McLain Gets Real on 5 Things It Takes to Master the Mental Game

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o you ever sit around and wonder what the greats - the Beezies, the Marcus Ehnings, the Pessoas (of all generations) - are thinking about before they enter the ring? When you have that much talent, is anything really the same?

Related: 9 Ways To Ride Like a Pro Even if You Aren't One

This sport is a little bit special, in a lot of ways. Aside from the fact that we get to share each moment with a four-legged partner-in-crime, one thing that stands out about horse sport is the incredible importance of the mental game. While all sports require some brain power, riding requires an extra level of mental toughness, focus, and adaptability. One man who has mastered the mental side of riding is none other than McLain Ward, and picking his brain is one of my favorite pastimes.

Photo by Thomas Reiner.
  • 1. Talent is overrated
  • Looking at McLain when riding, and at his incredible track record, you would assume he is just really damn talented and has always been talented. However, McLain describes himself during his first eight years of riding as a “terrible rider”.

    “I rode ponies awfully, and it didn’t look like I had much talent, so it was a rough start,” he explains with a laugh.

    According to McLain, having talent of course helps, but discipline, work ethic, and a clear plan are far more important to becoming successful. “For sure you need opportunities, and I think talent is part of the recipe, but I see a lot of talented riders that don’t put it all together.”

    Photo by Thomas Reiner.
  • 2. Turn your weaknesses into strengths
  • Whether you need to improve your riding skills, physical or mental skills, it doesn’t matter - it’s all about continuously improving, never staying complacent. In 2008, McLain was already doing well and was considered to be a very successful rider, which he absolutely was. However, despite strong showings in competition, he still felt ‘off’ mentally.

    “I was in Florida and I was looking at going to the Olympics in Beijing with Sapphire. I had one of the best horses in the world, but internally, I was just in turmoil. I was distracted and all over the place. It was starting to show in my results.”

    McLain decided it was time to work on his mental game - he started working with a sports psychologist, and never looked back.

    “Focus on the execution rather than the result” - McLain Ward

    3. Stay present 
    “I stay focused on controlling the things I can control, such as how I am going to prepare myself and how am I going to prepare my horse. I can control my plan for the week, I can control my warm up, I can control my routine and I can control my reactions,” he explains. “ Another very important tool I use is staying in the present moment.”
    Even when rails come down, he stays focused on the present, never letting a mistake start a domino effect in a round.


    4. Be confident about your plan 
    “When I make a decision about the course, I have to make it with confidence,” he says. “Even if it’s the wrong decision, it’s better I’m confident about it.”

    Related: Boss Up: How To Become the Most Confident Rider You Can Be

    “In one round that comes to mind, I ended up doing four strides to the last jump instead of five – it wasn’t actually the right plan, but it worked fine because I was committed to it,” explains McLain, showcasing that covetable confidence. “It was too far away but the commitment to the plan was key. If I had landed and said, ‘I am going to see where I’m at’, it wouldn’t have worked out very well.”

    Photo by Erin Gilmore.

    5. Find out what works best for you

    McLain is an organized guy - a big fan of preparation, but he acknowledges that every rider is different when it comes to how they perform best. “I like everything organized. My tack, my equipment, my preparation for the horse, my schooling, the timing. I am not a guy that can be running ten different directions at once on big game days. Kent is a very good friend of mine and for him, getting here with only 10 minutes left to walk the course is actually less stressful and works better for him. So people have to find out what their routines are and what works best for them. For me, that’s being on time and organized, knowing that everything was thought about, checked and double-checked.”

    Feature photo by Erin Gilmore.

    Written by Annette Paterakis

    Annette Paterakis - The Equestrian Mental Coach - specializes in mental coaching for riders of all levels. She is passionate about working with riders and trainers to help them better understand the mind and reach peak performance. Annette is the author of the book "Keep Calm and Enjoy The Ride", available through Amazon.com. For more information give her website a gander: annettepaterakis.com