For most of us, nerves are par for the course during competition. But the anxiety you feel doesn’t have to zap your concentration.
By Sarah E. Coleman
So, it’s show day. You’ve prepared as much as you possibly can, from the hours in the saddle to memorizing your test to cleaning every piece of tack (and the horse!) to the best you’re able. So, why so anxious, even with all this preparation?
Nerves and anxiety at horse shows are normal, but it’s imperative that you learn to channel your nervous energy so you don’t make your mount a raging lunatic or get so overwhelmed that you literally don’t make sense.
Changing Anxiety to Enthusiasm
Equestrians are nothing if not passionate. The main reason riders get anxious at horse shows is that it’s something about which they care deeply. While this is a wonderful thing (it would be silly to spend that much time and money on something if we don’t care about the outcome!), it’s imperative that these emotions be kept in check so that you give yourself and your horse the chance to really shine.
Anxiety in a controllable form is not a bad thing; this emotion heightens your awareness of what is going on and quickens your response time. Excitement and nervousness elicit the same physical response; so be excited to horse show—not nervous to go in the ring!
The Bare Minimum to Keep Nerves at Bay
While some of these seem silly—or downright impossible if you’re insanely crunched for time—each of these is crucial to setting yourself up for show-ring success. Excess nervous energy has been the demise of many a dressage test or showjumping round, so do your best to quell your anxiety by:
- Keeping a steady stream of nutrition in your body, especially if you ride late in the day
- Breathing deeply, taking air all the way into your lungs; shallow breathing can cause you to hunch your shoulders and channel anxiety to your horse.
- Staying hydrated. While this goes without saying in the summer months, hydration is just as important in cooler weather, as well.
- Getting some sleep. While this can seem impossible sometimes, rest helps calm nerves and allows you to focus to the best of your ability during the show.
- Visualizing your success. We’ve all been taught to ride our test, cross-county track and showjumping round in our heads while talking with our coaches. But don’t let the visualization stop there! Repeatedly seeing yourself completing each phase well helps calm nerves about the unexpected and give you a plan on how to deal with issues if things go awry.
Narrow Your Focus
One very important thing to remember when horse showing is that the key at each show is progress. Progress in one thing, not all the things at once (wouldn’t that be nice!). While this can be incredibly hard to remember in the heat of the moment, think long and hard (and have a chat with your trainer) about what you want to accomplish in each phase. Focusing on one or two key things instead of a generalized “I want to do the best I can!” can help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with competition.
Whatever you do, unless your horse is being extremely fractious or you’re literally completely incapacitated with fear, don’t scratch. Just like reinforcing a negative behavior in a horse, scratching allows you the out your brain is looking for if it’s overly anxious. Avoiding the issue won’t make it go away—you truly only get better at managing nerves by going in the ring.
Ways to Manage Show Day Stress
Some riders prefer to spend time with their horses before competition, grooming and braiding, performing routine, monotonous tasks to take the edge off their nerves. Others give themselves a pep talk, focusing on the positive. Though many times this has to be a conscious effort, saying to yourself “I am calm” instead of “I will NOT get nervous” can lead to a much more productive warmup and ride.
MSEDA member Kristen Brennan says she manages show nerves with wine and Brooke Schafer seconds that with bourbon. Ellen Thompson jokingly says yelling at your mom helps with anxiety management, as well.
Jacqui Cruz goes through her show day like a groom, which helps trick her mind into a state of preparedness. “I get there probably way too early to feed and clean, lunge if necessary, bathe my horse or at least the legs if needed after lunging, and then go get a coffee and breakfast. It's weird, but it works!” she says.
Amelia Jean Foster says that when she is anxious, she will “obsessively pick my stalls. I repeat my test/course incessantly. I clean tack. I drink a lot of water (if I can’t eat, I may as well keep myself hydrated) and coffee. I walk back and forth from the stalls to the ring. I check if rings are running on time,” she says. “I’ve long given up trying to eliminate the nerves, but instead channel the activities into a pattern to keep myself busy and focused on the upcoming task.”
So what else can you do to help battle show-day nerves? Work to pinpoint exactly what it is that is making you anxious. Is it the fear of forgetting a test? Falling? Looking “bad” in front of your friends? Being able to directly address where your anxiety is stemming from will help you find ways to work around the issue. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. A few minutes listening to a meditation app or blasting your favorite upbeat song may be just want you need to quell your competition nerves!