Is Mental or Physical Strength More Important for Riding Success?

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


I, like many horse and horse showing obsessed people, spend a lot of time watching videos of riders I admire. There’s something unspeakably beautiful about a flawless round. Hunters that ride off of what looks like a natural feel seem to float over the fences, catching everything at the perfect pace. Top jumpers look like they know where they’re going three jumps before they’ve gotten there. A stellar inside turn, a long distance that pays off… magic.

We try to dissect those videos into tangible, bite sized pieces of mechanics to identify and replicate at home as best we can. The ideal hunter has soft hands that always keep a light contact with their horse. The jumper an independent seat to drive or settle as needed. So many intricate nuances of equitation that experts try to teach us how to emulate.

But no matter how many videos we watch, there’s something we’ll always be ignorant about—what’s going on in their heads.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

I am, by any definition, am a mediocre rider. I’ve got a decent feel, but I need to be micro-managed by a trainer. My leg isn’t the best, but it isn’t the worst either. My hands do strange things. My elbows? Even stranger. With a lot of lessons and the right horse, I can package myself together okay. But it takes a lot of effort. Under no pretense do I consider myself even a 1/5th of a Tori Colvin.

Though I do pay attention to my rogue left hand when I’m riding, lately I’ve been trying to spend more time training an even more important aspect of my riding life—my brain. See, my physical skills can be a little struggling at times, but my real handicap is mental. I have fear issues. I have imposter syndrome. I worry about what I can and cannot accomplish with horses. I think I will never be good enough. And it’s holding me back.

We love to praise the pretty riders with perfect equitation, naturally good posture and a lovely leg. And those are all important aspects of riding. After all, equitation is about function. We didn’t decide on the gold standards arbitrarily. But I think the mental skills are equally, if not more, important.

At the end of the day, you can have absolutely perfect equitation and a flawless eye, but if you don’t have mental tenacity this sport will always be a struggle. Unlike listing off the finer points of equitation, the mental components are harder to identify.

Should a rider be fearless? Not to the point of recklessness, which adds unnecessary danger to an already dangerous sport. But if you can only picture the potential hazards of jumping animals over objects it sure is hard to canter up to a fence steady in your breath with the knowledge you have what it takes to safely navigate to the other side.

What about confidence? Cocky isn’t a desirable trait… on anyone. Still, shouldn’t you ride into the ring with the knowledge that you have what it takes to win the class? If you don’t believe you’re capable, why even show up? Having little to no belief in yourself is just as damning for a good score as knocking down a rail.

Show nerves are something we all fall victim too from time to time, but what’s the difference between a healthy butterflies and huge mental blocker? If you spend all your time worrying about what other people may think, it’s unlikely you’re spending any time thinking about you and your horse.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

There are a lot of things about my equitation that I’m never going to be able to change. My right knee is always going to misbehave thanks to its orthopedic issues. I’m going to have to count (out loud) to every jump in order to see a distance. It would take an act of god to get my core as strong as it needs to be to always be able to stay with my horse in the air. But if I had to pick physical or mental skills to be blessed with, I’d pick mental. I would much rather have a psyche that says, You can do this! You’re capable, and the worst is unlikely to happen. Go out and try!

To me, that’s way more important than perfect heels.

Luckily, the brain is a malleable thing. We are not stuck in our disordered and limited thinking, even though it’s hard to change thought patterns. Therapy, sports psychology, positive affirmations… they all help re-train your brain. And, just like no stirrup lessons, it’s not easy work. It takes time, diligence, and careful practice to improve your mental skills.

In this area, I’m very much a work in progress. I’m in the up-down lesson stage of mental riding skills… still learning my diagonals. But I’m trying. I want to learn. And I know I’m not alone.

If you feel stuck or disappointed with your riding, take a moment to think about the bigger picture. Is it really all about your outside rein pressure, or is something bigger happening? Our trainers are great at fixing the equitation, but sometimes we need to evaluate what they can’t see in our heads to push past blockers and find success.

About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

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