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Impeccable Body Language

Change the way you think and communicate with your horse to elevate your performance and their well-being.

Article by Alexis Bennett, with Gilead Friedman

Courtesy of the NRHA REINER;

Credits: Kelsey Price, Waltenbery

When you learn to ride, there’s a significant focus on feel. Your instructor asks you to notice the stride and cadence of your horse’s trot, the rhythm and feel of a lope in different leads, and when that cadence changes to avoid breaking gait. In short, as a beginner, you’re learning your horse’s communication style: body language. As you get farther into your competitive journey, you build automaticity and your mind starts to take over. You enter the competitive environment and go into autopilot. Some of your mental follies outside of the saddle start to appear, such as your inner dialogue and the stories it tells. You may have a game plan and prioritize that over what you feel.

While normal, it impacts how you show up for your horse, your performance, and your mental and emotional peace. This is the first of a four-part series focused on developing high performance, fulfillment and well-being in the context of competitive reining. Inspired by “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, NRHA Professional Gilead “Gil” Friedman of Mental Athletics shares a framework riders can use to manage the pressures of showing while maximizing their mental and emotional wellness. In this yearlong series, Friedman will share the four agreements for equestrian competitors. Together, they will help you reach peak performance while supporting your well-being and your horse’s well-being. The first agreement — be impeccable with your body language — teaches you to speak, listen and think like a horse to improve performance, and have a more fulfilling partnership between you and your horse.

The Competitive Field

Every environment and situation has context. It’s built by the people in it, their interactions and tensions, and the agreements or rules of the setting. In “The Four Agreements,” Ruiz describes these contexts as fields. As reiners, the field in which you most want to thrive is the competitive field. The competitive field is built around a set of agreedupon rules between competitive riders. These are that riders will show up to a set location on a given day or weekend to do a specific pattern; they will be assessed on the performance of that pattern by the designated judges; and their marks will determine a single winner (barring ties). The field itself just is, but its impact on you is real and individual. If you let it, the environment can get inside your head and cause you to think, feel and act in a particular way without you even being aware of it. That’s why, as a rider, it’s necessary to establish a code of conduct for yourself to achieve success, and gain personal fulfillment and wellbeing in your riding. This code is built on agreements you make with yourself and your horse. When you consistently practice them, you can reduce show-related stress, have a better relationship with your horse, and typically, as a result, achieve more success.

The Power of Words

Words have power. Whether directed at yourself or something else, what you say and what you hear (or someone else hears) can completely alter perception, relationships and reputation. Internal dialogue, for example, can change your interpretation of reality. Gossip or complaints about another rider, your horse, your trainer or a friend can alter the listener’s perception of you or your self-respect. That’s why it’s important to say what you mean and mean what you say. This is also the root of Ruiz’s first agreement: Be impeccable with your word. In the first example, your inner dialogue says things like, “I can’t afford to lose,” “I have to prove myself,” “I can’t disappoint others,” “I’ve got to beat X person,” or “I’m not good enough.” When you say this, it can become a belief, which will impact your actions. You may change your practice plan at the last minute because you feel the pressure of the competitive field. You let your mind get in the way of your performance. Humans think from their brains to their bodies. So, what you think becomes how you act, even if it’s not how you planned. Horses, on the other hand, think from their bodies to their brains. Just as your words have power over your thoughts and actions, your horse’s body influences their reactions and thoughts.

Be Impeccable With Your Body Language

When you ride, you communicate with your horse using verbal cues, your bridle and your body language. Riders and horses have long demonstrated that reining at a high level is still possible without hearing or a bridle. But, it’s nearly impossible without your body. Your position, momentum and physical cues all convey messages to your horse throughout your ride. Your horse feels this and thinks body to brain. If, as speaking beings, people must be impeccable with their words to achieve fulfillment and high personal performance, then to reach the same results from rider to horse, you must be impeccable with your body language. This starts with how you communicate to your horse, but it also means listening to what they communicate back. Experienced riders can feel their horse’s lead or cue without thinking much about it. It’s automatic. Being impeccable with your body language means being present so that your cues are precise and deliberate. It means not operating on autopilot. It also means listening. Like a beginner who is learning to feel their horse’s gait, leads and behavior, you must continue to tune into your horse’s body. Friedman said it’s not uncommon for riders to go into a horse show already thinking ahead about their expectations or anxiety, the work they’ve put in or the next event, instead of focusing on the here and now.

In this state, it’s easy to fall prey to your human default thinking: brain to body. In the same way that gossip and negative self-talk remove you from your values and reality, so too does going into autopilot with your horse. You don’t mean what you say with your body language. You may not even be aware of what you’re communicating. You also aren’t listening to your horse, who is supposed to be your teammate. You tune out your horse, even if you sense their behavior is saying something. You move forward with your plan at all costs. This keeps your team unaligned and is stressful for the horse, and ultimately, you. Being impeccable with your body language means being aware of your horse, feeling what’s beneath you, where your horse is and what their behaviors are communicating to you. Then act. This shifts you to horse thinking: body to brain. Practice listening from your body to the brain, and then continue to add agreements to your framework through the rest of this series.

Gilead “Gil” Friedman, founder and head coach of Mental Athletics, brings more than 20 years of industry experience to his perspective on horsesport performance psychology. The NRHA Professional, who grew up riding performance horses and worked under several NRHA Professionals in the U.S., recognized mental performance coaching as a vital element of competitive reining preparedness. Mental Athletics delivers tailored, one-on-one coaching and on-demand learning to professionals and non pros worldwide, helping them become more skilled horsemen and resilient competitors. Friedman is based out of Rishpon, Israel. Learn more at

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