Take these four steps to achieve more present, tuned-in riding this year. Article by Gilead Friedman, with Alexis Bennett
Courtesy of the NRHA Reiner Magazine - February 2023
The practice of mindfulness has recently gained popularity. We apply it to everything from our eating to spending time with loved ones to being more present and intentional in life’s moments.
As riders, we spend a great deal of time with our horses, so it’s natural that the same approach we’d take in other areas of our lives would translate to the saddle. In fact, horses are great teachers of mindfulness. It’s how they live their lives, always in the moment.
At its core, mindfulness is about being present and aware of the now without judging or having an opinion about what’s happening. It’s about observing without assessing. The reason mindfulness has a natural place in horse sports is that the practice allows you to become more aligned with your horse.
I’ve said this many times through this series, and I’ll say it again. You choose to compete, not your horse. Your horse doesn’t have goals, you do. They don’t have a concept of time and progress and achievement, you do. They don’t critique and judge each maneuver or each ride, you do. They simply respond and react to their environment in the moment, as they experience it.
If you can tap into your horse’s inherent talent of living judgment-free in the moment and being more present in your riding, you’ll not only become more in sync with your horse and increase the likelihood of your success, but you’ll also have more fun doing what you love. From building a basic bond with your horse to practicing, you can start being a more mindful rider in these four steps.
Step 1: Build Your Intuition
It takes more to be successful than just being a talented rider or having a talented horse — it takes a team. When asked about their success, many riders point to the strong bond shared with their horse, a bond built over hours of getting to know each other.
As a rider, your goal is to get the best possible performance from your horse. To do that, they need to trust you and your guidance, and cooperate. You can, of course, force them to do what you want, but that usually means they’re doing it out of fear rather than trying for you. In order to gain the trust you want, you have to be responsive to your horse and their needs. They’re prey animals, after all, so they need to feel safe to trust you. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, you can trust me,” or tell them your goal so they know what you’re trying to achieve. You must be willing to meet them where they’re at. This is where mindfulness comes in.
The bond that a great horse-and-rider duo develops comes from building the relationship. Like every relationship, you must be attuned to one another to start to understand each other. For horses, this comes naturally. They’re psychologically hardwired to respond to the moment: the threat, the tension, the surroundings. They already do this every time you ride. But you may not always do the same.
When you ride, you might be thinking about the progress you need to make to achieve a certain milestone; the disagreement you had with a friend, partner or coach; or the show that’s two days away. By thinking ahead, you’re incapable of being present and, as a result, unable to tune in to your horse. To refocus, check in with your horse. Ask yourself, “How is my horse feeling? Are they fresh? Tired? Trying hard? Spooky?”
Once you’ve noticed this, ask yourself how it needs to be acknowledged.
Step 2: Adjust the Plan
Over time, as you become more attuned to your horse, you can
go beyond simply noticing where they’re at and begin responding constructively to support them or get what you need from them.
For example, when you’re in the practice pen at a show and they’re surrounded by others, they might feel the chaos of it. They’re taking in the environment, the sounds, the smells and reacting to the other horses around them. They may be overwhelmed.
They may be distracted by the banners on the wall. They can become overstimulated. Rather than thinking ahead, stressing, and wondering, “Why aren’t they focused? Don’t they know this is our last chance to tune up before we show?” practice mindfulness. Notice where they’re at and be willing to adjust accordingly. If they’re distracted by the banners, maybe take some quiet, unstructured time walking the arena, getting them used to the banners. If they’re overwhelmed, remove them as best you can to a less crowded part of the arena or escape to the warmup area.
The same check-in-and-adjust approach can be used at home during practice. Perhaps you have a hyper-productive ride planned, but you notice that your horse is tired from the week and unable to give you the try you need. Noticing this, you can decide to look for a win and call it a day. Or maybe you’re tuned in and notice your horse is fresh and trying hard, so you decide to practice a more difficult skill than planned. Understand where your horse
is at mentally and physically, empathize, and then ride the horse you have, not the one you wish they were at that moment.
Step 3: Manage the Judgment
The key aspect of mindfulness, aside from simply being present
in the experience and what you’re doing, is a lack of judgment. It’s noticing without critiquing. This requires you to quiet your inner dialogue. It can be especially difficult, regardless of the level of competition you participate in, because it requires you to let go of expectations. As a competitor, you face pressure from yourself, your friends or family, your coaches, and potentially the horse’s owner, so it’s natural that you want to do well.
Remember that you’ve chosen competitive riding, your horse hasn’t. They’re just warming up at warmup time; they’re not preparing to compete. At home, they’re just out for a ride with you; they’re not preparing for the NRHA Futurity, or even a local or regional show. They’re not worried about the skills they have to master to get where they need to be. They’re being mindful and experiencing the moment.
That’s why it’s your job to step out of the mindset of assessing and judging, and instead choose to tune in. From there, you can prioritize. What are the skills your horse needs to have? What do they need to be able to do for you to compete? Then, what do they uniquely need based on their individual abilities and where they’re at on any given day or ride?
In reining, horses need to be able to do certain maneuvers. Practice those skills within the constraints of the timeframe and the horse you have. Be present as you work on those skills without worrying about where you think you “should be” within a certain timeframe or based on the talent of the horse that’s underneath you.
Every ride every day is different, and every experience can be great if you let go of the expectations.
Step 4: Keep Practicing
Mindfulness requires mental conditioning. You don’t just wake up one day and think, “OK, I’m going to be more present in my riding,” and then it happens. It’s a daily practice to focus on each day, each ride, each moment, and be fully engaged, limiting internal monologue and simply responding to your horse’s needs.
Know, too, that the competitive environment can impact your emotional state and cause you to step out of your mindfulness. It can trigger an emotional response because the stakes and pressure can feel high. It’s in these moments where the daily practice of mindfulness can bring you back to center and let you focus on your horse.
If you reach a place where you can work with your horse rather than work toward your goals when you ride, you will refine your approach and develop a better feel because you’ll be more attuned to them. In turn, this will translate to more accuracy, which ultimately separates good riders from the great ones. By riding the way you need to, you’ll be in a better position to perform to your highest potential?
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 ﬁ rsthand knowledge of performance psychology to help riders step up
their mental strength in a competitive environment. Learn more at