The Power of Positive Words in Dressage Riding

Discover positive words that can boost your mental attitude and improve your riding.

Your mind is like a computer. The words you use form a script that directs an action. If you don’t choose positive words that relate to your riding, you may be susceptible to a “virus of the mind.” Now, unfortunately, you may not know you are in the grip of a virus; it’s not as though a sign will pop up and say, “Your mind has performed an illegal operation.” Instead, you will likely notice a decline in both the quality and satisfaction of your learning or performance.


So what to do? It’s all in the programming: Be responsible and aware of the words you choose and employ in the course of your riding. Here are a few suggestions to help boost your word and riding power.

Choose “Do” Words

Psychologist Daniel Wegner did a famous bit of research that underscores the importance of being deliberate and conscious about where we choose to focus our minds. He put his research subjects in a room with a tape recorder and asked them to talk about whatever they liked. There was only one rule: They were not to think about a white bear. Wegner found that the subjects mentioned the bear often, despite numerous attempts and tricks to keep the image from their minds. His research informs us that the thoughts we most want to keep from ourselves have a nasty habit of growing in strength.

Ella, an amateur rider trying desperately to conquer her nerves before her first competition, knows this phenomenon all too well. “I knew what I had to do,” she said. “I had to avoid letting my nervousness affect my body so my horse wouldn’t feel it. So I kept repeating to myself, ‘Don’t grab. Don’t stiffen.’ But the harder I tried, the worse it became. Pretty soon my body was buzzing with tension.”

Why did Ella–and so many of us–succumb to the “white bear syndrome”? It is still unclear why this happens; one theory is that the suppressed thought is not fully processed, so it keeps resurfacing like a ball pushed beneath the water’s surface. Another is that our brains simply cannot process what “don’t” looks like. So when you say to yourself “Don’t be nervous and freeze,” your mind struggles to imagine what you want. It does some gymnastics and gyrations trying to conceive of what you mean. In the meantime, your head fills with images of being nervous and freezing.

To counteract this, choose “do” words. If you want relaxation, think “loose,” “fluid” or “supple.” You can also develop short, directive phrases: “soft hands,” “feeling body,” “eyes forward,” “receive in relaxation.” As an exercise, think of all the times you tell yourself not to do something. Write all the statements out so you can see them clearly. Now take each one and turn the statement into “do” language. Make sure it is clear and concise before taking the next step of consciously applying the statements next time that situation presents itself. If you persist, you will notice a difference in your tension levels and attitude.

Look for Meaning

Ultimately, what gives real punch to the words or phrases you choose in your riding is their specific meaning to you. Key words and phrases are just that: keys. They open doors to past experiences and feelings. You know how easy it is for people who know you well to find your sensitive buttons? Well, you can just as easily find the buttons within yourself that bring forward good things about your riding. But what if you think the word “relax” is a great key word to use, but it fails to loosen your tense muscles? Your friend uses “soft is supple; supple is soft,” but the phrase leaves you cold. How can you find your own words?

Finding your own best words is a trial and error process. Often you must see them in action to assess their impact on your personal psyche. Canadian rider Joanne Uhrig relies on two key words that hold a lot of meaning for her: “ride” and “soften.” She uses them when she feels her horse becoming powerful and herself losing the connection. They may seem like everyday words to others, but they are large and powerful to her mind. The words are like directions in capital letters.

When I was competing, I needed a phrase that helped me remain light in mood and responsive to my horse. One day it came to me: “I’m all right” from the movie Caddyshack. When I said this to myself, I could feel my mood shift. It made me smile; I thought of nothing but that silly dancing gopher, and my negative judgmental thoughts seemed to fade. What matters is the impact of the words.

To ensure your programming success, assess what kind of outcome you want, then test to see what kind of resonance the words hold for you. Do you want levity or power? Your body will tell you what words or combinations work.

Try this exercise: Sit comfortably and take a few deep, clarifying breaths. Next, choose one of the following words to hold in your mind: poise, grace, energy, soft, release, forward, compress, elevate, patience, strength. What images does each word evoke? What kind of body changes do you notice? Any specific memories? If you are trying this while riding, how does your mount respond to you? Now try the reverse. Think of an unpleasant word: “tight” or “fear.” Observe what happens to your tension levels and breath. This illustrates the power that words have to change our emotional and mental patterns.

Keep it Short but Descriptive

When utilizing key words or phrases, short is best, especially in competition. In addition, too much analytical or left-brain thinking will take you out of the moment. And since dressage is about relationship and conversation, the here and now is the only place you want to be.

Author, clinician and judge Charles de Kunffy is a master at choosing the right words to form a concept or clear direction for the rider. He prefers at least two words, to allow for enough description. “Teaching is all about timing–the words have to be presented at the right time.” Try the word “compress,” for example, when you want to collect your horse’s stride or “float” when you want that barely-touching-the-ground kind of extension.

To know if he is ready to perform a certain movement, de Kunffy says, “Let the horse be your calendar.” This phrase tells the rider to be sensitive to the feedback the horse is giving and reminds him or her where the learning focus ought to be.

“Riding lessons, not horsing lessons” is another quip designed to get your attention in the right place–on you.

Many Ways to Use Words

As you can see, you can develop your own riding language to remind yourself of key concepts, as de Kunffy does. You could file these in your mind under “learning language.” For example, when Brittany, an amateur rider, wants to tap into the relationship between her and her horse, she uses “dance the dance.”

Under “task talk,” file words and phrases that help direct your riding in the moment, for example: “sit deep,” “heels down,” “body square” or “shift weight.” This category of words is all about non-emotional direction. What is it you need to do to perform some of your more difficult movements?

Finally, “emotion buttons” are words that evoke a specific emotional response in you. They are more likely to be employed during the heat of competition, when you need to attain a certain state. That state will differ for each rider; for me, it was lightheartedness. For another, it may be quiet and meditative.

As you go, you can add to your word library and develop your own unique language of riding. Equipped with a rich array of words and statements, you will be better insulated from those nasty viruses–that negative, demeaning voice that plays havoc with your talent. Because, let’s face it, when the heat turns up, we all have phrases we repeat to ourselves. They represent automatic perception, our default script and our error messages. They may be statements such as, “I can’t do this,” “I always screw up” or “I always make mistakes when it’s most important.” Not only are these messages unhelpful, they don’t direct you in any way and are emotionally damaging.

Since we, unfortunately, cannot install a program in our brains to detect unwanted thoughts, we can at least fight the good fight with good programming. After all, isn’t that half the battle of any good virus protection?

April Clay is a chartered psychologist with a practice in Calgary, Alberta, focused in
counseling, consulting and sport psychology– A former competitive rider and judge, she is the author of
Training From the Neck Up: A Practical Guide to Sport Psychology for Riders.