Use Your Life Skills to Be a Better Rider


This is a story about an adult amateur rider named Sue, who had a very lazy, lovely horse that didn’t always follow along with the plan. [Note: Name and details have been changed to protect anonymity.] On this particular day, Sue had just finished telling me why she wasn’t able to complete her mental skills homework before our session. Sue is a lawyer, and as it turned out, she had spent the last two weeks preparing for a very tough court case where she needed to dig in, work late, focus her energy, and use all of her tenacity in order to get the job done. Sue was still tired as we started our session, but I could hear the smile in her voice as she told me that she was, indeed, happy with her efforts and that there had been a positive outcome. 

Sue had started working with me to help her build her focus. Her horse Ernie was a been-there-done-that sweetheart, but he tended to test her going by the in-gate and often added strides in lines going away from home. As an adult rider with only a few years of experience, she was having trouble convincing herself (and him) that she knew what she was doing and struggled to generate enough positive intensity and the laser focus that they both needed. The exercises during lessons as well as their courses at shows started off with good intentions, but the outcome was often shaped by whatever Ernie felt like doing on any particular day. 

Since we had started off with a clear understanding of Sue’s mental skills goals, I was actually happy to hear her work story at the start of our session—even though she was feeling badly about the missing homework. I excitedly said, “Wait a minute, Sue, this is actually a great story for us to explore. When was the last time you thought about using your life skills and strengths from work in your riding? There is so much you already have here that can make you mentally strong in the ring! Have you ever looked at it that way?” 

Many riders haven’t taken stock of their life skills and adapted them to use at the barn as mental skills for their riding. Might you have life skills just waiting to be utilized at the barn, in the ring, or at the back gate at a show? 

Let’s help you see your strengths through fresh eyes and mobilize them to serve your goals with your horse.

1. Identifying Your Life Skills

It is helpful to begin by taking stock of the strengths and capabilities you use to create successes in your everyday life. We all perform many roles in our lives, and in this exercise, you are going to consider yours. For instance, what roles do you play at work? In the home? Within your family? What skills help you excel in these different aspects of your life? 

Try this exercise:

 • Name each role you hold in your life. There are likely several … mom, friend, daughter, client, student, artist, writer, accountant, barn mate, scientist, etc.

 • Next, imagine that you are writing a job description for each of your roles. You want to create a bullet point list of the qualities and skills you possess and utilize in order to be successful in the role. Here are Sue’s answers regarding her work as a lawyer: intelligent, driven, organized, resilient, proactive, creative, and motivated.

 • Once you have your list, choose 1 to 3 of your skills that would be helpful to use in working towards your current riding goals. For example, Sue chose motivated, proactive and driven. 

Note: Please be kind with yourself in this process and give yourself credit where credit is due. Identify qualities that you trust are predominantly stable over the long term. For example, do not discount something because one day last week you were tired, distracted or made a mistake(!). 

2. Using Your Life Skills at the Barn

Through the process of identifying and choosing her most helpful life skills, Sue realized that when she arrived at the barn, she had been leaving those skills in the car. She emphasized her rookie status, deferred to everyone including Ernie, and stayed almost too passive so as not to make any mistakes. How about you? Could you put your life skills to more use at the barn as well? 

Here are some suggestions for the process of transferring your strengths to your riding:

• Self-talk: Try using your skills and strengths in your self-talk by creating affirmations that actively illustrate how you will use them every day at the barn. Remember, these are not pie-in-the-sky wishes, they are based on your actual abilities. They will therefore have an enhanced impact on your self-confidence.

These are Sue’s examples: 

“I am proactive, set the tone for our energy level, and create a forward pace.” 

“My motivation helps Ernie focus.” 

“We are driven to make things good things happen together.” 

Once you write your affirmations, post them in and around your riding clothes, tack trunk, and equipment to help you activate these skills at the barn. You can also repeat them in the conversations you have with yourself as you travel to the barn.

• Visualization: Take a moment to recreate a recent life experience where you successfully used your life skills to create success. Where were you? How did you feel? What was your posture? What were you focused on? Close your eyes and re-create the scene and the setting. Sink into your feelings of strength and purpose. 

For example, Sue imagined herself in the courtroom, staying poised and focused under pressure. Her posture was tall, balanced, and open. 

Next, take the details you feel and shift your imagery scene to the barn. You have the same you, but you are in a different setting. Now, imagine riding an exercise or a course with those same empowered feelings and laser focus. 

Enjoy your feelings of mastery in the moment and stay positive with your imagination. Sue felt almost like a new rider as she did this exercise, and she felt inspired to get to the barn the next day.

• Write your own success story: First of all, please do not worry, you don’t have to be an actual writer to use this strategy. The point of this exercise is to add some muscle and versatility to your life skills and to practice bringing them to life in a powerful and detailed way

To begin, write down one of your short-term riding goals. Now, write a short story about your next ride. Maybe your setting is for a hack, a lesson, or a day at a show. Using as many adjectives and descriptors as possible to write a story that chronicles how you used your life skills to accomplish your goal(s) and had fun during your ride. 

Sue had a hard time doing this exercise at first, but found a groove when I reminded her to free herself from her old patterns, use her imagination, and explore the possibilities of applying her life skills in her riding. 

Note: At first glance, this exercise may seem similar to the visualization exercise, in which I asked you to look back in time to access your feelings. This exercise emphasizes experimenting with how you can use your skills in the future. They create a powerful combination when used together.

We sometimes compartmentalize and divide our self-concept to fit the different roles we play in our lives. With these ideas and strategies, my goal for you is to own all of your strengths in such a way that you can use them at will, and most certainly to help you and your horse accomplish your dreams.

*This story was originally published in the February 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now, and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!

Tonya Johnston, MA is a mental skills coach for riders who works with individual clients and offers a variety of groups all over the world. Her book Inside Your Ride is available in Amazon and her podcast is a part of the Plaid Horse Magazine’s Plaidcast. Connect with Tonya at