Last summer I tagged along with InstructorA and my former show buddy (TeakO) to watch them ride in a clinic with Olympic Coach Daniel Stewart. The posts for that clinic got obliterated when I rebranded, but I’ve been thinking back on the clinic lately so I decided to put together this recap repost.
A note: in my original posts I explained the games the riders played in detail. One year later, I’m more interested in the stuff that I still think about than the specifics of every round. I’ve left out a lot—mental chunking, overloading, pushing for failure, carthartic laughter, athletic acronyms, analysis paralysis, etc. There was a fitness bootcamp portion, too. I hated it. Sorry if you were super interested in any of that. 😅
A little bit about Daniel Stewart: he’s been a successful international trainer and instructor for over 25 years and has coached riders on several US Equestrian Teams at World Championships, the World Equestrian Games, and the Olympics. On top of teaching thousands of students a year in his annual summer clinic tour, he also runs an online academy, is an expert in equestrian sport psychology for the USEA, USPC, and USHJA, and has written several books on equestrian sport psychology and rider fitness, including Pressure Proof Your Riding, Ride Right with Daniel Stewart, and Focus and Fitness in 52.
InstructorA, who works full time during the week and used to teach lessons for Ready to Ride on the weekends, brought Kody, her nine-year-old Anglo-Arab gelding. TeakO, a teenager rider with dreams of working in the equine industry, brought Teak, her six-year-old Arabian gelding.
The horses spent the weekend in the temporary stalls at Rainbow Meadow Farm.
Meanwhile, us humans found a home away from home with Nora at Marcon Farm.
The clinic itself was held at Belmore Equestrian. Belmore is a small place with a very nice 126′ by 200′ outdoor arena (gorgeous footing 😍). I liked how intimate the setting for the clinic was. Most of the horses at Belmore were big draft/TB crosses—LOVE THEM—and a lot of the young riders were from the Belmore Equestrian IEA Team. Everyone was friendly and we appreciated their hospitality so much.
Coach Stewart places a big emphasis on getting a rider’s inner greatness out by matching the great physical with the great mental. This clinic was designed to focus on the mental aspect of the rider. On both days the set up in the arena was straightforward, but the exercises required the riders to put together their own courses on the fly while meeting strict requirements. Coach Stewart’s ultimate goal was to cause “stress-induced amnesia” (forcing the rider to be forgetful under pressure).
“Survival is the brain’s #1 job, but the brain isn’t always right. People under stress fight, flight, or freeze. The brain doesn’t know enough to turn off that safety feature.”
The key to succeeding in Coach Stewart’s game was finding the “Goldilocks Zone”—a mindset where “you’re neither too lethargic nor too anxious; too confident nor too worried; too fearful nor not fearful enough”. For InstructorA and TeakO, who have high energy horses, finding their Goldilocks Zone required them to focus on “thinking calm” and “landing lazy”. Coach called TeakO out for being too aggressive and suggested that instead of trying so hard, she “try softer” instead.
“It’s our job to make the horse his best. Whatever you want in your horse, you must first create in yourself.”
Finding the Goldilocks Zone starts with getting yourself into a Flow State. My best rides have always happened in the Flow State—my mind goes blank and instead of overthinking my sense of feel takes over. Ever count the rhythm of your canter as you ride? Sometimes the Flow State happens naturally, but many successful athletes use a Cadence to help push themselves into the Flow State.
Coach Stewart also lauded the importance of happiness. Our survival mechanisms know that focusing on the negatives (problems and danger) is what keeps us safe, but it also makes it impossible to be happy in our happy place. It’s our job to silence that inner caveman so that we can perform better.
“This is our happy place. You can’t be upset in your happy place. You’re 34% better at what you do when you’re happy.”
On top of that, Coach also asked us to expand our idea of what a teammate looks like. He wanted to address a common misconception that most riders have: that equestrian sports are a solo activity! He talked about the unseen team behind every horse and rider pair—the diligent trainer, the strategic farrier, the supportive parent, the hardworking stall cleaner, the caring veterinarian, etc. Coach Stewart was adamant that even the people that we compete against should be considered part of our team.
“Everybody you learn from is a teammate, even your opponents. Learn from the mistakes of others; you don’t live long enough to make them all.”
The idea of finding a Power Posture really stuck with me, too. When we get nervous, we have a tendency to get small and closed off, which isn’t helpful coming up to a jump! I’ve been putting in the effort to open up through my chest, straighten my spine, and lift my chin when I’m off balance—I find my Power Posture!
There’s a lot of things that I learned at the Daniel Stewart clinic that I still carry with me today! But as much as I enjoyed being able to audit his clinic, InstructorA felt truly transformed by the experience. She loved it so much that she’s been looking for an opportunity to ride with him again—and since I’ve got a giant horse of my own now, she’s been trying to convince me that I should participate rather than audit.
But, if I’m being honest… as an amateur that’s already prone to anxiety and self-criticism, I just don’t want to put myself through that kind of torture! Of course, I wouldn’t say no to auditing again. 😁