I may be an engineer by education and an analyst by trade, but I am of the firm belief that the language we use has a distinct effect not only on the way other people perceive us, but on the way we perceive the world.
Example 1: What we call our horses and ourselves. I mentioned that AT has officially forbidden me from calling Frankie a llama. I am only ever allowed to call him Fancy WonderPony and other such posh names. The reasoning there is that if we use language implying that he’s not fancy, then we subconsciously set our expectations lower. No one expects a llama to perfect their half-passes. But we would certainly expect that a Fancy WonderPony has the ability- in fact, a Fancy WonderPony will inevitably be good at that and our job is simply to unlock those skills. In a similar sense, we are no longer allowed to call our fav 12yo barn rat Shrimp, Little One, The Tick, or other such affectionate nicknames we’ve been using for years. AT wants her to think of herself as a strong capable junior rider, and part of that is using that kind of language to refer to herself. It may seem like a fairly minor thing, but the names we use to refer to each other and our animals subtly color our perceptions of them. Calling Francis “Studly McGrandPrix” for a few days won’t turn him into a 1.45m horse, but it certainly sets a more encouraging tone to our pursuit of improvement.
Example 2: How we give instruction. My trainer is very deliberate about using positive instructions. I don’t mean positive as in happy-happy-joy-joy (though I often find her very positive in that way too!), but as in framing things in an active way. Instead of “don’t stiff him in the mouth,” she will say “reach forward with your hands.” Instead of “don’t lean forward,” she will say “open your hip angle.” The focus is on the action to perform, not the habit to correct. Studies have shown that negation actually can make it harder for us to understand the sentence– when someone tells you not to do XYZ, your brain automatically hears “do XYZ” and you have to process past that. Especially in a sport where timing matters so much, using the clearest possible language helps us comprehend and act more efficiently. Not to mention that for visual learners (like myself), the positive description of the action is much more helpful in identifying what I should be doing with my body.
Example 3: Dealing with nerves. I think it’s healthy to express when you’re not totally zen. I don’t think you should just shove it all deep down until one day you die. But I do think saying “OMG I’M SO FRICKIN SCARED” isn’t super helpful because then you’re just reinforcing how frightened you are. Acknowledging the anxious energy: yes, good, allows you to continue moving forward. There have been several times that I have gone to my trainer and straight up asked for a pep talk to help me channel my nerves into something productive. Telling everyone how nervous you are: creates a feedback loop without giving it an outlet into something productive. By verbalizing it in a more positive way, you can often talk yourself into a more positive mindset- “I have a lot of energy focused on creating a good experience through the combo” certainly makes me feel a lot better than “holy crap that oxer out of the combo looks huge I think I’m gonna die.” [Side note- show nerves are one thing, intense anxiety is a whole other animal. I’m talking about the former here]
So three very different scenarios, but all areas that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately where the words we use have a lot of power over the way we perceive ourselves and our horses, the way we train, and the way we compete.
What are some examples you have of the way language affects your equestrian pursuits?
PS- I realized that me posting links to my trainer’s blog is dumb, when y’all can just access it yourself on Facebook. Go ahead and follow Clairvaux LLC for blog posts, cute ponies for sale, show updates from our team, and other awesomeness!