Are the rider that is completely fine riding at home? You ace your dressage test, and jump 1.20m without blinking. Those half-passes are perfect and you always see the distance to the fence. But when you wake up in the morning of a horse show that goes away. Cold feet, heart pounding, your appetite is gone, and the bathroom is your best friend.
Anxiety or nerves on the day of competition is common. Many competitors experience this and it may affect their performance. You care about your result and that is the good news. If you didn’t care, you probably wouldn’t be nervous, either!
Many riders know why they are nervous. If you ask yourself a question “what am I afraid of?”, more often than not, you’ll get an answer. There are two types of horse show anxiety: performance anxiety and worry about safety. In this article, we’ll talk about performance anxiety.
You might already have an answer but don’t know what to do about it. Maybe your trainer is watching and you don’t want to disappoint them? Perhaps you’re scared because everyone is watching or because you won’t get a do-over? Whatever the reason may be there is always a way to fix it. Remember, that something that works for your friend’s competition nerves may not work for yours. So, try a couple things and see what works best for you.
Tip #1: Why are you afraid?
Ask yourself this question and determine what makes you nervous. Are you afraid you’ll forget your dressage test? Or are you afraid your horse will be too tired? All issues need to be addressed differently. And when you know what it is you’re afraid of, it’ll be easier for you to acknowledge the specific time when your nervousness starts – and attack it accordingly.
Tip #2: Visualize
You’ve probably heard of visualizing. If you close your eyes and ride that dressage test or course in your mind, you’re visualizing. A great way to calm competition nerves is to visualize yourself in the show arena, riding your dressage test or course. When you visualize, your heart will start pounding and your hands will get sweaty – you’ll get nervous.
Visualizing is an extremely powerful too because your brain cannot tell the difference between reality and visualization. This is why your feet will get cold even if you’re not on your horse yet. The good news is that you can use this to your advantage. Visualize yourself riding with a calm and balance, and being confident riding your perfect round. How would that make you feel?
Tip #3: Accept it
Accept competition nerves as a part of the experience. Let the nervous feeling fade into the background, focus on your schedule and your horse, and let that nervousness fade away.
Tip #4: Make adjustments
What happens when your competition nerves take over? Do you start riding more carefully or more aggressively? Take this into account and make adjustments. You want to ride like you would ride at home in practice. When you notice yourself riding too timidly, aggressively, or whatever it may be make sure to take a breath. Make the adjustment and focus on your horse.
Tip #5: Give it a break
You will not always get the result you want. The beauty of riding is that horses are live animals with feelings who will have bad days too. You’re a team. If your horse touches a pole by accident, don’t beat yourself over it. It happens. If you forget a volte in your dressage test, take a breather. When you understand that it’s okay to make a mistake, even at a competition, you’ll feel much calmer.
I’d like to take a moment to share something that Kyra Kyrklund once shared with her fans. She said, “you should always practice something so many times, that you need to be unlucky for it to go wrong – not lucky to get it right.” If you practice this at home, you can feel much calmer entering a show, knowing you’d need to be UNLUCKY for it to go wrong.
About the writer: Christa is a professional dressage rider from New York. In her blog, Piaffe Style, she shares stories and tips about her journey towards her goal: the Paris Olympics in 2024.
I also wanted to thank Bridle & Bone and Heather Wallace for this great opportunity to write for her well-known and much respected blog. This is an honor for me to get to share my views with her readers. So, thank you!