n this series, I unveil the mystery of mental coaching by sharing some of the challenges that my clients have faced and how, together, we turned things around to become a more confident rider. For this case study, I’m sharing amateur show jumper Katie McNair’s story.
Katie reached out to me when she began to struggle with staying focused while in the saddle, and as a result, that lack of focus led to disappointing show results. As a mother, Katie balances her time, energy, and attention between her children and her horses but has often found herself distracted with both aspects of her life. Is it possible to balance work and family life, and on top of it all, thrive in the show ring? The answer is, “YES!”
I was in Wellington, Florida, when Katie contacted me in the beginning of this year. Her flatwork trainer, Sally Amsterdamer, had recommended she connect with me — Katie was struggling. She had taken time off from riding to have kids and got back in the saddle only to fall off during a show and break her femur and hip — out of the tack, again. Following her return from injury, Katie had to play catch-up to get back to the level where she was previously competing. The problem? Because of her fall, she was fearful when jumping the bigger jumps.
“My greatest life lesson happened when I least expected it. In February 2019, I hit an all-time low in my riding. I felt paralyzed with fear all of a sudden from a fall two years prior. I was having flashbacks of falling while I was trying to warm up for my class. My mind was becoming my own worst enemy and I had no idea what was happening to me,” Katie says. “Annette was in Florida teaching a workshop when I was at my worst.”
“The fear that I was having on the horse was now transcending into my parenting.”
It’s safe to say that Katie was not enjoying the ride anymore and her confidence plummeted. On top of that she became increasingly critical towards herself and had to manage her time and energy between riding, looking after her horses, and taking care of her kids to make sure they were happy, too. Whenever she was riding, especially while training at home, Katie thought of the million things she still had to do and felt guilty for not spending more time with her kids. Mom guilt is real and it was an added pressure to perform to get great results when showing. Otherwise, she thought, what’s the point?
“The fear that I was having on the horse was now transcending into my parenting. I felt tired and mentally drained every day when I came home from the barn,” Katie says. “I became fixated on all the ‘bad rounds’ I had. I kept thinking and telling myself that there was no way I could jump bigger classes — I just could not do it. Soon enough my brain started believing that I could not do it either.”
The pressure, self-criticism, and fear of failure was preventing Katie from riding at her best and enjoying the time spent with her horses. Like all my clients, I began with the basics and explained how the brain works under pressure, how flow works, and why establishing healthy habits is crucial to performing consistently in the ring. All this made sense, of course, but incorporating new habits when already struggling for time every day posed a challenge.
Katie and I started out small — when taking 10 minutes to herself in the morning proved too challenging, we cut it down to two minutes until the habit was established and Katie was ready to build it up from there. In the process of creating new habits, it’s important to keep it small and simple, making it so easy that it’s impossible not to stick.
We established three small habits into Katie’s routine. The first was a short breathing exercise in the morning. The second was deeply connecting with every horse she got on for one minute, and the third was picking one thing she would focus on while in the show ring. Combining these small habits helped Katie feel a bit more calm and focused when riding. As time went on, she also started to feel a difference in the ring, too. When she relaxed more, her results in the ring began to improve, which, in turn, motivated her to work even harder on the mental training process.
“Being 100% present in the saddle was a goal that we set right from the start ...”
“Balancing riding and parenting is not easy. I was trying to ride, but could never shut my ‘mom brain’ off. I was trying to flat my horses, but always thinking about school, sick kids, their activities, and what I was going to make them for dinner. I wasn’t being fair to my horses or myself. I needed to learn how to connect with them when in the saddle,” Katie says.
We continued to work on self-talk and why the words we think and speak have such a great impact on how we feel. All humans have roughly 60,000 thoughts a day. When these thoughts are mostly negative or critical, our confidence drops over time. Katie and I also worked on managing her time better to let go of the constant feeling of being overwhelmed. Again, small steps were key here. Planning the day ahead (the evening before) can help you stay more focused and less distracted throughout your day.
The techniques Katie practiced created a more calm, focused, and peaceful mind. Eventually, she was able to focus on her riding when in the saddle, and, even though there was still work to do (there always is), within six months, she went from struggling at 1.20m level to thriving in the 1.40m classes.
“I think sometimes we forget how much horses try for us, and in return, they deserve to have our full attention when we are on them. Being 100% present in the saddle was a goal that we set right from the start, as well as always enjoying the ride no matter what the result was. I started to see the results almost immediately,” Katie says.
“The most important lesson Annette taught me was ‘change your vocabulary, change your life.’ This changed not only my mindset in the saddle, but also my mindset as a parent. Teaching my children to believe in themselves, and to work through goals with a growth mindset is a lesson that I will forever be grateful for.”