Daniel Stewart: Happy Not Crappy

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


When you arrive at the barn you arrive at a place that’s more than just fences, fields, and fillies… you arrive at your happy place; the place you go to when you need a little distraction from the craziness of a life that can often leave you feeling a bit frazzled, fried, and frustrated. Unlike other sporting venues like courts and pools, your happy place isn’t defined by the location itself, but by the relationships you build with your trainers, peers, and horses there. 

So what happens when your happy place becomes a little less happy? What happens when your thoughts turn from friends and fun; to fears, falling, and freaking out?  What happens when your happy place turns into your crappy place! 

Teaching yourself to look beyond the problems and challenges that can often affect our sport – and staying focused on the silver-linings and lessons-learned there – isn’t just necessary to being happy in your happy place, it’s also necessary to be successful there. In fact, studies have shown that you’re up to 34% better at everything you do when you’re happy (as compared to everything you do when you’re feeling tense, frustrated, nervous, intimidated, etc.). This means that you’re 34% more like to ride well when you’re enjoying the process… but it also means that you’d be well-advised to teach yourself how to enjoy the setbacks as much as the comebacks, and the struggles as much as the successes. 

This is what social scientists refer to as the happiness advantage and their work shows an overwhelming relationship between success and happiness. Obviously you’re happy when you’re successful – but the reverse is also true – you’re more successful when you’re happy too.

Here’s how is your brain connects the dots between happiness and performance:

  • You laugh and smile
  • Your brain thinks you’re happy and safe
  • Your brain releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin which are natural antidepressants (like prozac)
  • You become more relaxed, confident, courageous, and optimistic
  • You perform better

On the other hand, here’s how your brain connects the dots when you replace enjoyment with a doubt, frustration, and anger… all of a sudden the dots look a whole lot different:

  • You feel nervous
  • Your brain thinks you’re facing a threat
  • Your brain releases the stress hormone Cortisol and adrenaline 
  • You become tense, anxious, nervous, and forgetful
  • Your performance suffers

Learning to connect movements together in a dressage test, or connecting fences together in a jump course are definite keys to success in our sport… but learning to connect the dots between enjoyment and performance are just as important. Always remember, if your too busy to laugh, you’re probably just too busy… so regain your smile and the love of the sport this month and don’t be surprised if you might just replace a little of that stress with a lot more success.

Originally posted in Daniel Stewart’s Pressure Proof Academy monthly tips.

Daniel Stewart has been an equestrian for over thirty-five years and has coached riders all over the world for the past twenty-five. Combining his knowledge as an equestrian with a degree in physical education, he created an empowering and inspiring clinic series that helps riders develop equally strong minds and bodies. As the internationally acclaimed author of Pressure Proof Your Riding, Ride Right, and Fit and Focused in 52; he’s widely considered one of the worlds leading experts on equestrian sport psychology, athletics, and performance. He teaches clinics and seminars to thousands of riders each year including an annual summer clinic-tour that includes 50 clinics in more than 30 cities over a span of  60 days. He’s a sough-after keynote speaker, has published countless magazine articles, and is an equestrian sport psychology and rider fitness contributor for many other equestrian associations.