Wylie’s World: On learning to punch negative self-talk in the face

When it comes to my sense of self-esteem in the saddle, I’m totally Jekyll and Hyde. What gives?

Over fences I feel pretty good about myself. I think of myself as a brave, competent jump rider–heading out to cross-country, I’m as pumped as a kid on Christmas morning. Negative thoughts (What if my horse stops? What if I fall off?) never really cross my mind, or if they do, I identify them as unhealthy and immediately swat them away.

Over the weekend, for instance, my trainer set up this jump, a sort of makeshift chevron:


My initial reaction was, I don’t know if Esprit is going to jump that. But as soon as the thought crossed my mind I recognized that it wasn’t going to help me, so I visualized myself literally drop-kicking the doubt out of my head. Cantering to the fence, I was totally focused on positive goals–straightness, balance, energy–and as a result my horse didn’t think twice. He was just like, “Skinny pile of crap? I got this, mom.”

In the dressage ring, however, I’m a totally different person–and it’s a person who kind of gets on my nerves. My struggles with dressage are well-documented, and I have a knack for picking horses with nearly as much disdain for it as much as me.

Unfortunately, my mental game isn’t doing us any favors, either.

“Self-deprecating” is a pretty good descriptor. Ask me how my dressage test went? I’ll give you some stock eventer cliché like, “Glad that phase is over!” Pay me a compliment? I’ll let it roll off my back like penguins sliding down an iceberg into the sea.

Example: The other day, myself and another girl from my barn, Stephanie, were both schooling dressage in the ring at home. Stephanie is the sweetest person ever, and over the course of our ride she had several nice things to say about Esprit and I. “I give it a 17!” she exclaimed at one point, or “Esprit totally looks like he’s going to rock the dressage this season.” Each time, I kind of blew her off, rolling my eyes and countering her compliment with a self-directed insult.

Afterward, I got to thinking about how terrible that must have sounded–both to Stephanie, and to the fragile subconscious pillars of my own self-esteem. Would I talk to someone else the way I talk to myself sometimes? No way. And yet, for some reason I think that trashing myself–whether in my mind or out loud–is OK.

Rationally, I understand that negative self-talk can erode a person’s confidence. That’s why I avoid it at all costs when I’m jumping–I understand that if I’m not confident, my horse won’t be confident, and the consequences could be disastrous or downright dangerous. I would never leave the start box doubting my abilities. I would never go into the show-jumping ring anticipating that we’ll have rails down. Yet, I’ll trot up the centerline fully expecting my test to be terrible, in effect sowing the seeds for a self-fulfilling prophesy.

This season, one of my goals is to get more protective about my self-esteem–not just in jumping, but in ALL aspects of my riding. When that critical voice in my head starts running its big mouth, I’m not going to sit back and nod my head in agreement anymore. Someone is leaving with a black eye, and it’s NOT going to be me.

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