Be Your Own Team Leader
Updated: Jun 19
Develop a team-sport mindset to become the leader you believe you should be.
Article by Gilead Friedman, with Alexis Bennett at Reiner Psych
Becoming a team leader will help you build an unmatched connection with your horse.
If you’re reading this article — or this magazine, for that matter — you likely have riding-related goals or competitive aspirations you’re trying to achieve, be they winning the NRHA Derby or competing for the first time at a local event.
Photo by NOAM SHOSHANY
It’s also likely the reason you’re competing at all is that, at some point, you fell in love with horses and equestrian sports. Usually, you can point to one or two horses that changed how you feel about riding. You and your horse clicked, and a partnership was formed.
It’s this seemingly effortless relationship that keeps you riding, because you enjoy the fun and success that the partnership provides. The best riders know it’s through these close connections with your horse, built on trust, empathy and good leadership, that you’re able to make progress toward and achieve your goals.
Ultimately, riding is a team sport. Teamwork and leadership are necessary skills for you to be the best possible teammate for your horse. Whether your current horse-rider dynamic is effortless or challenging, here are some skills to improve your relationship. While this perspective is geared toward riding and competing, please recognize these lessons are relevant in many relationships and areas in life.
What Does It Mean to Be a Team?
As the rider, you set the achievements and milestones, create the plan, schedule the practices, and prepare for the competition where you and your horse will perform. You can look ahead and anticipate the dates of the show, and you know exactly where you’re headed when you pack the trailer and hit the road.
Your horse, on the other hand, doesn’t know the difference between riding and non-riding days, or show-prep and non-show-prep periods. They don’t even know anything’s different the day you leave until they’re loaded into the trailer.
Horses don’t choose to live a competitive lifestyle. You do. But, you need each other to be successful.
It’s helpful to think of yourself as the competitor and your horse as the athlete. This is unlike other individual sports, where the human and athlete are one in the same. In reining, the two of you make up the whole; if one of you is having an off day, it’s reflected in the overall performance.
Of course, you need to prepare your horse physically and mentally for the demands of the show. Make sure they’re fit and has practiced the maneuvers. You also need to hold up your end of the bargain as the other half of the team. You need to have the technical skills and physical fitness to ensure you aren’t getting in your horse’s way as you ask it to perform at its best.
You also need to be mentally up to the challenge of competition. Because you’re the competitor — primarily the mental part of the duo — it’s also your responsibility to step up as the team’s leader.
What Does It Mean to Be a Leader?
As a rider, you are your horse’s leader. As the team leader, you have to think about the group as a whole and each individual in it — yourself and your horse. You must be aware of and care about each individual’s complexity and circumstance so you can maximize their performance.
You’re likely in tune with how you’re feeling on any given day — a sore back or extra stress from work. You might even choose to show yourself empathy and be lax about your commitment to your riding goals. You may ride differently on
“Most often, a rider falls into the trap of expecting a horse to perform, just because they’ve asked them to. Instead, you should help your horse perform well by doing all you can to support them.”
Part of being the team leader is being in tune with your horse’s physical and mental needs. That level of awareness can translate into more successful trips in the show pen.
an off day, substituting a short trail ride for the planned training session.
Ask yourself: Do you do the same for your horse? Are you aware of how they’re feeling on any given day — whether you’ve had a few hard weeks of riding and they’re in need of a mental or physical break from intense arena training? Or are you disregarding their mental state in order to meet your expectations?
To be a good leader, you need to be aware of how your horse feels, keeping them in optimal physical and mental shape to be able to perform at their best. You do this by keeping your own competitive emotions out of the team relationship.
Most often, a rider falls into the trap of expecting a horse to perform just because they’ve asked them to. Instead, you should help your horse perform well by doing all you can to support them.
Along with building trust and connection daily by being aware of their physical and mental wellbeing, always be mindful of your responsibility as the team’s leader. If you were leading a group of people through an intense project or deadline, you would do your best to stay calm, give good direction, be supportive and filter any of the stress or pressure from those above you so your team could focus on the task at hand. You can do the same for your horse.
At a show, be aware of the competitive environment, the potential stressors and pressures, and act as a filter. If you stay calm and composed, and give the best guidance possible to your horse, your horse isn’t receiving mixed messages or pressure from you. They can perform to the best of their ability. This allows you to be successful as a team and achieve your competitive goals.
Be aware of and take your leadership responsibilities seriously. Remember that anyone who’s brave enough to compete — to willingly go into the arena, just them and their horse, to be judged — has the mental strength and resilience to become the leader their horse needs. Knowing that, it simply becomes a matter of investing in your personal growth to get there.
Practice these techniques and those shared in other editions of this “Reiner Psych” column to develop the fortitude and skills you need to be a good leader.
Which Horse Changed Your Life?
Take a moment to reflect on the horses you’ve ridden. Does one horse in particular stand out? The likely answer is yes.
Think about that horse. What qualities did they possess? What did they teach you? What was it like to ride them and compete with them?
If you’re like many riders, the horse that comes to mind first is one with which you had a deep connection, one with which you shared a bond.
It’s often the case that you’ve spent a lot of time getting to know that special horse. You know their temperament, their likes and dislikes, how they prefer to be ridden, and their quirks, strengths and shortcomings. Similarly, the horse knows you. The two of you are in tune with each other’s mood and body language, and work together as a team.
With any horse, this life-changing bond is built through trust. As you make your horse a priority by becoming a good leader, they know they can rely on you to support them when you perform together. In exchange, they give you confidence, knowing they’ll be at their best when it matters most.
Gilead “Gil” Friedman of Mental Athletics specializes in the mental game that accompanies competition. The NRHA Professional, who grew up riding performance horses, worked with NRHA Professionals Dan Huss and Bob LaPorta in the United States. Now based out of the KPH Performance Horses facility in Kfar Netter, Israel, he works in person and virtually with trainers, non pros and amateurs worldwide, sharing his firsthand knowledge of performance psychology to help riders step up their mental strength in a competitive environment. Learn more at mental-athletics.com