top of page
  • Alison Lincoln

Why mindset matters

A common reaction when we hear the phrase “mindset matters” is to nod wisely, resolve to be more positive and then move on to other things. But mindset is not just about whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. A study commissioned by the FEI in 2017 found that having a growth mindset is one of 14 essential ingredients that make up horsemanship competence.

A growth mindset is the idea that you can approach a situation (good or bad) and think ‘what can I do here to change things for the better’ or ‘what can I do to keep things on course’. The opposite is a fixed mindset. This is the belief that people or circumstances are unlikely to change and your ability or lack of It is fixed at birth. For instance, ‘I don’t have the feel to be a dressage rider’ or ‘I’m not brave enough to go cross country and therefore shouldn’t event’ or ‘I just wasn’t born with the ability to see a stride’.

World renown mindset researcher, Carol Dweck describes people with a growth mindset as:

  • Finding success in learning and improving

  • Finding setbacks motivating

  • Taking charge of the processes that bring success

A growth mindset is the most effective mindset for achieving goals, gaining new skills and developing positive changes in your life. Being curious about what might be possible and believing that your riding ability is gained through dedication and hard work is the epitome of a growth mindset. In fact, there’s a wealth of literature suggesting that attitude is the thing that makes or breaks top athletes. Be honest with yourself:

Where is your attitude helping or hindering you?

Are there some areas where you have a fixed mindset?

How could you develop more of a growth mindset?

One area that is heavily influenced by your mindset is the setting of goals. Having a goal provides clarity about what you want to happen and where to focus your attention. Studies in sport show that goal setting clearly and consistently leads to improved performance. It can even increase your self-confidence by highlighting your progress and achievements. However, not all goals are equal. Have a look at your goals and decide if they are mostly performance, outcome, process or learning goals:

  • Performance goals – specific to you and your performance e.g. to achieve a personal best score or do better than previous performances.

  • Outcome goals – generally relate to winning or beating another horse / rider combination.

  • Process goals – the things you need to do in order to achieve your performance goals.

  • Learning goals – the skills or techniques you need to master in order to achieve your performance goals.

Research suggests that individuals who set performance goals are more likely to adopt a problem solving approach to difficulties and develop strategies to overcome them – sound familiar?

Other research demonstrated that people who focused on learning goals relating to mastering skills were much more likely to view errors, mistakes or mishaps as part of the process to achieving better performance - there’s that growth mindset again!

There’s nothing wrong with outcome goals (winning or beating someone else) as long as you recognise that they are less effective or motivating than performance goals because you can’t control the performance of the other competitors. Having outcome goals can lead to increased anxiety and reduced confidence simply because there’s nothing you can do to influence how the other competitors perform. You might produce the test or round of your life but if someone else is also on top form that day you could still find yourself in second place.

The other danger, if you view winning as the only goal worth having, is that ambition takes over and you forget to consider what’s in the best interests of the horse. A study looking at risk factors for horse falls in one day events found that competitors in a top 3 position before cross country were significantly more likely to have a horse fall than a competitor in any other position. Food for thought? How are your goals influencing you as a rider, competitor and horse lover?

As with many things a combination of all these approaches often brings about the best result and when it comes to mindset we can use learning, process and performance goals to support our competitive aspirations:

Examples of goals:


Outcome goal = win a medium class

Performance goal = Need to score over 70%

Process goal = rider accurately, forward and stay relaxed

Learning goal = master all the movements required at medium level

Show Jumping

Outcome goal = qualify for championships

Performance goal = jump double clear

Process goal = set up for each fence and rider forward

Learning goal = master getting the horse straight, balanced and in the right canter


Outcome goal = inside the time cross country

Performance goal = take the quickest line at each fence

Process goal = walk the course at least 3 times so I know my route around the course

Learning goal = master galloping and jumping in a consistent, forward rhythm

To learn more about why mindset matters, Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is worth a read.


bottom of page