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What is Mental Fitness? And why does it matter in equestrian training?

woman riding a horse during a show

When someone says the word "fitness", it's probably pretty easy to conjure up images of what that means. Group HIIT classes, lifting weights, Cross-fit, running and even things like yoga and pilates all fall into the category of fitness. However, when someone says "mental fitness", it might not be as easy to imagine what that entails. And yet, it is becoming a more common topic of discussion in the equestrian world. Even McClain Ward will tell you that mental fitness matters.

So what exactly IS mental fitness? It's become a pretty common phrase thus there are various definitions out there. Some will say it's equivalent to mental health and others will tell you it's doing thinking or logic puzzles to keep your brain sharp as you get older. And others still will tell you it's all about being mindful and present in the moment. And while I don't entirely disagree with any of those definitions, I believe them to be incomplete. When I say mental fitness, I mean the conscious and deliberate exercising or training of your brain to support you throughout the journey of your life.

Mental fitness is the conscious and deliberate exercising or training of your brain to support you throughout the journey of your life.

So at this point you might think "Great. Now what? What does that actually mean? How do I train my brain to support me?" All good questions, so let me break that definition down. Let's start with the last part, since it's the easiest to explain. "Throughout the journey of your life" means just that, from the beginning to the end.

If we used physical fitness an analogy, "throughout the journey of your life" means staying active and healthy for the benefit of your whole self throughout your whole life. Mental fitness is no different in that it is about taking care of the mental aspect of yourself, both physically and emotionally, over the course of your life time.

Let's talk about the "exercising or training" part of the definition next. Many people think that exercising and training are the same thing, or at least similar enough that the words can be used to interchangeably. However, I don't. I see them as two very different things, especially when it comes to training your brain to support you (yes, I will get to that part, I promise). To me, as a mental performance coach, training is all about learning something new, while exercising is practicing something you have already learned.

Let's take the squat as an example. Seems pretty easy to do a squat; plant your feet shoulder width and then bend your knees like you are going to sit in a chair and then stand back up. But are you doing squats to the maximum benefit to you and your body? Are you engaging your core to protect your back? Are your toes pointed forward or slightly outward to get the best angle for your hip joint? Are you pushing from toes or your heels when you stand up? These are all part of learning (aka training) to do a proper squat. And once you've learned to do it, you go to the gym and practice (aka exercising) that same technique every time you do squats.

Training is about learning something new, while exercising is practicing something you already know how to do.

This "exercising or training" definition translates directly to the mental fitness space. Take meditation where many people will picture sitting cross-legged on the floor with your eyes closed and keeping your mind empty. I have to admit, the idea of doing meditation in this way makes me literally itch. However, I have tried it and yes it does make me itch, every single time. Until I learned what I call "sensory meditation". For me the hard part of "typical" meditation is that I struggle to keep my mind empty of thoughts or distractions (not to mention finding time and a quiet place to sit). But sensory meditation gave me something to focus on so I let all the other thoughts or distractions go and I can do it anytime, anywhere (even in the saddle or at my desk). Now there is a whole science and neurobiology to sensory meditation that I'll save for another post, but the benefits of being trained how to do it have been so beneficial to me, in my work as a coach, in my personal life and relationships and in my riding. Now I exercise my brain using sensory meditation all the time, no sitting cross-legged on the floor required.

Okay, we're halfway there, stick with me as we are getting to the meat of this whole thing.

Now let's look at "conscious and deliberate" which is actually a very important aspect of this definition. It's important because most of the time, our brains are working on autopilot or in our habitual way. Which is a good thing in general. There are many things we do automatically or habitually that are really helpful. As I sit here at my desk and type, my fingers travel to the letters automatically because a long time ago I was taught how to type on a keyboard. I don't have to look at the keys because I know where they are. But I didn't just sit down and know it, first I had to be taught or trained where the letters where on the keyboard and which finger went to each letter. Then I had to practice typing without looking to get better and better, faster and faster. And now I don't have to look at all and I think I'm pretty fast at the it. It's the same for almost everything we learn, we are taught or trained and then we practice or exercise to get better and it becomes automatic or habitual.

For mental fitness, the idea of conscious and deliberate is even more important because, what we think, what we believe about ourselves or circumstances and even how we feel are often the result of automatic or habitual behaviours that we were taught or learned and then practiced until they became automatic and habitual, often without even realising we were doing it. Here's an example from my childhood. I wanted nothing more when I was a child than to be an Olympian, to compete in show jumping for the US. However, I was told as a child (and as a teen and as a young adult) that riding and competing at that level was only for people who had a lot of money. And I believed it (I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been told this or believe it to be true). I believed it so much that I let the fact that I didn't come from a wealthy family be a reason I didn't succeed in the horse world. I believed it so much that I didn't even think there could be another way, that maybe I could figure out some other way to make it to that level, even without a wealthy family. Now as I child and teen, even as a young adult I wasn't doing this consciously or deliberately and it was only later as I trained in human performance, psychology etc, that I realised the impact of that habitual belief and saw examples of people like Beezie Madden, who made it to Olympic level and didn't come from an affluent family, like I could have... if I had known about mental fitness and how to consciously and deliberately change that belief about money and being an Olympian.

When we make a mistake, how we react after that mistake is a habitual behavior learned and practiced over and over again throughout our lives.

If I had known. And that brings us to the last part of my definition of mental fitness and leads us to why is matters in equestrian training. Mental fitness helps us train our brains to support us instead of hinder us. Believe me the equestrian world is full of things thats can hinder you. Yes horses can be expensive. Yes being an Olympian (in any sport!) is exceptionally hard work. Even not being an Olympian in the horse business and instead running a competitive and profitable show barn is exceptionally hard work. Yes there are sacrifices, big sacrifices, you will have to make to be an equestrian. There are a lot of things, that can hinder you when you want to make riding, training, teaching and the horse business your life. And these things, along with all the other things that come with living in our modern society, can really challenge us mentally and emotionally. We make a mistake (because it happens) and how we react after that mistake is a habitual behavior learned and practiced over and over again throughout our lives. Do you panic in the moment? Do you recover quickly but later run the mistake over and over and over and over in your head, possibly keeping you from sleeping? Do you distract yourself with something else that make you feel happy in the moment only to find the mistake and it's impact on you returning once that distraction is over? Do you numb that impact with something (food, alcohol, TV - guilty here so no judgement)? You're not the only one. These are all typical reactions I've seen or done myself. It's pretty normal... but it is helpful? Probably not.

So if reaction to a mistake is a habitual behavior and that behavior isn't helpful. What next? Well the answer sounds pretty obvious... you change the habitual behavior. However, changing that behavior is, as anyone who has ever tried to quit a habit (like biting your nails) or change one behavior to another (like becoming an early riser) knows, is not as easy as the words lead you to believe. Often times these unhelpful and habitual behavior are years in the making and breaking that habit or developing a new habitual behavior takes weeks (a minimum of 6 weeks to be exact - if you practice every day, a minimum of 3 times per day, of that 6 weeks).

Mental fitness means training yourself for helpful behaviors and reactions to stressful situations, which in turn reduces stress, increases confidence and results in better performance.

And that is where the practice of mental fitness comes in, because it is a practice. In the same way you learn something that contributes to your physical fitness and then practice it, over time becoming more fit, learning new helpful reactions and behaviors to stressful or difficult situations (like making a mistake) and practicing them will over time contribute to the development of being more mentally fit. With time, you'll be able to handle more and more stressful situations both in and out of the saddle. And this is why mental fitness matters in equestrian training. Mental fitness means training yourself for helpful behaviors and reactions to stressful situations which in turn can reduce stress, increase confidence and result in better performance, even in the most stressful situations.


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