Mental Focus Means Not Trying Too Hard


My friend and I took yoga while we were in high school. It was 1971 or so, and I can’t remember if the group met in a church basement or at the “Y”, but I will never forget my red leotard. It had long sleeves and was a garish scarlet color, with matching semi-transparent tights–think Red Snapper–the fish.

The class began, we were asked to close our eyes, and take some deep breaths. I didn’t bother because trying to breathe made my chest tight, so I squinted my eyes open just enough to critically compare myself to everyone around me. As the class continued, I evaluated my limberness, strained muscles pushing for the most extreme position in each pose, and all  the while squinting to see who was watching me. It wasn’t because I thought I was so good; it was the exact opposite. When it was time for savasana, that meditative time at the end, I fell immediately asleep. It was probably due to a lack of oxygen and relentlessly judging myself.

My keen ability to let my mind run like a rat-on-a-wheel was even less helpful when I began riding seriously–something I had actual passion about. It was the biggest change I had to make to partner with a horse. I get reminded of my Time of Red Leotards sometimes when I’m giving riding lessons. Can we even tell when we’re trying too hard?

You climb on your horse, and with great diligence, pick up the reins, clamp your body into a position, and set our jaw for the work at hand. The horse takes the cue and does the same. Then, you set about correcting every answer your horse offers for the next hour because you want to be really good at this.

It degenerates to a rat-on-a-wheel death spiral: The worse it goes, the harder you try; the harder you try the worse it goes. About now, you hear a Neanderthal voice in your head saying, “You can’t give in and let your horse win. He will never respect you again; he will be ruined.” Because you have passion and it feels true that riding is about the hardest thing in the world, you double down, choking on loud emotions, and ride harder. Things don’t improve but you clutch desperately because you think you’re being tough.

The most common trait I see in clients who want to improve their riding is a misunderstanding about what it means to be focused in the saddle; to be mentally strong.

And have you checked in with this horse through this? He’s the one who actually decides what good riding is, after all. Beneath appearances, he is the one who knows who you are–a mess.  And as kind as he may be, he won’t give you the benefit of the doubt forever.

Still, there you two are; you’ve wrestled him into a hole by trying too hard. With good intentions, trying to get it right, but your horse is tense. Is he belligerent, or confused, or does it even matter? Now what?

Is it too late to remind you that the first runaway is usually the one inside your own head? Because riding isn’t about putting up a huge fight; it’s about having the mental control NOT to. It’s about behaving like a leader instead of a petulant child in the saddle. Do not take the bait. As tempting as it is to throw a fit, don’t lose control of what matters to your horse.

“There is one principle that should never be abandoned when training a horse, namely, that the rider must learn to control himself before he can control his horse. This is the basic, most important principle to be preserved in equitation.” –Alois Podhajsky, 1965


Start by breathing deep and letting him hear you exhale. He might not mimic you on the first try, so in a clear soft voice, say “Good boy.” Not because he is being good right now; throw it to him like a lifeline in the ocean of confusion. Then slack some rein, ask for something simple, like a step forward, and reward him for that. Not because it’s a complicated task, but because you want to remind him that you are capable of not complaining about everything he does. The priority here is to change the tendency of behavior. Yours.

Mental strength, or the ability to focus, is at the very core of who we are as riders, at any level. It sounds counter intuitive but in order to become a more advanced rider, you have to find a way to do less, do it sooner, smaller, and confidently. In other words, you have to behave as if you have character.

If we become blinded by the goal; if a task–like cantering exactly at a certain letter, or doing a certain obstacle–becomes more important than our connection with our horse, we lose sight of who we are and our character suffers. That’s the moment a horse loses trust in his rider. And they are right to do it. How is a rider being distracted by a task any different than your doctor answering his cell phone during your surgery?

It begins here: Ask your brain to think less and feel more. It will take discipline to train your mind in the beginning. Humans are burdened with self-awareness; the place where our egos live. It’s our nature to over-think; it isn’t a crime. But if you’re on a horse at the time, it creates a separation. It’s selfish.

So start again, embrace this new moment. Bring yourself back to stillness within his movement. Be calm and receptive. Have the strength to not jump to conclusions, to not react with emotion, but rather respond with acceptance, keeping your body soft and your cues small. Patiently maintain a quiet mental place, free of anxiety, where you can feel your horse and he can come to trust you. This mental place is the only part of riding that you will ever be capable of controlling. The good news is that it’s all the control you’ll need.

Riding technique is necessary, but it isn’t enough. Horses respond to our character first. Our temperament matters most. It’s their nature to seek a leader who makes them feel safe. The other word for that is respect.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Book Release; stay tuned later this month. Barn Dance will be available at all online dealers.



This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Mental Focus Means Not Trying Too Hard”

  1. Too much to pass on to Gail????? I know this is my problem in a lesson, more so than when I ride alone & actually connect.

    • It isn’t a bad thing to do your best riding out of the lesson; I think it’s a challenge for a rider to give 100% to both their horse and their trainer… It’s all a process. Thanks, Kathy.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! My whole riding life (and probably elsewhere. Of course, elsewhere), I have been trying too hard. The voice in my head sounding like Commander Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, “I vill make thiz happen!” Backing off and focusing on breathing sounds like the right idea. Right now, in this moment. Very grateful to you . I have shared your books with non-rider friends. Your truth (and humor) speak to them, too!

    • Oh that is a voice that hurts my ears! And boy, do I know it. My Grandfather Horse could have written a book about me trying to hard. Oh. He did.

      Thanks, Patti!

  3. It seems I can never find the right words to express how your blogs manage to touch me right when I needed a reminder to take a breath. Thank you. And I’m sure Sugarfoot would thank you as well.

  4. You write so eloquently and with such passion, reflecting how I’d like to be with my horse. When it happens, I’m usually overcome with emotion. Such a beautiful feeling…the place to always be in search of. Quieting my mind, squelching the incessant thoughts and yes, self doubt – so hard. You are right, it is selfish. I’d not thought of it in that way before, but it is.

    I remember Ray used to say that, it was so simple that it was hard. So true. Wish I could ride with you. You sound like such a wonderful teacher, and most importantly, love and respect for the horse is of utmost importance. That is so rare. Thank you.

    • I know that feeling of overwhelm, that the connection is just so immediate and intimate. But then, they’re horses… It’s magic. Thanks, Lorie.

  5. Anna!!! You quoted Podhasky!! I didn’t think anyone even remembered the master any more. I learned more from his book “My Horses My Teachers” than I did from any number of coaches, high-priced clinics, or “helpful” advice (I actually bought the old movie “Dancing White Horses” because it was him in the riding sequences doubling for Robert Taylor 🙂 ). It was from Podhasky that I truly began to understand that the real art of mastery lies in the complex simplicity of just being in the moment and riding (or writing) from the heart. I fear I will never master it.

    Are you familiar with the work of Jean Luc Cornille? He is a master in Podhasky’s tradition. Sadly I came to his work after I had to stop riding, but so much food for thought. Reading Chazot’s Thoughts (his horse’s vision of what we do) is very much like reading your work. Both so simple, both so complex. Thank you.

  6. Amen to all. I often find myself climbing aboard and then frantically trying to remember all the stuff I’m “supposed” to do instead of just enjoying the ride.

  7. The perfect thing to read beforeI go and ride my horse today. I love those quiet connections…..they are quiet but at the same time you can hear yourself and your horse screaming “Yes! That’s it!! Thank you!” It is quite magical.

  8. You had me at the yoga class description. Not the leotard, (I may have worn worse back in the late 70’s. Remember Gilda Marx?) but at your tenacious attempt to “nail” something that isn’t designed that way. I bet if I walked into a yoga class today (another thing I keep telling myself I need to make time for again) I’d stealthily squint around the room, hoping to see that I’m doing it better than everyone else. It wouldn’t matter that it’s been a good 10 years since I committed myself to any sort of regular yoga practice, I’d need to know I’m doing my very best. Always. Hardest thing for a perfectionist type A person to do is turn down the noise to signal ratio and just be in the moment. Thanks for the gentle reminder.

    • Boy howdy, me, too. I’m lucky to be in full time Type A aversion therapy–as a horse trainer I have no choice. 🙂 All I can say is that wearing Kerrits has saved me leotard angst! Thanks, Cheryl.

  9. I’m new to blogging and just discovered your blog, love it! I’ve been reading it for the last hour. Thanks for all of the great posts!’

  10. This. This is just perfection. I love your blog and follow you on fb as well……I’m a little behind on my reading, but this stuff is sooooo good that I’m glad I throw all the emails in a file to come back to. Thank you for speaking what I feel I do and what I wish I had the ability to teach others!


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