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The Joker Technique

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Even during practice, there are spectators on the rail or in the stands. But, should they even be part of your game? Article by Gilead Friedman, with Alexis Bennett

Courtesy of the NRHA Reiner Magazine - November 2022

The final practice before your performance is always the most important. It’s the last chance you have to put finishing touches on the skills you’ve developed over the last few months. When you step into the show pen for that last practice, you probably first look for the center marker as you try to get your bearings. You may look around to plan the size and position of your circles and rundowns, all while mentally mapping out the rest of the pattern. You may even check out the ground or survey the walls for banners.

Then, you look to the stands. You want to know who’s watching at the rail and who’s sitting in the stands. If you see someone you recognize, you might freeze. Even though you know your performance doesn’t matter until you’re in the ring with the judges, you still let who’s watching get in your head. Suddenly you change course and practice for them, ruining your last opportunity to tune up before showtime. Here, I’ll explain the potential downside of the seemingly harmless decision to look up, a three-step solution to fix it with an approach I call “The Joker Technique” and the importance of practicing ugly.

The Pitfall: Looking Up

It’s completely natural for you to check your surroundings when you’re in a new arena. You look for the markers and want to get an idea of what the ground’s like, where the banners are and if there are any potential spooks that will throw off your horse. It’s even common, if not recommended, that you also look up into the stands. But, when you do this, you might see someone you know or whose opinion you care about. As a rider, you should be prepared to see at least one or two people who will catch your attention. Most often, when you see those people, something switches in your head. All of a sudden you care more about looking good. It doesn’t matter what your practice plan originally was, you’ve unintentionally made a mental switch to performance mode. You may subconsciously choose to circle your strong circler more than you’d planned and skip the fencing or stops that you know you should do. Instead of working on things, you ride pretty to show off. It’s important to note you’re riding under the assumption that the people you’re worried about are even looking. You think you are making an impression and they might think you have a nice horse, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll comment on it when you see them later. But, more than likely, they aren’t even paying attention. By practicing like you perform, you end up failing to prepare yourself for the real show. So, the next day, you’re more likely to blow your chances at a check. Your horse might fumble through its weaker maneuvers because you chose not to do your part during practice the day before.

The Fix: The Joker Technique

In every deck of cards, there are two jokers. Not all card games require the jokers, but if you’re playing one that does, the jokers are usually the highest-scoring cards. They beat all others in the deck. If, however, you’re playing a game that doesn’t require jokers, you discard them before the game even begins.

You can use this same approach in your practice run. At the show, the spectator is your joker. When you walk into the arena, you must decide what game you’re going to play and what to do with the jokers. When you try to avoid looking or pretend the person doesn’t exist, you wind up obsessing about ignoring them, which takes up valuable mental energy you need to tune into your horse. Instead, use this three-step technique to acknowledge there’s someone there watching and make a conscious decision, rather than simply trying to ignore them.

Step 1: Look for the joker. We can’t ignore what we’re aware of, and you’re aware there are spectators when you practice at the show. So, the first step is to do what comes naturally and pick up your eyes. Look for someone who might distract you. Sometimes you get lucky and no one catches your attention — perfect, keep riding. If you see a spectator who you care about, you’ve found your joker, so proceed to step two.

Step 2: Make a decision. Should your joker be in your game or out of it? If they’re in your game, it means you’ve decided the spectator’s opinion of you, your horse and your skill is most important. If your joker’s in your game, you have chosen not to work on your areas of weakness and fine-tune before the show, and it’s going to impact your performance in front of the judges. In this situation, you’ve let your joker have the strongest value in your mental game. If you instead decide the joker should be out of your game, you’ve made a commitment that the judge’s opinion is most important. The joker has no value in your mental game in this scenario. If you choose to discard your joker, go on to step three.

Step 3: Practice ugly. Feel empowered that you’ve chosen to stick to your plan. You can put the finishing touches on your horse, ensuring that it’s ready to show and you feel confident in its ability to perform well. You’ve chosen to “practice ugly” — to work on your weaknesses, even if it’s not impressive to your joker. This doesn’t mean getting sloppy or aggressive with your horse; it’s simply a reminder to focus on and address what you feel. If you feel your horse is struggling to turn around, you may choose to pick up both reins and do some drills. If your horse is struggling to stop, you may decide to fence. Practicing ugly means you’re more concerned with the mechanics of doing the maneuvers correctly and not being flashy. You’re saving that for the judges.

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 N

RHA 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

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