Driven to understand just what those mental skills are and how riders use them in equestrian sports, Wolframm’s research has focused on examining differences between elite and non-elite riders. This includes a recent study conducted with show jumpers during the winter show circuit in Ocala, Florida, with her student Elin Ottersky.

Although each rider may find some mental habits more helpful than others, research suggests that most athletes will use a combination of psychological strategies in achieving top performance. Much like training the body, these mental skills, while simple in nature, need to be practiced regularly to become effective habits, says Wolframm. It is work she believes is invaluable for any athlete. “I am convinced you cannot get to the top without the mental skills to go with it.”

Here is a closer look at seven of those mental habits considered among the most effective.

Habit #1: Goal-setting – Mapping out your success

“In sports psychology, we know that more ambitious goals end up eliciting greater performance efforts,” says Wolframm. “Getting better doesn’t just happen by itself – you have to have something that you are aiming towards, and then take the relevant actions to get you there.”

Goals should stretch you, but shouldn’t be totally unrealistic, adds Wolframm. Most important, she says, is having long-term, medium-term, and short-term goals. “If you only focus on the long-term goal, you’ll often end up frustrated, because it feels like you’ll never get there. You want to set up your goals like stepping stones, each one taking you a step closer to where you want to be. You need to ask, “where do I want to go, and what are the things I need to achieve to get me there?”

Wolframm also distinguishes between different types of goals. “Outcome goals focus on competition results. They are very much dependent on external circumstances, like the other competitors, giving you little control over them.” Consequently, Wolframm advises focusing on performance goals as well. “Those would be goals related to getting the best performance for you and your horse at that time – a clear round, or a certain dressage score, for example.” Process-oriented goals that focus on elements of training are valuable too, she adds. “Things like having a good rhythm, or keeping the horse in front your leg and up into the bridle throughout an exercise or test.”

Habit #2: Emotional control – Achieving a balanced state of mind

Research in other sports indicates that an athlete’s ability to control anxiety is a significant contributing factor to superior performance, and this may hold true to an even greater extent in equestrian sports where there is an animal involved, says Wolframm. Indeed, in one of the first studies to investigate the use of psychological skills in equestrian sports, elite riders scored significantly higher on measures of anxiety management when compared to non-elite riders.

“When stress levels and anxiety go unchecked, we often see horse-rider communication go awry,” says Wolframm. “Riding depends largely on fine motor skills – the subtle movements of, for example, our wrists and fingers to transmit certain aids. Mental anxiety can translate to physical tension in our bodies, and the aids can become less clear, confusing the horse.”

One of the things revealed by Wolframm’s research, however, is the extent to which rider confidence can play a role in modifying the perception of stress and anxiety. With a sense of trust and confidence in one’s abilities, a rider is more likely to perceive the heightened state of psychological arousal as a positive thing. “Anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. It can, under the right circumstances, be useful, because it activates your body to react more quickly and the adrenaline can help you concentrate.”

Higher confidence levels are correlated with years of experience, Wolframm’s study found. However, adequate preparation at home, not over-facing the horse or oneself, a solid support team and other mental skills and habits can all contribute to a greater sense of confidence come show day. For excess physical tension in the body, Wolframm notes that breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxations (where you tense and then release one group of muscles at a time) can be invaluable.

Habit #3: Self-talk – Controlling the voice inside your head

When it comes to those thoughts that can flitter through your mind both before and during competition, some are clearly more constructive than others. “Oh my god, my horse is never going to jump that,” “What if I fall off?” and “I don’t want to look stupid” are among those that fall in the less-than-helpful category. Not only can such negative thinking spiral out of control, having a detrimental effect on self-confidence, it can also be a significant source of distraction, says Wolframm.

Furthermore, based on her study of show jumpers, Wolframm and her student found that female riders are more likely to engage in negative thinking – a tendency revealed by studies in non-equestrian sports as well. “It appears that women seem to think more, and quite often think more negatively, than men,” says Wolframm.

Certainly, being aware of the problem is the first step in affecting change for the better. In place of negative thoughts, you can try something more positive and motivational, says Wolframm. “But if you find you have a hard time believing yourself, then you can concentrate on something instructional instead. With my sensitive jumper mare, I’ll say to myself, “keep the rhythm, keep the rhythm.” So if all else fails and you think, “Oh gosh, I can’t do this,” you can focus your self-talk on something that you can control, that you know will help with your performance.”

Habit #4: Attentional control – Focusing on the task at hand

When interviewing dressage riders in another study, Wolframm found that while elite riders emphasized the importance of retaining task-specific focus and not dwelling on mistakes during competition, non-elite riders admitted to regularly losing focus and getting tense following a mistake.

“When we focus on something, by consequence we will not be focused on something else,” notes Wolframm. As she explains, our attention can be externally focused – where we pay attention predominantly to things around us; or internally focused – where we are more focused on our thoughts and how our body feels. Additionally, our focus can be categorized as narrow or broad. The contrasting attention styles are suited to different situations. “A broad-external focus, where you take in lots of things that are going on around you, for example, is the sort of focus we use when driving a car, and can be very beneficial in team sports.”

An internal-narrow focus, on the other hand, is key when it comes to riding, says Wolframm. “You are focused on the feel of the horse in your hands and underneath your seat, and when the horse is going really well you feel it in yourself. That is when you are in flow – when you’ve got no idea of who’s standing by the side of the arena, because you are totally entranced with what you are doing in the moment. Then, as you make your way through the course, or a dressage test, you will be switching at times to external-narrow, such as on your approach to a fence, so there is this shifting back and forth.”

What you don’t want, emphasizes Wolframm, is an internal-broad focus, characteristic of over-thinking. “That sort of attentional style can be useful when you’re sitting at home planning your strategy for next year. But the trouble is, a lot people do it when they are sitting on their horse. The rider may be focused, but not on the task at hand.”

Habit #5: Visualization – Using the power of imagery to boost performance

“Visualization is a fantastic tool to train you to see yourself performing to the extent that you really want,” says Wolframm. A number of studies have shown that it can translate to real-world improvements in performance, although it does take a bit of practice, she notes. “If you are worried about a certain situation, these images have a tendency to spiral out of control and you end up imagining the thing you are trying to avoid.”

Wolframm advises starting simply. “Begin with something that is not so emotionally taxing, like grooming your horse. You want to try and create vivid images that replicate real-life situations, so include all the senses. By the time you have full control over that you can move on to ridden exercises, and with practice you’ll be able to see yourself deliver a top performance in your head.”

Not only can visualization have a positive effect on morale, it could assist with motor learning as well. “We believe that the brain uses the imagined performance as a sort of blueprint for your body. When you imagine moving your arm, for example, research has actually shown that the same electromagnetic signals that travel from your brain to your arm are activated as when you’d move it. They just aren’t as strong, so the arm doesn’t move.”

Habit #6: Automaticity – Doing without thinking

“The higher up in the level of performance you are, the more you can allow your body to simply react, without thinking about it,” says Wolframm. “Rather than being conscious of the aids you are giving, they just naturally arise.” This “automaticity” is something she found to be more common among elite show jumpers. With more experience and hours of practice behind them, this may not be altogether surprising. However, as Wolframm points out, many riders at national and regional levels have enough experience to be able to achieve automaticity in their riding most of the time – yet when the pressure is on, they falter. Over-thinking things, they detract from their performance.

The use of cue words, says Wolframm, can be particularly helpful in this regard, and has been supported by research in other sports. “What sort of cue word you use, like “rhythm” or “forward,” will depend on the sort of horse you are riding.”

Habit #7: Solution-focused thinking – Addressing the holes in performance

Inevitably, at some point in everybody’s riding career, things will go wrong. According to Wolframm, when it comes to coping strategies, it appears that elite riders are more likely to employ task-oriented and problem-focused solutions. “Non-elite riders, especially when faced with situations over which they have no control, such as unforeseen events or making a mistake, seem to focus on their emotional response instead.”

In the face of a loss of confidence, elite dressage riders in one of Wolframm’s studies sought to assess which elements in their ridden performance needed improving, and scale down the demands, going “back to basics.” Non-elite riders, on the other hand, referred to using repetitive practice of a particular movement and being successful in an event as their preferred method of regaining confidence. Interestingly, notes Wolframm, a number of the elite riders referred to this as a mistake often made by less-experienced riders. Without assessing what went wrong, they said, riders would subsequently fail to “fix” the problem and improve the situation.

“Elite riders typically have more experience to draw on and greater skill to deal with problems,” admits Wolframm. However, with the correct coping strategies, a rider should be able to deal with most situations arising at a competition at their current level, whatever that may be. “This might include trying to figure out precisely what went wrong, and then finding someone to help you fix it; or perhaps setting different types of goals. Going into a competition well-prepared and reminding yourself what you’ve done to get there will help put your mind at ease. Most importantly, though, once you feel the butterflies rallying around, don’t think of them as something negative. Think of them as a signal that you’re ready to perform.”