It happens to every rider at some point. Professional and ameateur riders, alike. That gut-sinking feeling of nervousness that accompanies you into the arena or onto the course. Your mind begins to race. Do I know my pattern? Did the judge say they wanted two spins or three? Who is going to be watching me and what will they think? How will my horse react during that first obstacle or maneuver? And all of the sudden before you have time to answer these and countless other questions running through your brain – your name is called and you are up. For some riders the jitters can even begin the day before. Their night is haunted by dreams of going off course or their horse misbehaving.
Competition, in any sport, is just as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Training your mind for the event is equally as important as training your horse. To a horse, a fearful rider provides little to no leadership. When you feel tense and anxious, you can bet your horse can feel it, which in turn creates anxiety in the timid horse or may cause a more dominant horse to take the situation into their own hands.
Here are some tips for training your brain to stay relaxed and positive during competition.
1) Understand the Rules.
If you are new to an equine sport it is your job to read and understand the rules prior to entering the competition. Having a clear understanding of the rules will give you clarity as you plan out your ride the day of competition and will also give you a clear pathway to build your training program on leading up to the show date.
2) Establish a routine and follow it.
Having a routine will give your brain a familiar setting to work in. We tend to be the most relaxed when engaging in activities that are familiar to us. For example: if every time you compete the routine leading up to your ride changes, your brain will be constantly unsettled and trying to keep up with what is next. Horses also rely on routine for security so your horse will notice the familiarity of the pre-ride routine even away from home.
3) Understand your horse’s warm up needs.
There is nothing more unsettling to a rider than waiting at the in-gate on an improperly warmed up mount. Get to know what your horse needs from you. If your typical ride at home lasts forty-five minutes, pay attention to what part of the ride you feel you have your best horse. When is he fully attentive, relaxed and listening? Is it fifteen minutes in? Thirty? Take whatever time that is at home and double it at the show. You will have to account for the horse being unsettled in a new environment and the extra jogging and loping will help him work through some of that extra adrenaline he is producing.
Positive visualization is one of the most powerful psychological tools in sports. If you see yourself riding to that first jump and getting a refusal, odds are your mental expectation will play out. A great way to combat this is to grab a quiet spot in the bleachers (this is typically best to do a couple of hours before your first ride that way you don’t feel rushed or paniced to get back to your horse). Observe the entire competition space whether it be an arena or an outdoor course. Close your eyes and visualize your ride. Allow yourself to experience all of the feelings coming up. Did your horse respond to everything correctly? Were you fearful on approach to that obstacle or maneuver? Your mind relies on past experience to anticipate future experiences. If at your last show you had several refusals or you went off-pattern you will be on some level be expecting that to happen again. Continue to work through this visualization exercise until in your mind the ride is flawless and your horse is willing.
5) Rider “security blanket.”
Every rider has that one thing that they need before going into the show pen. It might be a few minutes alone to gather their thoughts, it might be a physical list of the course or a copy of the pattern in their pocket, it might be a friend standing near the in-gate, it might simply be knowing their pre-ride routine is complete. Whatever your “security blanket” is, make sure you are consistent with it. Remember your calm and positive attitude heading into the show pen relies on consistency of whatever routine you establish for you and your horse.
It takes time to develop the emotional fitness to compete without the jitters. Even with all of the proper preparation experience is your best defense. So get out there and give it a try! Remember to make it about having fun and as long as you and your horse learned something, it was a success!
By Ashley Purdin