muscles

How prepared are you to deal with the “emotional hazards” in equestrian? How much “emotional muscle” do you think you have?

Before I explain some simple biology about emotion in equestrian, and give you a few ideas to help, click here to take a quick quiz and check the level of your “emotional muscle” to see where you are.

Chances are you need to build your emotional muscles to get to the next level in your riding. Working on your technical skills and building the relationship with your partner is important, but building emotional muscles will help you leverage all of your talent, work and efforts.

So let’s start…

If you find emotions might be keeping you from better performance, a little understanding about performance and the brain may help you. After all, performance starts in the mind.

Some great work by Dr. Joseph Ledoux of the Centre for Neural Science, New York University and Dr. Daniel Goleman – a Harvard educated Psychologist and author of “Emotional Intelligence” has helped highlight the importance and role of the emotional brain in performance in corporate leadership — and now in sports.


The Alligator and the Computer

Generally, two sections of the brain are important to your riding. To keep it simple, let’s call them the alligator and the computer. The alligator, or the emotional brain, is the ancient part that has protected human beings from danger through time. It is what leads to “fight or flight.” When threats arise and you need to escape trouble, the alligator kicks in.

The computer, or the thinking brain, makes the decisions. When the alligator perceives a threat and starts snapping, the computer decides on the level of the threat and the action. Is it important enough to respond?

What does this mean to you and your riding?

When survival was the daily priority for human beings and reacting to threats was a constant reality, the alligator was a caveman’s best friend. But threats are generally not life threatening today. You’re a rider, not a caveman, and your brain can’t differentiate between a life-threatening situation and what’s happening in the ring. Your alligator’s threats are a misbehaving partner, a refusal, taking a rail, a late or early take-off and other show jumping “threats”.


The Little Troublemaker

There’s a little, almond-shaped part of your brain, the control center of the alligator, called the amygdala. It’s the troublemaker, pushing you around in the ring and causing you to lose your cool. Even if you ride like Ward McClain in one showing, the overstimulated alligator can make you ride like a complete rookie in the next.

When the amygdala “hijacks” your brain and the alligator overrides your computer, the computer responds to the threat, and your ability to reason and think logically are reduced. Your working memory becomes less efficient while your blood pressure, adrenaline and hormone levels rise.

Some great work by Harvard trained Brain Scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor highlights that we can manage responses. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of your negative emotion dissolves from the bloodstream and the automatic response is over. The emotion is expressed. So, showing some emotion after a bad ride isn’t bad. After all, you’re human.

But, what’s important is if you allow the negative emotion to heat up past those 90 seconds, you have chosen to allow the circuit to continue to run. Those 90 seconds gives your brain time to engage the computer which has an inhibitory circuit for the alligator (amygdala). You can then choose a more “performance-friendly” response.

If you allow the circuit to run and the negative emotion to continue, it can take 3-to-4 hours for the hormones to clear your system, with the possibility of more hijacks being triggered along the way.

So, simply, the control center of the alligator can undo all of your preparation and sabotage your ride. If you’ve ever heard the saying “I was so mad I couldn’t think straight,” this means the alligator is in charge, the computer is over-run and rational decision-making goes out the window. You might know the feeling during a ride or show when things start going south and you can’t reverse it.


Build Your Emotional Muscles

Emotional discipline is like a muscle you can build. In order to build your emotional muscle, here are a few simple ideas that can help you keep the alligator in its cage and make sure the computer is making clear, stress-free decisions.

Know yourself, Know You!

Clearly understand your own strengths, limitations and triggers in your riding. What do you do well, what is not so comfortable for you, and what bothers you and triggers a negative reaction? Identify your strengths, limitations and triggers by writing them down.

A lack of awareness can push you to do things you can’t do in your riding. How many times have you tried to do things in the ring that you know you can’t do, but tried them anyway and ended up frustrated and frazzled? Clearly understand what you can and can’t do and always to play to strengths.

The 90-second rule

Tame the alligator with the 90-second rule. The ability to notice what’s going on as it arises, and to slow down before you respond, is a crucial emotional skill. Brain experts tell us an emotion is expressed in about 90 seconds. It’s fine as a rider to feel and express the emotion within reason in that 90-second window. But, when you feel the emotion building, take a breath and be aware. This awareness will help you control your feelings and soften them before they become contagious to your partner.


Stay in the Moment to Stay Calm

The future and past are distractions for you and stir emotion. Unfortunately, in the ring there is little you can do about either one. Carrying the past with you will also distract from the current moment and can have a major impact on your execution. Your destiny lies in the present moment. While the future is where your goals and achievements live, you achieve them through riding in the moment.

Emotions are the engine in the vehicle of performance, and the skills associated with building emotional muscle are indispensable to achieving competitive advantage for you in your riding.

If you want to enjoy your riding more, activate your potential to bring your riding to the next level, and be more effective in everything you do, spend some time building your emotional muscles.




Bolte-Taylor, Jill (2008). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. New York, NY: Penguin Group USA.

Goleman, Dr. Daniel, (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Ledoux, Dr. Joseph, (1998). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.


John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A former professional athlete and current bestselling author of “You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve more … in business, sports and life”, John understands how athletes think and feel … he’s been there – under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. As a world-class coach in the area of performance and one of the world’s leading authorities in Emotional Intelligence, as it relates to performance in sport, John coaches athletes in all sports (including equestrian), executives and artists in a variety of performance areas. He is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes – professional and elite amateur. Performance Development for Equestrian Athletes – https://youtu.be/krfos5trZxE


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