BY JENNY SWANSON, LICSW
Hannah Isop, talented professional rider and trainer at Harkaway Farm alongside Tracey Freels out of Brewster, NY and Wellington, FL is one of my personal favorites in the industry. After her successes at the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships where she placed 4th with Red Ryder, we sat down to chat about show nerves and her go-to strategies for success.
Jenny: So, what does mental health mean to you?
Hannah: Mental health is everything for me. I think in professional life, as an athlete and running a business in this horse world, it’s kind of nonstop. You don’t get to have, “Oh, I don’t feel right today. I’m going to take the day off” or “Oh, I’m a little off today. I don’t want to show.” It’s a competitive industry and there’s a lot of money put forward. I think mental health is important, but one of the most important aspects for me is dealing and working through it [mental health] as a professional.
Dealing with it every day, managing it because you cannot just take a day off.
Yes, I think that’s the word. Managing it. Understanding it. If you’re having an off day, giving yourself a little bit of a break is okay but also asking yourself, “Why you are here?” One of the reasons why I love horses is because they are always there for you. Horses are solid and they’re there for you on the good and the bad days. You have to be there for yourself too, on the good and bad days. The love of the horse always comes first for me.
I love that.
It is a hard thing in this industry. We really don’t get any days off. And finding time for ourselves is difficult too! [laughs]
Yes. It is not only so hard to find time for yourself because you are a professional and it is how you make money and earn a living but it is also so hard when we love what we do. The horses, the lifestyle, we all go above and beyond because we love it.
Yeah, it is your job. You can’t really say, “I’m not feeling it today. I don’t want to do it.”
Right. So how do you manage that part of it?
You’ve got to find a way to work through it. I think everyone has their own way. For me, it’s just accepting it, being a little forgiving, gentle on myself, and focusing on why I do this.
Yes, focusing on your why is so important! Your motivation.
Especially when you’re having a bad day, for me. Focusing on my why and why I am here today has been helpful for me.
Can you give me an example of how that has been helpful for you?
The day of the HITS $200,000 Hunter Prix, I had some personal things going on. My mind was all over the place. I was upset and distracted. In that instance, I knew I was worried about what was going on but I also knew that I had to set my mind. Believe was so good. He is such a good horse. And that, again, is my “why.” I asked myself at that moment, “why am I here?” and it is for horses—for Believe. Reminding myself of my purpose, my horse and that calming breath work really helped me to refocus and manage the task at hand.
Oh my goodness. This was all right before that big class?
Yes. And again, going back to the “Why am I here?” that refocus. For me, that is so important. To take a moment for the importance of why I’m here, and then going into that and then focusing on the task at hand. Reminding yourself of all the positive reasons why you’re doing this, the reason you’re here, and how hard you’ve worked to be here. And again, for me, it always comes back that the reason I’m here is for the love of the horse. I enjoy what I do, and just going in there and focusing on that.
And you did do it, you went in there and focused on those things and ended up 2nd!
Yes! Believe was so good!
What does your pre-show routine look like? Especially for a big competition like the Derby Finals or the HITS $200k?
Time to myself is really important before a big class like that. I like to separate myself from everyone, either stand off to the side or alone by the ring somewhere and visualize. I visualize what I want to happen in the ring and see the course through my own movements as a rider—what I want my horse to do, jump, look like throughout the course. Though it is not always possible or have time as a professional to set to the side and visualize for a few minutes, for the big classes I definitely make time for it.
Have you always done that?
No. I didn’t start to do that until probably my twenties. So it’s probably been within the last 10 years.
Were you always an anxious rider?
Yeah, and as a kid, things would happen fast. I struggled with the ability to fix things on the go. Probably confidence as well. I have always been a nervous rider. I get anxious or nervous for every class.
Knowing that you can visualize yourself doing it successfully leads to confidence building.
Yes. And then if I visualize it in a positive way, I can then sometimes see, if you go through it slowly, where there’s going to be hiccups, where I might foresee a problem.
Right. Like your horse drifting left or right or missing a lead change.
Yeah, my horse going left or being a little sticky through the turn or where a lead change or where I might need to hold the lead. Then I can visualize how I’m going to handle each of those potential problems, and how I’m going to handle it in a positive way.
That’s awesome. That’s exactly what we teach, the process skills.
Yeah, and visualize it in a positive way. I don’t want it to seem like I’m visualizing everything perfectly. No, I’m visualizing where there might be some glitches and how I’m going to handle that in the correct way.
Yes, I think there’s a big difference there. I love visualizing myself on the podium with the champagne, but that’s not always helpful. [laughs] You’ve got to think about the process skills you want to put into place that enable you to be successful.
I don’t go there. To the champagne, the podium or the victory moments. I’ve learned that that part usually comes from the ride.
That part is the icing on the cake.
Exactly. Though it is fun to visualize that, it’s not always the most helpful. [laughs]
No, no. I find that sometimes when you visualize that part of it, then when the actual riding part of it doesn’t happen or things go wrong, you feel so frustrated and upset.
Yes. It’s like a bigger letdown, a bigger disappointment because you built it up your head. I know you’re also big into mantras, too. Did you have one that helped you when you were recently second in the [USHJA International Hunter] Derby?
Mantras! “Breathe and believe” is a big one for me and my riders! We say it before we ride or while we are riding in the [show] ring. It’s positive and reminds you to breathe and just believe in your horse and your skills.
I love that! Breathe and believe. That is a great one.
Yeah, the mantras “breathe and believe,” the reason why, and the visualization, walking through and visualizing it—not just in a positive way, but in a way of exactly how I want things to go.
What other skills or strategies have you used to be the rider you are today?
Learning to be okay with mistakes was huge for me as a professional. Being able to laugh it off was a big lesson for me and my riding. Learning how to laugh off my mistakes and not take it so seriously… because we ride horses and mistakes happen! Really, anything can happen when you walk into that ring.
One of my favorite things that I have seen you do as a rider is laugh off your mistakes. Particularly if something doesn’t go as expected in the ring. Can you tell me more about that?
I am a perfectionist at heart, so laughing it off isn’t like a joke. It is how I balance that perfectionist nature in myself and it stops me from beating myself up. I focus on breathing, thinking about it [the mistake], and moving on. I always have Tracy to discuss things with, come up with a solution, brainstorm ideas, whatever it may be. Then we move on. Laugh it off, done, out of my head, on to the next. I find when I hold on to the negatives in my rides or with the horse, it’s much harder to push through it, fix it, fix whatever the problem is. If I stay positive, let the bad go, I’m more likely to have a positive ride the next time around.
Using that social support to solve the problem or find a solution and then letting it [the unsuccessful parts] go.
This has been so insightful and I think so many riders will be able to benefit from this conversation! Thank you for being open and your willingness to chat with me!
You’re welcome! Thank you for having me!
Jenny Swanson is an independently licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in trauma practice and applied sports psychology. A competitor herself she has done everything from the ‘Big Eq’, AO hunters to Grand Prixs. She now focuses her time in her private practice working with equestrians, individually or in groups, to help improve their performance by strengthening their mental skills and overall mental toughness.