Finding the Right Mindset for Riding

Photo courtesy of Halie Robinson

Halie Robinson shares her journey from working student & top junior rider to a professional running her own business, Huntridge, LLC. After years spent learning from mental skills professional, Tonya Johnston, Halie discusses the importance of sports psychology for riders of all levels, as well as how these ideas translate to all aspects of life.


I remember riding my pony at the boarding facility down the street from my house as an ambitious, fearless, and unsupervised 12 year old. I would bike there as soon as the sun came up before school to set the most unnecessarily complicated courses. After I flatted, I would set my phone on the rail and hit record, walk out the gate, face the ring, and imagine myself walking through the curtains at the Washington International Horse Show, or under the bridge into the Grand Prix Ring for Junior Hunter Finals. I would often be late to school; unwilling to stop until I felt I did it perfectly—bless that pony’s heart for putting up with it. 

Looking back, the determination and focus I had from a young age then prepared me for exactly what would come in the future.

I did not compete in my first big equitation class at an A show until I was 16 years old. I knew how to ride, but was eager to find my edge. Eager to see how to thrive under pressure, handle others’ expectations, and how to take all those riding lessons over the years and apply them perfectly in the time span of two minutes. As a working student riding mostly other people’s horses, I had a hunger to get it right immediately. I put so much pressure on myself to not make mistakes. That was when I first met Tonya Johnston.

Tonya quickly pointed out that at some point, our bodies run on muscle memory. Although this is a physical sport, it is very much a mental game, and should the chips fall where they did, I wanted to be ready.

There is no one size fits all strategy when it comes to the psychological side of competing. Whether you’re a junior in your last season of medal finals or an amateur showing in the Rusty Stirrup, mental skills play a significant role in education and success—whether one knows it or not.

My mental strategy for every medal final or championship included headphones and a quiet place by myself. There, I could not only visualize the sensations of riding the course, but also get into a somewhat meditative state. This level of internal focus allowed me to concentrate on specifically what I needed to do and how I needed to perform without the worry of the environment around me. I listened to the same songs each time so that this pre-show routine became firmly established. It put me in the intended state over and over again. 

After going through my plan, step by step, I’d imitate the feeling at the back gate. Having experienced this moment in time prior to it happening allowed me to return to the same level of calmness and concentration upon entering and executing the course when it was time to perform. Getting into this zone was almost as fun as the actual competing because there was so much potential energy building and building. I learned to ride better under pressure than without because more nerves meant more adrenaline—which meant more energy to channel into an indomitable focus.

Photo courtesy of Halie Robinson

On the morning of the last day of the USET Finals that I was leading, I got to the show about 30 minutes early while it was still dark. I parked facing the mountains and watched the sunrise behind them. I thought back to all the experiences that had prepared me for what I was physically and mentally about to do, recognizing that I had everything I needed to accomplish what I was setting out to. With confidence comes trust, and with trust comes an intuitive feeling produced from being in the present moment with your horse.

These days as a professional, my strategy follows the same foundation with a few alterations. Fortunately, after experience in those bigger events, I have a strong mental muscle for coming back into that meditative state. It’s even more needed due to there being more balls to juggle outside of the ring. But just because your body is moving quickly, doesn’t mean your mind has to. While there often isn’t time to sit and visualize a course, I know to quickly touch on the harder questions needing to be answered in a round. Because the days go by so quickly, I actually take a moment before the day starts, often before getting out of my car, to access the frame of mind I want to be in later in the day when there is an important class—even if it’s 12 hours away. I also keep a list on my phone of every horse I’m showing that day and 2-3 key points I want to focus on for each. For example extra short reins, in a chute, melt to the gap. Keep it simple; less is more so that you don’t overload yourself with information.

No matter who you are or what your involvement is in this sport, there are several similarities between all levels of riding that are important to recognize.

1: What is inside your control and what is not.

One of the first things Tonya had me do was write a list of what is inside a riders’ control and what is not. We are riding living, breathing animals with a mind of their own. The fact that no matter how well we ride, things don’t always go as planned, is a reality that we must accept. We cannot control whose watching, what others think of us, what feeling our horse is giving us that day, what time, or ring, or weather we show in. Instead, we must focus on what we do control, such as our preparation, and our skills that are deeply rooted. And most importantly, we choose what to give our attention to.

2: Minimize stress by being logistically organized, on time, and prepared.

Recognize that this is one of the most important things that is in your control—take advantage of it.

3: Failure is inevitable. The faster you can learn from your mistakes, the sooner you will succeed.

Making mistakes is something everyone has to come to terms with. That was a challenge for me. But then I realized making mistakes and learning from them healthily and efficiently meant making less of them. Now when that occurs, I take it as impersonal feedback and make sure the odds are low to make it again. It is easy to be confident after you win, but is crucial to stay confident when you fail. That’s the difference between stable confidence and fragile confidence.

4: Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re probably right.

You are unlikely to hear any of the sports’ top riders sit at the back gate pondering their ability. Your belief in yourself will surely manifest into the success (and fun) you have later on in your career. Physical practice is important in knowing you can accomplish what is in front of you, but there is no trade-off when it comes to the feeling of confidence. While attaining it is easier said than done, it comes down to the belief system you have in yourself; i.e. a choice that is up to you to decide.

Photo courtesy of Halie Robinson

The interesting thing about the concepts above is that those are universal laws that translate to all aspects of life. Anyone, in any circumstance, working towards their own version of success can benefit by having confidence, being organized & prepared, having time management skills, and applying lessons learned from their mistakes. And that is what equestrians of all ages and levels have the opportunity to learn. We can take these skills and apply to life beyond the horse show. At the end of the day, this sport makes us better at tackling all obstacles life throws us, all while getting to live over and over again that little girl’s dream of riding a pony.