Michael Jung was the clear favorite going into the 2012 London Olympics. The German eventer was riding a hot streak after claiming gold at the 2010 World Equestrian Games as well as the 2011 European Championships. Post-dressage phase at the Olympics, however, his fans were noticeably worried. Dressage is typically Jung's strong suit, but he sat 11th after Day 1. Could he possibly leapfrog eight, nine, even 10 of the world's best to medal? Using a combination of rider and mental skill for double-clear cross country and stadium jumping rounds, he did just that. And with Olympic gold, Jung became the first rider to hold simultaneous European, World, and Olympic titles.

Michael Jung's mental skill helped him fight back from 11th place after dressage to win 2012 Olympic eventing gold.

Photo: Kit Houghton/FEI

When Dutch researcher Inga Wolframm, PhD, MSc, of Wageningen University and Research Centre, witnessed this event, she was most impressed by Jung's mental ability to not let the pressure of being the "favorite" cloud his focus on winning Olympic gold. In the past she had both observed and hypothesized that psychological skill was what distinguished elite riders from less successful ones.

Thus, Wolframm conducted a study early in 2013 of 73 U.S. show jumpers competing at the Horse Shows in the Sun Ocala winter circuit. These riders all completed a questionnaire titled "Test of Performance Strategies" immediately prior to competing in a show jumping class.

Upon evaluating gender, competition level, years experience, and mental skill, Wolframm determined there was a significant difference in the concept of automaticity (essentially, the ability to do something without consciously thinking about it) between top-level and amateur riders. She also observed a significant difference in negative thinking between male and female riders: Women tended to think more negatively than men.

Ultimately, Wolframm concluded that the longer you participate in a sport, the better you become at using mental skill. "Your body simply reacts without thinking about it," she explained. "This is important because of how quickly a horse reacts. The better you are, the more automated your skills."

Wolframm presented this information at the 2013 International Society of Equitation Science conference, which my coworker Michelle and I attended last month in Delaware. While her study results seemed quite sensible, I found the information thought-provoking because I have always assumed physical riding skill is the key to success. But perhaps the reason seasoned veterans are more successful in the show ring is that they don't even think about their reactions to a horse's behavior or movement. They respond automatically from years, even decades, of experience handling horse situations. Considering how quickly a horse can change direction or speed, this force-of-habit mental reaction might actually be the difference between winning and losing.

To what degree do you think mental skill plays into a rider's success in the show ring?