Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Equine Competitive Sports Psychology (ECSP)

Equine Competitive Sports Psychology (ECSP)

There are a few definitions for ‘sports psychology’ offered by various psychologists as well as coaches and sports professionals.

A science that deals with the mental and emotional aspects of physical performance.

is one that fits fairly well I think. Another is;

Sport Psychology is the study of the psychological and mental factors that influence and are influenced by participation and performance in sport.

Until now, it appears there has been nothing or little recorded or written about the psychology of equine competitive sports. This may be due in part because of the fact that this is a competition where a human and another specie are partnered together with the goal of high level performance and winning in various disciplines, as opposed to participation by a single human. This unique situation prompts delving into not only the psychology of excellent performance by the human, but the horse as well. An in depth inquiry into the mind and psyche of the horse is essential along with the same study of the human psyche. This is where many problems arise as the horse is a very different creature than a human. Great misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of horses abounds worldwide. There are many great riders who know little of the true nature of the horse they are riding. This lack of understanding prevents many fine equestrians from achieving the higher levels of competitive success. Certainly the practice of visualization, conscious breathing, acquiring technical skills, regular and appropriate training and practice of a particular discipline will go a long way to assist good performance. But there is something more required in the partnership of the horse and human in order to achieve the upper levels in competition.

This is the development of mutual trust. If the human does not really understand the mind of a horse, the tendency is to go to forcing the animal to comply when it shows resistance with a request, to produce enough fear in the animal that it fears the human more than what is asked by the human. Of course many good riders win and do achieve a degree of competitive success without knowing much about the horse they are riding, fewer have developed mutual trust. Their only thought is to win with little concern for the well being of the horse other than cursory interest within the competitive environment. Eventually, the horse’s behavior often times shows fear. Then frustration levels increase until, even the most talented horse becomes unruly, uncooperative and actually dangerous to the human and itself.

Many times in my international travels I see somewhat high level competitive horses with little to no respect or trust for the humans handling or around them. They have never been trained to develop trust or respect for humans. The focus during their entire lives has been being ridden. Therefore, when a situation comes up that prompts a fearful reaction by the horse, they tend to want to leave the situation as quickly as possible as opposed to trusting the human enough to hang in there with that human and attempt to move through their fear. This is when the human takes the appropriate role as the wonderful, trusted leader for the horse. Horses are not slaves. They are supposed to be obedient. They are truly supposed to be ‘partnered’ with and led as being led by the great dance partner. There is supposed to be earned mutual trust and respect, understood skills acquired by both and a bond that has a strong connection at it core based on this earned trust. Unfortunately, it is only occasionally I see a human stepping up to the plate of earning the trust and respect of a horse. It is rarely I see competitive horses so well and appropriately handled and trained that they trust the humans with it much at all and vice/versa. Often it is only the groom who develops a modicum of trust with a competition horse. As a horse is a prey animal, eaten by predators, it has a huge flight response to a fearful situation or thing. This ‘fearful thing’ could be a jump, flash from cameras, loud noise like applause, loud music, sounds of traffic, a piece of plastic blowing in the breeze or

some invisible ‘monster’ lurking behind a bush. So many different things can produce a fearful response in a horse the list is endless. This fearful reaction can cause a rider to fall, get seriously or mortally injured and, least of all, to lose the competition. Some humans really do care about and have understanding and compassion about the natural fear that horses can have and react to. Some humans couldn't care less. They have no relationship with the horse even when on its back. These humans may occasionally win some ribbons and trophies. But, they will never achieve the long term higher levels of performance enjoyed by those few who seek to know and understand the horse they are riding and have that special relationship based on mutual trust.

The desire and ability to assist a horse through a fearful situation, to the outcome of confidence and trust is huge in ECSP. A human must want to know and understand the fear that can be within a horse. They must have the strong desire to discover the source of that fear and assist the animal learning that there is nothing really to be afraid of. Getting angry at a fearful horse is a sure fire, quick way to failure in any endeavor with that animal. First there must be compassion. A fearful horse is just like a fearful child, only dangerous. As we would show compassion and kindness to a child who is afraid, we must do the same with our horses. Once we come forward with this compassion and kindness, we can then take on the role of skillful leader/teacher and assist that individual in discovering for it self there is really nothing to fear.

This is how trust and respect are earned with horses; initially, it is our ability to ask for and receive simple, quiet movement by the horse as the beginning step to becoming the great and trusted leader for a horse. Our skill at requesting slow, precise and exact movement from a horse, one-step-at-a-time, will insure that horse will learn to trust us and be quite willing to, at least, attempt to comply with our requests. If a horse is properly and gently trained to respect the boundaries of a human handling it on the ground, it will tend to most often respect the leadership of the human who is in the saddle. It is a sad commentary on humans that so very few great relationships exist between horses and humans throughout the world. It is such a simple thing to accomplish. First the desire to help the horse trust (feel) it is safe has to be in place. Then a human needs to want to be a good leader for the horse and to assist the horse in gaining confidence through the elimination of as much fear from the life of the horse as possible. Then comes the relatively simple skills required to accomplish this. Again, those skills are the abilities of the human to gently and skillfully direct and guide all movement of the animal when that person is with it. This is perfectly logical as this is what the herd leader does with the horse herd in the wild. The rest of the herd trusts and follows that leader easily and willingly. That leader helps assure the survival of the herd. She is revered and protected by the herd. Her authority is unquestioned and unchallenged, again, because she helps assure survival of the herd through her knowledge and leadership abilities. The herd leader does not induce fear into the other members of the herd. She does not punish even the rambunctious younger members of the herd. She will, however, provide an appropriate consequence for unwanted behavior from a herd member. This approach sets up a learning situation rather than creating resentment and anger. She earns their trust and respect through her wonderful leadership. It’s that simple.

So, along with appropriate breath control (proper and conscious breathing), being in the best physical shape possible, practiced and skillful technique, a calm and focused mind and the acquired ability to visualize a great outcome of the competition, comes a great and trusted partnership, a wonderful joining of different species in a common goal. This goal is similar to the goal of great dance partners who have come together though practice, knowledge, skill, compassion, kindness and earned mutual trust and respect to offer up a wonderful example of excellence in partnership, shared talents and the best performance possible. Certainly this is a winning combination that cannot be beat.