Words Matter

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.

He is a fancy shmancy horse that can hold his own with the best of them. Because he is the best of them ❤ PC- K. Borden

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.

This is right around where she says something like “half halt and release.” PC- Tracy

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]

It also helps a lot to have a trainer who knows you well, and a horse that you would trust to take you through fire. PC- K. Borden

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!

29 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. Emily 04/25/2018 / 7:37 am

    I have definitely become more aware of how my internal voice effects my riding. That giant table at the top of a hill on XC isn’t terrifying… It’s a good challenge that we should ride forwards to. However, you are totally right about how we talk about our horses. I think May needs a new nickname. “The Thelwell Wonder?” hahaha


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 7:45 am

      Haha love that nickname! And love the idea of riding forward to the challenge 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Liz 04/25/2018 / 8:07 am

    As someone who writes technically for a living and is living in Trumps America where government scientists have to watch our every spoken and written word very carefully to guarantee that we are portraying ourselves accurately and politically correct for this administration, I freaking LOVE this post. Hell to the yes language tricks. Very well written and such great points! I can definitely stand to do a lot more of calling my horses things that I want them to be vs. what they’re acting like in the moment lol!

    Language tricks/mind tricks I play with myself and my horses: not dwelling on negative moments – just acknowledging them and moving forward (Q scooted backwards out of the trailer in a panic, acknowledged, moving on), focusing on the good and things I’m grateful for that may be small (Q took four consecutive calm steps backwards out of the trailer), and positive affirmations (we CAN do this race, we CAN tackle this jump, we ARE well-conditioned and ready for the task ahead).

    So much of what I do with horses in moments that cue my anxiety centers around these things. The negative stuff always wants to arise first and I acknowledge it’s existence, but do my very best to not dwell. Not dwelling = being positive and focusing on things I’m grateful for. The whole fake-it-til-you-make-it is also something I practice often, convincing myself that it’s totally cool and we’ll be fine even when my lizard brain is screaming NONONOWE’REGONNADIEANDITWILLBEAWFUL.


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:40 pm

      So glad you liked it!! I think there’s definitely the balance of acknowledging what’s happening, without letting it dictate what’s going to happen next. It’s a balance I’m still trying to find most of the time!


  3. Holly 04/25/2018 / 8:37 am

    All so true – and something I run into at work a lot too, particularly on the HR side of my job where it’s like, “DON’T SAY THAT OMG PEOPLE.”
    The ‘what we call our horses’ thing is interesting – your point makes 100% sense, but I think there’s also a place for the joking, “Doc is an alpaca today.” It’s a comfort thing for me, a way to diffuse nerves sometimes (“he’s being a giraffe” vs “omg why is his head 9ft in the air, he’s going to spook and I’m going to die”) and I think (zero scientific evidence to back me up here) subconsciously triggers some of those ‘cute pony, aww’ bonding oxytocin releases.

    …I just went on a 15 minute rabbit hole if there are any journal articles on the use of nicknames triggering hormone release, C’MON psychology, get with it!

    I think once you make that transition into needing to believe you can do something (eg. go jump a 1.2m course) past the initial bonding stage, everything you’re saying makes sense.


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:42 pm

      Such a good point! Different ways of thinking/talking make sense at different stages of the relationship, and what works for one relationship might not be the right fit for another. I wanna see more articles too 😉


  4. Centered in the Saddle 04/25/2018 / 9:21 am

    As a writer by education and by trade, I love everything you just wrote. Spot on. Words matter. Language is important.


  5. Susan 04/25/2018 / 10:11 am

    As a writer who supports a group of very stereotypical engineers, I kinda want to hand this out at the next meeting 😉

    Love your trainer’s style of teaching, too!


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:42 pm

      Haha sometimes us analytical types just need to understand how the dots connect 😉
      She’s a fantastic trainer, we’re so lucky to work with her!!


  6. roamingridersite 04/25/2018 / 10:38 am

    Framing everything in the positive has been life changing for my riding. Back in my endurance days, the Queen of Spooking At Absolutely Nothing would get me all up in a tizzy. I’d start looking for objects and thinking “she will spook at that” and guess what? She would. Then I switched to thinking “she will not spook at that stump” but she would still spook because my body language and brain were still saying “look Gem – something to spook at!” Eventually I learned to think “we will go along here at a steady trot” and she would do just that. While it didn’t make the behavior go away it really did help diminish it a lot.

    I need to get better at my nerves though. I let them really get the best of me sometimes and it is not helpful at all.


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:44 pm

      Such a great example! I think horses really do (for the most part) want to meet our expectations, and when we create more positive expectations they tend to rise to the occasion.


  7. L. Williams 04/25/2018 / 10:44 am

    Yep Language does matter, any sports psychologist or sport psychology book points this out and has great exercises for changing the way we frame things in our minds.


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:44 pm

      I’ve been reading a couple sports psychology books lately and it’s fascinating! Makes such an enormous difference


  8. Avery 04/25/2018 / 10:53 am

    YES to all! Great post. Although, I have never really fully thought about or appreciated the name bit. I guess I need to kick knucklehead off the list!


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:45 pm

      Hahaha I still have the hardest time not calling Frankie “DingusMan” when he’s acting like a goof 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. the_everything_pony 04/25/2018 / 11:01 am

    Yes I love this! I am huge on that words matter as well. For a time I’d call Amber “stupid” or other such things – really only to people who really know me and know that I love the freaking pants off that thing and I only call her stupid when I’m really frustrated at her (because she hurt herself AGAIN lol). Without realizing it I’ve stopped calling her negative names over the past few months.

    But I’m huge into encouragement. I am always chatting with Amber and Whisper when I ride, telling them how good they are, how they almost have it, one more stride honey, just a little more, you’ve got this you amazing pony, look at you doing so amazing, and then so many pats when we walk. I think that language not only helps them, but I swear it is instrumental in helping me recognize their tries as we ride. And they are so attuned to vocals as well that I can feel how much me talking to them with a tiny wither scratch helps them relax.

    I love too about the anxiety! A very healthy way to work through show nerves for sure. Really loved this post!


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:46 pm

      Love the talking while you ride! I’ve been trying to make a point to do that more often, because it makes such a difference in helping keep Frankie tuned into me and relaxed.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Tracy 04/25/2018 / 12:02 pm

    So I’ve been doing some pre-show season reading and this is the EXACT STUFF I’M READING. Training yourself and your brain with the words you use and how to frame your state of mind to make a positive impact on your performance.


    • hellomylivia 04/25/2018 / 1:47 pm

      Once you have a decently solid position, I think 90% of riding/competing is a mental game!! Training in that way is so hugely important, I’m making much more of an effort in that area too 😉


  11. Karen M 04/25/2018 / 2:20 pm

    These are true things! I especially like your characterization of positive instruction. The difference between “wrong, do it again” and “let’s try this again, but lift your hand and close you leg” is HUGE and it shows in the students. Are they confused and hapless, or are they confident and willing to ask questions? Imagine the horse that gets punished for any step out of place versus the one rewarded for responding correctly.

    Now I just need a nickname for Eli … I kinda just call him “buddy” or “smoosh” or “favorite.” The new barn owner calls him “handsome” so I may need to adopt that.


    • hellomylivia 04/26/2018 / 9:32 am

      Positive reinforcement forever! It’s clearer to work with, AND creates confidence. I put in my vote for “handsome” 😉


  12. Stacie Seidman 04/25/2018 / 4:17 pm

    All good points! My trainer tends to explain things in the positive way also… I.E. soften your elbow, go faster, more leg, etc. But when she really means it and needs it to happen right away I get the negative “STOP PULLING!” Works for me because I know it’s urgent… haha!
    Although I don’t think I can ever stop calling Jampy Sir-Spooks-a-Lot. At 19, he’s not gonna change anyway.
    For my interactions with trainer, she doesn’t understand nerves. Lady has steel cajones, I’m sure of it… So I do have to tell her when I’m afraid. Otherwise she just thinks I’ve gone dumb for no good reason. But I agree, it’s definitely something to be mentioned, and then worked around not focused on. Like here’s what you need to do in this situation so it’s not scary and you don’t die.
    Any way long comment short: Positive reinforcement is always the most effective!


    • hellomylivia 04/26/2018 / 9:33 am

      Agreed wholeheartedly! And so good to have that open line of communication with your trainer so even if she doesn’t understand the nerves, she can help you refocus.


  13. Allison Stitzinger 04/26/2018 / 6:13 am

    YES! I am huuuuge on being aware of how we speak to each other, our horses, and what names we call them. I cringe to hear people call their horses “idiot” “dumbass” “moron” and other less-family-friendly names. Saying those words over and over again absolutely changes the way we perceive and treat our horses, and each other! If you consistently call your horse a “dummy” on a regular basis, you’re going to believe he’s dumb, and treat him as such, which limits his potential.
    And while “YOU LITTLE SHIT” may escape my mouth on occasion when Dino slams on the brakes in front of a fence I gave him a perfect ride to, I really try to use names and words that are positive and encourage thoughts of him being an absolute superstar!


    • hellomylivia 04/26/2018 / 9:34 am

      Love this!! The words we use influence our thoughts, which influence our actions. Hooray for superstar WonderPonies!!


  14. Rachel - For Want of a Horse 05/09/2018 / 11:16 am

    I completely agree with what you said. I will add that tone matters. When I first started riding Luther I HATED him!! “Luther” quickly became “Lucifer.” I absolutely LOVE this horse now!! I still call him Lucifer but he still is a jerk to everyone else but I also remind him that Lucifer actually means bearer of light.:)


    • hellomylivia 05/09/2018 / 1:31 pm

      Tone totally does matter! Like when I call Frankie a dingus when he sneezes at things- it’s all with love 😉


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