Category Archives: Inga Wolframm. Affiliate Blogger.

Dr Inga Wolframm: Horse sports – almost like the Hunger Games

“I almost faint at the sight of my calf. The flesh is a brilliant red covered with blisters. I force myself to take deep, slow breaths, feeling quite certain the cameras are on my face. I can’t show weakness at this injury. Not if I want help. Pity does not get you aid. Admiration at your refusal to give in does.”

If you’ve read “The Hunger Games”, you might – as I do – consider this scene as one of the most pivotal ones in the “arena”. If you haven’t, allow me to summarise: Katniss Everdeen, the main protagonist in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian world, is one of 24 “tributes” – teenagers sent into an artificial habitat with the sole aim of killing one another until only one is left standing. However, once in a while the brains behind this most cruel version of reality TV lend a helping hand and come up with additional “challenges” for the contestants. In this particular scene, Katniss has just been caught by a fireball the size of a hand grenade.

The scene is gripping on so many different levels, but it’s Katniss’ reaction to her harrowing injury that struck a chord with the sport psychologist in me.

fallingOkay, I grant you, it is unlikely that, as a rider, you’ll have fireballs thrown at you. Still, there’ll be many instances where your equestrian career will feel as cruel, forbidding and dangerous as the Hunger Games (we even have arenas too!). At a show, you’ll be fighting to come out on top (at times you might even feel like murdering the competition or shoot an arrow at the judges), you’ll have to manage injuries – your own or that of your horse – and, unless you’re exceedingly lucky, you’ll continuously struggle to make ends meet.

It’s a lot to deal with by anyone’s standard. And the question is, how do you cope?

Researchers in (sport) psychology agree that there are various ways of dealing with problems, but which particular manner we choose really depends on the situation we find ourselves in and how we’ve dealt with things in the past. Generally speaking, coping can be divided, on the one hand, into two styles, i.e. approach- or avoidance-styles, and, on the other two, into two coping strategies, i.e. emotion- or problem-focused coping.

As the names suggest, an individual choosing approach coping aims to face the problem head on, while avoidance coping means temporarily sticking one’s head in the proverbial sand. Problem-focused strategies are action orientated, that usually involve some kind of cognitive element too. Emotion-focused strategies focus on dealing with the feelings a problem has evoked.

By the way, whether you should use problem or emotion-focused strategies depends quite a bit on the situation itself. If you’re facing an issue that requires thinking your way through, you should employ the more analytical problem-focused strategy. If, however, your emotions get in the way, you might be better off using an emotion-focused strategy.

As Professor Mark Anshel from Middle Tennessee State University demonstrates in his two-dimensional framework this leaves us with four coping measures to choose from:

Inga W photo

However, as interesting as such a framework is, you’ll presumably know from experience that there are ways of dealing with your problems that are more effective than others. Evidence suggests that, in the short term, both approach and avoidance styles have merit, but – and you’ve probably already guessed it – in the long term, the approach style wins hands down. The reason? If you keep running away from a particular problem, chances are, it’ll keep coming after you. If, however, you decide to come to grips with it, you’re much more likely to solve it once and for all.

I’m a firm believer in approach coping.

In equestrian sports, we continually deal with an animal approximately ten times as heavy as we are, with a will of its own. Sticking your head in the sand is likely to make things much, much worse. Much better to figure out a strategy of how to overcome a particular problem. This could be anything from letting your horse get checked out physically, taking lessons from a good coach, getting good, safe kit for yourself, or learning new skills, such as relaxation techniques (always a good one to improve fine motor skills.)

It’s what Katniss Everdeen did and it really worked for her. She refused to engage in the ultimate avoidance – lay down and die. Instead, she chose to fight, dealing with her problems the best way she could, winning the Hunger Games in the process (she also caused a revolution, but that’s another story for another day).

Dr Inga Wolframm: “When Things Go Wrong…”

Off for a XC schooling…

It doesn’t matter what it is: an important show, a training session with the world’s greatest trainer, a once-in-a-blue-moon trip to the beach with your mates. You’re really looking forward to it. You’ve trained your socks off for it. You’ve planned the whole thing to within an inch of its life. You’ve worked so hard on your mental and physical fitness that you’re considering changing your middle name to “Nijna”.

And then, on the big day, it all goes TERRIBLY wrong.

The weather, the judges, the organisers, the traffic, the quite simply enormous waves – everyone and everything seem to be conspiring against you. To add insult to injury, as you pull your horse of the trailer, you discover that he’s undergone a personality transplant without your prior knowledge. The polite, well-behaved equine gentleman (or woman) you’ve known for years has morphed into a fire-breathing dragon and you forgot to bring the fire extinguisher. Or your superman reincarnation on four legs suddenly appears no bigger, nor fiercer, than the average field mouse. No coaxing, pleading or bribing can persuade him to go near his own shadow let alone any other horses…

It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. It’s enough to question your preparation, your planning, your training. Enough to doubt anything you’ve ever done with your horse.

You know what? That’s both normal and understandable. If faced with circumstances we’ve never had to deal with before, even the most confident among us might get a case of wobbly knees for a a second or two and worry what we should do.* But it’s what you do next is that counts.

And for many riders, the thing to do next is… errr…panic!

All at once, they stop doing what they’ve always done. The routine they’ve built up over the years and their horse has got used to vanishes in the blink of an eye. No more tacking up in a specific order (for example), no more walking for 10 minutes to warm-up (for example). No more 15 minutes of easy loosening up, before horse and rider start to work in earnest (for example).

Oh no! Circumstances change, and the temptation to adopt a state of emergency is simply too great. Tack is thrown on, riders jump on board. Reins are tightened and the horse is told to “behave” in no uncertain terms.

And the horse? He quite literally has no idea what’s going on. He simply reacts to a situation that has now gone from a little scary to absolutely terrifying. And we all know what that means … The rider, already in a state of heightened arousal (to put it mildly), more often than not interprets such behaviour as yet another reason to take drastic measures. A vicious circle of behaviour ensues that is tricky to break. I think we can all agree that it’s much, much better to not get sucked into it in the first place!

“[…] So especially in situations that are different to “normal”, you should try and stick to your tried-and-tested routines as much as possible. That way, there’ll at least be some things your horse is familiar with and derive feelings of security from. […]

Horses thrive on routine, especially in times of stress or uncertainty. Doing the same thing, following the same order of events, applying the same aids, using the same cues and rewards will help a horse settle much more quickly than any abrupt changes of proceedings ever could.

So especially in situations that are different to “normal”, you should try and stick to your tried-and-tested routines as much as possible. That way, there’ll at least be some things your horse is familiar with and derive feelings of security from.

By the way, there’s an added bonus too: reminding yourself of how you always do things in times of crisis, will also help you feel more secure and keep that feeling of rising panic at bay. Really, it’s just another behavioural circle, only it’s not vicious: a calm(er) you resulting in a calm(er) horse; a calm(er) horse resulting in a calm(er) you.

And even though things might still not go quite the way you might have hoped, they’ll at least not turn into a complete disaster!

*Please note: A little bit of self-doubt once in a while can be a good thing (but only when you’re not smack-bang in the middle of a stressful situation). It makes you reevaluate the status quo, question where you’re currently at and where you want to be. It might even make you think outside the box and allows you to come up with innovative solutions (this, incidentally, is why I’ve argued in one of my previous blogs that a bit of trauma can be good for you – it teaches you how to cope).


More about Dr Inga Wolframm: HERE

Dr Inga Wolframm on Dealing With Nerves [Harry Potter Style…]

Remember the “Boy who lived”, aka Harry Potter?

As it turns out, J.K. Rowling didn’t just manage to set a trend for so called “crossover books” – books that appeal to children and adults – she also knew a thing or two about sport psychology…

Picture the scene, if you will: It’s the morning of the first Quidditch match of the season. Griffindor is playing Slytherin with Ron Weasley as their new keeper. Harry and his friends are just settling down for breakfast.

“How’re you feeling?” Ginny asked Ron, who was now staring into the dregs of milk at the bottom of his empty cereal bowl as though seriously considering attempting to drown himself in them.

“He’s just nervous,” said Harry.

“Well, that’s a good sign, I never feel you perform as well in exams if you’re not a bit nervous,” said Hermione heartily.

nervesHermione is right. Nervousness, anxiety, stress, whatever you want to call it, can be a good thing. Adrenalin is the body’s very own energy drink. It energises people, boosting reaction times and the ability to concentrate. Faster breathing rates and a pumping heart means more oxygen and the release of glucose (facilitated by cortisol). The result? More fuel for hard working muscles.

Stress can be a very good thing. It can help improve performance. As long as people – Ron, Hermione, or, most importantly for the purpose of this blog, riders – are mentally tough enough to deal with it. Several groups of researchers, among them Dr. Graham Jones and his colleagues, have gone about trying to define this concept called mental toughness. It is summarised as

“having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”1

Quite a mouthful, right? In essence, what Jones and colleagues are saying is that individuals who embrace the stresses of competitive sports generally end up outperforming their peers time and time again – not because their necessarily more skilful or talented, but because they thrive on the stress of competitive life.

So how do you develop mental toughness?

Well, one of the key elements to it, is the concept of “self-belief”. Jones and colleagues have managed to distil it down to four elements, that I have summarised for you as follows:

1. Reminding yourself of all the things you had to do to get to where you are now. Remember all the hours learning, training, refining you and your horse did over the years? They will pay off. They always do, as long as you keep at it.

2. The conviction that you can achieve anything you want. (We’re often told that being arrogant doesn’t win you any favours. Well, in sports, it’s a necessity to think you’re excellent at what you do. Think of it as being your own biggest fan.)

3. No obstacle is too great to overcome. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to go out and buy yourself a top show jumper – and even if you had a spare 8 million lying around, London’s no longer for sale. But you do need to develop solid coping strategies.

4. Be passionate! Passion, if it’s strong enough (and with riders it usually is), will give you the necessary staying power to enable you to reach your goals in the end.

So what about Ron? Did he come to see his nerves as something positive? Well, not for the first few games. In fact, the Slytherins were so delighted with his abysmal performance, they came up with a this little ditty:

“Weasley cannot save a thing,

He cannot block a single ring,

That’s why Slytherins all sing:

Weasley is our King.”

Not particularly encouraging, is it? Especially when you’re already struggling to believe in yourself.

But then (this is one book later, by the way), on the morning of yet another Quidditch match, Harry pretends to spike Ron’s juice with Felix Felicis, a lucky potion. Ron, believing luck is on his side saves every single quaffle (the ball Hogwarts students play with). After the game, Harry admits that it had all been a ruse to help Ron believe in himself.

“I wanted Ron to think I’d done it, so I faked it (putting the potion into Ron’s juice) when I knew you were looking.” He looked at Ron. “You saved everything because you felt lucky. You did it all yourself.”

Finally, realisation hits and Ron starts to believe in himself for real:

“See! I can save goals without help, Hermione!”

Sure enough, from that day on Ron’s nerves stop being a problem and he becomes a very good keeper. (He also ends up having a blazing row with Hermione, but that’s beside the point.)

The moral of the story? Believing in yourself, trusting in your own abilities, knowing that you are good enough to do what you have to do, will hone your mental toughness and turn your pre-competitive flutters into the wings you need to excel.


1 Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2007) A Framework of Mental Toughness in the World’s Best Performers

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Dr Inga Wolframm: Let them be kids!

kidspostThis is my first summer as a mum. Perhaps that is the reason why I notice them more than ever. They seem to be everywhere, redefining the definition of cuteness. And as I stand and watch and chuckle to myself, imagining my own wee boy bouncing up and down on a little fur ball in a few years time, I’m reminded of those icons of British rural life – the Thelwell ponies and their diminutive riders. But in addition to causing much hilarity, Norman Thelwell also managed to capture an important message: kids should have fun with their ponies, learning by doing, and most importantly, getting a thorough grounding in the principles of horsemanship.

Nowadays though, the main focus of those childhood years seems to have moved from all-round horsemanship to doing well in competition. Considering the price tags on some of the ponies on offer, it’s actually not all that surprising: Parents who spent tens of thousands of pounds on a miniature mount might wish to see a return on their investment, preferably in the shape of a medal, a rosette or even some prize money. At the same time, they may not be too happy seeing said pony cavorting around the countryside in Thelwell-style. If those illustrations are anything to go by, the risk of injury to child and/or pony are considerable – or so they fear! Still though, this overt concern with the colour of a rosette or ribbon might have some serious repercussions on the sporting attitude of a child.

Researchers in the field of sport psychology and coaching clearly distinguish between athletes who are “ego-involved” versus those who are “task-involved”.

Ego-involved athletes measure their own levels of success on the performance of others, that is to say they are “other-referenced”. Their main aim is to demonstrate either superiority over other competitors, or to avoid being seen to be inferior to them. Riders with an ego-involved mindset are really only ever satisfied when they get to stand on the very top of the podium. Certainly in the long term, but also in a more immediate setting, ego-involved mindsets are likely to lead to motivational problems (“What’s the point in riding today, I am not going to win anyway”) and maladaptive behaviours (use of the whip after the pair has left the ring: “Stupid pony didn’t do as I wanted”). Unfortunately, these types of attitudes are ripe in environments that focus on “winning at all costs”, where mistakes are punished, social comparisons are drawn, or riders with the better (read: more expensive) ponies are being paid more attention.sofijalesson

Task-involved individuals on the other hand define success through personal levels of accomplishment. They are “self-referenced”, i.e. they compare current to previous levels of performance. In essence, these young athletes (riders) feel successful once they have mastered a new task, witnessed personal skill improvement or gave their best effort. More importantly, they are likely to feel that they have achieved their goals as long as they did well within their own frame of reference – even if, for example at a show, another rider went home as the winner.

There can be no doubt that a task-involved approach to riding is both healthier and more sustainable in the long run than an ego-involved obsession with winning. Equally evident is that during their formative years young riders will develop appropriate goal-orientations as taught to them.

I know I’m only at the beginning of parenthood. I know I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of what it means to be a “good parent”. Yet I truly hope that, in a few years time, I’ll be able to encourage personal development and horsemanship skills over winning in my own little boy; that I’ll be able to highlight the joys of horsemanship over the economic value of a pony; and that, on occasion, I might use Thelwell as a source of inspiration!

Then again, perhaps my son will end up wanting to play football instead….

Dr Inga Wolframm: A Measure of Success

It’s a question that plays a central role for most competitive riders. How to measure success.

We live (and ride) in a world where one record score is chasing the next. I’m not just talking about that international lot either – even at local, regional, national level reports focus on “highest score of the day”, “the week” or “the competition”. And because of the ever-present social media, it’s become almost impossible to not know about it. So, being a competitive rider striving for some level of recognition, some small measure of success, is tough. Perhaps tougher than ever before.


Therefore, you and many other riders, might tell yourself that being successful equals… exactly, winning! So if you want to make your mark in the horsey world – be that at local or international level – you must win.

You go to a show thinking that you’ll do just that. Win. And why the hell not? You’ve practised hard, you’ve got a good horse, you know your test. So, really, you deserve to win. By the time you get to the show ground, you’re wound up so tight nobody in your entourage dares to talk to you any more.

And then you find out who’s judging today.

Oh no! That judge hates your horse. But you’ve set yourself the goal to win. You’ll never manage now. But you must! You really, really, must.

So you get on your horse. You manage to calm yourself, telling yourself how hard you’ve practised and you walk him to the warm-up arena.

But there, heaven forbid, is your biggest competitor. What is she doing here? She rides that really expensive horse, and her trainer’s always by her side. That’s not fair! You were going to win, and now you probably won’t.

But you’re here now, so you might as well go through with it. You warm up your horse – keeping an eye on your nemesis the entire time. Her horse is more collected than yours, isn’t it? And in the extended trot, her horse has got a lot more reach.

But it’s almost time to go in, so you rush through another few of the movements. Your horse feels less through than usual. But how can that be? You’ve been practising so hard…

Never mind, you’re in the ring now. Just before the judge (that dreaded judge – she isn’t even smiling. Gosh, she really hates your horse), rings the bell, you notice your old trainer (friend, owner of your horse, etc.) standing at the enclosure, watching you. What will he think of you? Oh dear, he might think your horse is going much worse than the last time he saw you. And now your horse is dropping off your leg, and going against the contact.

That’s when the bell goes.

You muddle through as best as you can. The final score is not great. You didn’t win.

You go home. You’re so disappointed.

Okay, I admit, that example was perhaps a little over the top. But many of you will recognise yourselves in some, if not all, of the micro-scenarios described above.

The problem almost always starts with the wrong definition of success. To many riders today success equals winning. Not so! At least not in my view.

If you focus on winning from the outset, you’re putting yourself in a situation that is almost impossible to control. There’s simply too many variables to control: The judge, other riders, the horses other riders sit on. But if you want to win, everything needs to go in your favour. That’s luck, not skill. Deep down, we all know that we cannot influence luck – and it makes us terribly nervous.

The result is that we keep thinking about the things we can’t control, rather than the things we should control – namely the horse we sit on.

Much better than to shift your mindset from wanting to win to riding the very best test you possibly can. That means thinking about all the things you can do to make sure your test really sparkles: solid practise, good management, leaving on time, knowing how to ride your warm-up, and, most importantly, knowing how you need to ride your test (e.g. do you need to keep him sharp throughout, or does he need to stay relaxed instead, that sort of thing).

If you manage all that – if you manage to achieve everything you yourself set out to do – then you are successful. No matter where you end up compared to the rest of the world (in all honesty though, if you’ve done all of that, in all likelihood it’ll be reflected in your final score anyway).

P.s.: It’s quite obvious that I’ve used the disciplines that are judged, i.e. dressage, Western or vaulting as an example. But it equally applies to other, non-judged, disciplines too.

Dr Inga Wolframm on Being Great…

Bella ( and Stuart Boyle’s Rudy during Aspire training session on 13th April 2014. Photo credit: Pacific Vidaurri

What makes for a truly great rider?

Amazing skill, a great horse, lots of money and a trainer at your beck and call? Undoubtedly any one of those attributes would be exceedingly helpful to any equestrian, never mind a great one. Yet is it enough? Or is it even what is most important in the quest to being truly successful?

Upon closer examination of what makes top performers, be that riders, athletes, musicians or business people, so very good at what they do, we soon notice that they all share a number of attitudes, character traits and mental skills absolutely essential to success. First of all, every single top performer will have shown incredible levels of commitment to their chosen field. They will have lived and breathed whatever it was, sometimes to the detriment of other areas of their lives. But more often than not, they wouldn’t even have said that they had missed out on anything – quite simply because they wouldn’t have felt that they had! But that kind of commitment doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has to be fed by real passion, by the kind of fuel that keeps the fire burning even when things get tough! And tough they will get! Being exceptional and exceptionally committed, at the expense of what society considers a “normal” lifestyle, usually causes quite a few raised eyebrows, and more often than not a fair share of jealousy or even hostility.

This is where the concepts of single-mindedness and mental toughness come in.

Single-mindedness, much like commitment, means being prepared to put the blinkers on, and to just keep on going, no matter what. And mental toughness? Mental toughness will make sure those exceptional individuals pick themselves back up after they have been knocked down, trodden on and left to flounder. Mental toughness is the coat that keeps them warm in the chill of the headwind, and nice and cool under the scorching lights of scrutiny.

All these traits fit together like puzzle pieces to form the backdrop to another layer essential to top performance: solid mental skills! Being in control, confident in one’s own abilities and knowing precisely what to do and when to do it – extremely important in any type of sport. But even more so in equestrian sports. Horses are, after all, highly sensitive flight animals. That means that they’ll react first and ask questions, well, never… In essence, that also means that every time riders get on their horses, they need to be fully committed,aware and “in the moment”, they need to be in control of their bodies, their thoughts and their emotions, just to make sure that whatever they communicate is precisely what they had aimed to do in the first place.

And the good news is… the traits and skills described above can be achieved by anyone. All it requires is the right kind of mindset and the willingness to put just a little bit of effort into it. But that’s the beauty of dealing with equestrians – at least that is one trait that just about every single rider already has in bucket loads: a real sense of commitment – to their horses and to their sport!

So, really, what are you waiting for?!

Inga Wolframm is a writer, scientist and sport psychologist focusing on equestrian sports. Read more about Inga HERE

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