The Power of Words

A guest post by Katie Pacheco of H.E.R.S. Equine.

We all know the old schoolroom adage about “sticks and stones,” but let’s face it words are powerful. (Also, am I the only one who wonders about how we ran around joyfully as kids singing about sticks and stones breaking bones?) Back to the point, words are powerful.

They inform us, they guide us, they build us up, they can tear us down. And if they are in fact, this powerful, how do we harness the power in order to use them intentionally to improve our performance?

To demonstrate the power of words, imagine that you are in your old high school, running down the main hall. (Admit it, your inner rebel just got a little excited.) You hear a voice yell “Run!” and what happens? Instinctively you begin to run faster.

Now rewind back to the beginning of the hall and begin to run again, but this time as your sprint, you hear a voice yell “Slow Down!” And what do you do? You hesitate. If only for a second, you hear “slow down” and you do.

Just words. Could be from someone you don’t even know. And yet, they undeniably influence your performance. 

If you are familiar with my blog and program, you know the next thing I am going to ask. How can we put this phenomenon to work for us and our horses? To get there we need to know a little more about self-talk in sports.

There are two main types of self-talk that can be used to enhance performance. One is skill-specific directions and cues. Channel your coach telling you what to do and you’ve got this one. The other is the use of motivational words – the perfectly timed “you’ve got this” statement

While words are used for both of these strategies, and both support access to skill, each work very differently. Here is a short summary of each, with both types of strategies being explored further in the next blogs from this series.

Instructional Self-Talk

Instructional self-talk, or the more skill-based directive statements (e.g., “inside rein” or “eyes up”) access the higher portions of the brain. These areas are used to learn skills and to think complexly about skills.

Often, we already know these things, but the words help us to remember them and to put associated actions into play when they are needed. 

I find this type of wording is interesting in the equestrian community. We often reserve these for our coaches, thinking that we are somehow not qualified to say them. But by doing this, we create a situation in which we need out coaches ringside to call out these instructions.

Here is the thing – YOU can say them too. And if you learn to well, then not only are you no longer dependent on your coach for calling them out, you will find that you will have a deeper understanding of why and how to use the strategies. I call this “self-coaching” and it is one of my favorite strategies to support growth.

If you’re a coach worrying that none of your students will need you anymore – nothing could be further from the truth!

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As a coach, I find that this strategy always makes my students really take off in their understanding and application helping us move to the next higher level of performance. If you want to qualify for the World Show, go to Nationals, or compete in the Olympics, I highly recommend you start doing this. 

Motivational Self-Talk

Motivational statements work differently in the brain. They elicit a response in the limbic system – the emotional portion of the brain. Here is why this is vital for the rider – when you are overloaded with emotions (e.g., nervousness, fear, excitement) it makes it harder to access higher level thinking efficiently.

Motivation-based statements can be targeted to increase confidence, regulate effort and emotions, and support automatic execution of familiar actions. Before you overlook these motivational types of self-talk, discounting them as not as important, you should visit the research.

Science clearly shows that confidence supports performance in the athlete, positively influencing thoughts, feelings, and actions.

In addition, self-talk has distinct benefits from listening to someone else say the same words. Not only are they always available, saying it yourself can support your belief in the statement, making it more potent than simply hearing it from someone else. 

My passion with the H.E.R.S. Program is to give the equestrian effective tools to support their engagement and performance. With the importance of self-talk being established, the next step is to increase your understanding of self-talk and to work through practical ways to implement this game-changing strategy.

Now, let’s take a closer look at both types of self-talk and examine examples of how to support your performance by putting them into place in your daily routines.

We often look to coaches to provide the right words.

“Heels down!”

“Outside rein!”

“Eyes up!”

“Count your strides!”

“Nice job!” (I added this just in case those first four elevated your blood pressure.)

Our coach’s words enhance our skills and support our performance. They give us confidence and keep us going. We rely on them to grow our skill, guide the application of that skill, and to help us progress toward our goals.

When our coaches, and therefore their words, are available we often feel that we are able to use our skill sets to the highest potential. Which often leaves us asking, am I able to access my highest level of ability without my coach present to call out cues?

The answer could go either way. But when it comes to my ability to access my skills, I am not into asking questions, I’m into building answers that align with my goals. So let’s do just that – let’s make a plan so that you are able to take the words that your coach uses, and learn to implement them yourself. 

What Exactly is “Self-Coaching”?

Let’s start with a quick definition of self-coaching. It is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – you are talking yourself through different tasks. Channel your instructor’s voice, start saying it out loud, and voila! You are “self-coaching”! The premise here is that instead of depending on someone else to tell us what to do in the moment, we can begin to do this for ourselves. This results in two key changes:

  1. Your understanding and ability increase because in order to coach yourself, you have to understand what you need to do and when you need to do it. (Does this sound exactly like what your instructor is trying to get you to learn? Self-coaching is an excellent strategy to use in order to meet these goals!)
  2. You are able to access your skill sets more efficiently and in more situations and environments because you won’t rely on your coach quite as much (Don’t worry coaches, we still need you! Keep reading…)
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Considering Your Learning Stage

To get started, we need to pinpoint exactly where you are in the process of learning and if you are ready for the step into self-coaching. (Spoiler Alert: You will be ready to self-coach for some skills but not yet in others. Learning is a continuous process.)

When my clients in the clinic, or my students at the barn, are first acquiring a new skill, they need me for that first stage of instruction which includes explanations, modeling, sometimes physical support, and almost always constant talking from me.

An example of Stage One learning is your coach explaining how the direction of your gaze draws your head into different positions, which in turn influences your overall biomechanical position, and therefore your horse’s positioning and movement. Sound like your coach is going to be doing a lot of talking? You bet! We need our coaches to talk us through this stage of learning.

After the skill is explained and acquired in the initial stage of learning, the student moves into the second stage, which involves application of the skill. Here my clients/students are counting on me to talk them through the application of the skill. I am still talking quite a bit, but now the language is more targeted to preparing, initiating, and executing the skill. An example of a coach during this stage of learning is calling out “eyes up” if you drop your gaze as you ride.

I think that most students and coaches in the equestrian field are adept at these two stages of learning. The plateau usually comes when moving from Stage Two to Stage Three.

Stage Three of learning is when you are able to apply the skill yourself. Here is where “Self-Coaching” comes in. This is not to imply that you will no longer need your instructor. Self-Coaching is directed toward you gaining the capacity to implement the skills sets that your coach has taught you (in other words, move from Stage Two to Stage Three). In Stage Three of learning a skill, you are able to identify that you need to change a specific position or perform a specific movement, and further, you are able to actually do it.

When you move into Stage Three of learning a few things come together.

  • You aren’t always waiting on your coach to tell you what to do – you know what to do (and here’s the big thing) you DO IT
  • Your ability to compete increases significantly. Why? Because once you walk into the competitive arena, your coach is no longer able to shout out directions. If you can coach yourself through a class or a course, you won’t be lost during a competitive exercise.
  • You are able to master skills so that you can then move onto subsequent skills.
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How to Use Self-Coaching to Improve Your Skill

Fantastic, so you are ready to start this whole self-coaching thing. But where do you begin? Here is how I guide my clients and students.

  1. Pick one skill to focus on first. It should be a skill that you are able to execute when prompted by your coach. As in “Yeah, I can bring my eyes up, I just can’t remember to do it!”
  2. Talk it through with your coach and spend a session going over the skill. Your coach can help you identify the typical times in which you need cues. For instance, if you always look down at a caveletti when you cross it, your coach should be able to point that out to you.
  3. Tune into yourself in regards to this specific skill set. Your ability to be mindful of errors will increase, supporting our ability to implement a correction. When you find yourself making an error, give yourself directions out loud. In this case, you could say a simple “eyes up.”
  4. Start talking to yourself…“Caveltti coming up, keep your eyes up.”

Practice Tips

Start with just one skill and then add more. Once one of my students has learned self-coaching skills, I have them begin to talk themselves through entire patterns or courses. Do you walk a pattern or course before riding it? Start to talk yourself through it as you walk it.

Here’s are a few examples to leave you with:

“As I am coming around this corner I need to keep my horse’s inside shoulder up. Eyes up and look to target. Straighten out here and count strides. One, two, three…..”

“Approaching the marker for taking the left lead. Horse’s shoulders up, left leg at girth, right leg back, haunches in, cue for canter….”

“Prepare for stop. Eyes up, push forward, count strides, one, two, three, sit deep, halt…”

Katie Pacheco, OTR/L, is an avid horsewoman who has always believed in the unique power of horses to change lives. She is an occupational therapist and has developed the H.E.R.S. Program which is aimed at facilitating performance, engagement, and intention for the horsewoman. To find out more about the program and to read her blogs, visit Katie is actively working to grow this program in order to reach more women. While on the website please consider sharing through social media!

Disclaimer: Katie Pacheco currently works as an occupational therapist, and the ideas presented as part of the H.E.R.S. Program are within the scope of her knowledge as an occupational therapist, as the work of an OT centers around supporting meaningful engagement in daily activities. Katie truly believes that horses are a significant source of meaning, confidence, and joy for horsewomen and she hopes to support those ideals with her program. This program is not designed as a riding instruction program, or to take the place of an equine instructor.

1 Comment

  1. September 1, 2021 / 12:48 pm

    This is a great article that provides a lot of insight into rider psychology. I know I have personally struggled with moving from stage two to stage three (especially the self coaching and correction). I am excited to share this with my community at

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