Your horse, your eventing, your enjoyment. So why do we care what other people think?

A hot topic that has come up in my workshops recently is: “Why do I care what other people think?” and

JDSP Logo Small“How can I stop worrying about people watching me ride?”. These are great questions, and we can probably all relate to them in one way or another. Maybe having a certain individual watching you school just seems to ‘put you off’ (and on that note, why is it that when this person watches, things always seem to be going a bit pear-shaped?!). Perhaps riding into a show-jumping arena surrounded by onlookers gives you performance jitters! Or, maybe when you’ve had a bad day on paper it’s the thought of having to tell your fellow liveries how you got on, or the fact that your results will be published online, that fills you with dread.

It can be useful to identify where this worry is coming from. Have you previously been upset by a comment from an onlooker? Is there a particular reason you want to impress a certain individual? Do you have a ‘people-pleaser’ personality and fear ‘letting others down’? More generally, it’s true that our culture values belongingness. From birth we’re lead to believe that we ‘should’ adhere to certain ideologies to be liked and accepted. In the equestrian world, perhaps this equates to having the event horse, tack, trainer, results, that we perceive help us to ‘fit in’. And social media adds a whole new level to feeling accepted or successful, with huge potential for us to compare ourselves against other riders – regardless of whether we physically ‘know’ them and their varying circumstances.

Deep down, we can usually recognise that worrying about what other people think is illogical. It’s illogical because it’s wasted energy. First, it is not possible to truly know the thoughts of others, only to speculate. Second, even if we could access other people’s thoughts; doesn’t everyone have a right to think about whatever they choose? We certainly can’t control other peoples’ opinions. Third, and importantly – worrying about what other people think is a distraction from what really matters: enjoying riding! After all, that’s what all the time, effort, money, sweat, and tears are for, right? – to enjoy training and competition, to celebrate personal progression and improvement, and to hopefully pick up some prizes along the way.

Essentially, our own thoughts and focus (rather than other people’s thoughts and focus) is what we can access and control. So, try asking yourself the following questions:

Can I challenge my thinking about other people?

Can you challenge yourself to think differently about onlookers? Is there another perspective aside from what you are currently telling yourself? Try these on for size:

  • What other people think about me is none of my business. We cannot control how people respond to us, just as they cannot control how we respond to them.
  • No-one really cares. To put it really bluntly: we’re not that special. Whilst we may be thinking that everyone is watching and judging us, the truth is, other people are probably either thinking the exact same thing, or have their own role/job or worries that they are focusing on. The average person filters their world through their ego, such that most thoughts relate to ‘me’ and ‘my’; so unless you are directly affecting someone else, they’re unlikely to be thinking about you.
  • You can’t please everyone. There will always be people, no matter how good your horse management or riding ability, who will disagree with your methods. Fact. And what’s the worst thing that could happen if someone does judge you or your methods? Probably nothing!

Can I challenge my beliefs about myself?

Sometimes, our concerns about what other people think reflect the beliefs we hold about ourselves – our riding self-concept. In other words, worrying about others’ opinions might represent a personal insecurity. Take a rider who buys a schoolmaster horse but then worries about meeting other people’s (perceived) expectations. This rider’s concern does not necessarily stem from other people, but more likely internal beliefs such as “I am not a good enough for my horse” or “I must progress quickly because my horse has done it all before”.

This rider may then project these beliefs onto onlookers, for instance: “I bet they think my horse is too good for me” or “They think I should be progressing faster”. In turn, this rider is more likely to notice things that support – rather than oppose – their concerns. For instance, they might notice people talking as they ride and assume a negative evaluation (when in fact, these onlookers may be paying a compliment, or something entirely unrelated; from the X-factor results to their haircut!). Only when this rider has made peace with their own ability and progression (that is, challenged their inner self critic) will they become less focused on and concerned about onlookers’ views.

So, ask yourself: What kind of rider am I? What do I believe about me, my horse, and our partnership and capabilities? Could it be true that I am projecting my own beliefs onto onlookers?

If so, the second step is to challenge your beliefs about yourself as a rider: to question them, rather than accept them as facts. By challenging our beliefs, we can all open our minds to other possibilities and new, more helpful perspectives. Take the above rider’s belief “I am not good enough for my horse”. Some prompts that may help to challenge this belief (with example responses) are:

(a) Is this thought/belief helpful or unhelpful? Unhelpful – it makes me worry about riding in front of other people

(b) What evidence challenges it? I am having regular lessons to improve; I’m keeping a riding diary to log training tools and our progression; I jumped a clear round last weekend

(c) What would I say to a friend in this situation? You don’t need to be perfect to enjoy the sport and reach your goals

(d) Is there a more positive and/or realistic way of looking at this situation? I am not where I want to be just yet; but I am a kind and motivated rider and we are progressing as a partnership.

This rider may thus take on a new riding self-concept of being a ‘kind, motivated, and improving rider’, which will be helpful in driving helpful thoughts and focus when they ride.

Am I clear about my goals and do I celebrate my successes?

The clearer you are about your own personal map of success – your goals, processes, and markers of improvement and achievement for you and your horse; the less likely you are to compare yourself or feel ‘put down’ by others.

We all have different riding backgrounds, horses, facilities, time, finances, and so on (the list is endless!), therefore it follows that our goals will vary vastly. Your goal on a green 5-year old might be to stay inside the dressage boards and make all your transitions in the right place. A more experienced horse/rider combination in the same class might be aiming to nail their trot-canter transition, their square halt, and maintain impulsion throughout the test. Write your goals down before an event (focusing on your processes, not solely the score/outcome) and review them afterwards. Then, be sure to celebrate your successes, however big or small they may be. Avoid the temptation to move the goal-posts after you have competed, such that you discount your achievements. Essentially, be proud of you, your horse, and your improvements as a pair. Doing so will encourage a helpful riding self-concept, mentioned above.

Who do I want to surround myself with?

You may find that some people around you tend to exude positive energy, encouragement, and constructive help (radiators); whilst other people seem to knock the wind out of your sails and leave you feeling despondent or negative (vacuums). Ask yourself who you prefer to have around you, and how can you grow a support system of radiators – both physically in training and at events, as well as virtually on social media.

Maybe you also have other ideas around how to deal with ‘judgement demons’! – Tweet me @jdpsychology

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