A person can spend a lot of time trying to figure out the secret to succeeding in this mentally challenging sport. I’m trying to remedy that situation by going straight to the source: interviewing some of the top-ranked riders in the world to find out what makes them tick. What can we learn from those who have been climbing the equestrian ladder and succeeding?
One such rider is Laura Kraut, and I was amazed by the insights I heard from her. Here are four important lessons that Laura shared with me about what it takes to successfully perform in the show jumping arena.
1. Connect with your horse.
"We had to learn to ride our horses just with our seat, leg, and our voice. We had many lessons where we weren’t allowed a bridle or even a halter," Laura says. "We had to teach them to go around like that and jump courses with poles. At the time, I didn’t think that was particularly helpful, but in hindsight, I think it was amazing, because it helped me understand the movement of the horse underneath me and to be able to feel and read what my horse was thinking."
Analysis: This ability to deeply connect with her horses turns out to be crucially important to Laura in the ring today as it directs her focus straight to what matters most: her horse and the course.
2. Train your brain.
A second, very valuable skill in show jumping is to have a quick and calculating brain. Take a normal, six-stride line on course. “I calculate what to do in that line depending on how I come into it,” Laura explains. “When I’m in the air, I’m computing all the data and calculating all the information, so before I have even hit the ground, I know what to do.”
Analysis: This ability to think quickly and compute all the data around you is what psychologists refer to as ‘situational awareness’, and it is developed through a lot of practice over time. Training yourself with many different courses—even if it’s just over groundpoles—can help you to create mental maps in your brain. These ‘mental maps’ can then be used to help you judge each different situation on course.
3. Shake it off!
"Everyone makes mistakes in this sport…even at the highest level. I am no exception. When I make a mistake, I just shrug it off," Laura says. "I have seen Ludger [Beerbaum] do it, I have seen Nick [Skelton] do it, and I have seen Simon Delestre and Scott Brash do it. We all make mistakes, but we have also done it right a thousand times before, and we will probably do it right another thousand times."
Analysis: Keep this lesson in mind the next time you miss a distance!
4. Stay in touch with your “why.”
"I just love horses! When you experience setbacks, like losing your top horse or something going wrong, you just start a new project. You just have to make your other horses better. You do what you have to do to get back up," Laura says. "Horses are my life, it’s what I do. For me, to work on a 6-year-old that might not even be that promising, but just to get on it and try and make it a little bit better that day, that is an accomplishment."
Analysis: Show jumping is a sport that’s renowned for its ups and downs, many of them outside a rider’s ability to control. In fact, even top riders like Kraut only win about 2-5 percent of the time. Laura’s ability to stay motivated and work so hard for years is a testament to her clear love of horses and their place in her life.
Photography by Shannon Brinkman.