Decades ago, I rode a gray pony that was game for anything. She took me to the horse show, and she galloped her over logs and creeks on the trail. As most kids do, I rode entirely by feel and with an excess of imagination. The logs were triple bars and the creeks, open water. There were no nerves in those days.
Things were different when I moved to the children’s hunter ring. My chestnut mare had a talent for refusing at the base of the jump, without warning. Nerves and fear took over, and I started riding like every class would end with a face-first oxer dive. It was bad.
Nervous, negative energy keeps us from enjoying our rides and performing our best. It’s a distraction that might cause you to forget your course, inadvertently tell your horse that SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG, or my personal favorite gallop desperately out of the corner to meet the jump with a hard chip.
Nervous energy is also notoriously difficult to conquer. Most of us can’t just relax on command. What you can do is develop new habits to stay focused and calm, even as the nerves come and go. Here are nine strategies to get you started.
9 Ways to Calm the Horse Show Nerves
1. Develop a preparation habit.
In the book “Brain Training for Riders,” author Andrea Monsarrat Waldo emphasizes the importance of having a repeatable preparation process. Make a horse show checklist, keep your gear organized and always write down your schedule. ??The goal is to minimize things that can go wrong on horse show day. Maybe you can’t avoid the loud water truck that drives your horse bonkers. But you can prevent that moment of despair when you realize you’re heading into the show ring wearing two different spurs.
2. Visualize your rides.
Many elite athletes, including Anne Kursinksi and other top riders, use visualization and mental imagery techniques to improve performance. And there’s good reason for it. Research shows that mental imagery stimulates the brain much like practice does.?? You can use the techniqueto better specific skills, to build confidence and to memorize your course plan so you can stay calm and focused in the show ring.
3. Focus on the positive.
Accept the mistakes, learn from them, and then let them go. Spend your mental energy reliving your best moments and you’ll find it easier to recreate them going forward.
4. Feel gratitude.
This is a tip from John French, repeat winner of the USHJA World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Finals. In an interview with Practical Horseman, French says, “I will go in the ring and tell myself, ‘You are so lucky to do this.’
While it may sound like a quirky habit of an elite rider, research does support thepsychological benefits of gratitude.Take that moment for yourself and use it to refocus on enjoying the opportunity to compete with your horse.
5. Dedicate yourself to flatwork.
If the jumping specifically is stressing you out, pour your effort and concentration into the flatwork. Confidence on the flat creates confidence over fences.
6. Find a way to relax.
Relaxation, for me anyway, doesn’t happen on command. I have to work at it. Controlled breathing helps me, but you might respond better to meditation, daily affirmations or even hypnosis. Find the method that works and practice it regularly. When you get better at relaxing outside of the horse show, it’s vastly easier to stay calm at the horse show.
7. Re-interpret the butterflies.
You know that fluttery feeling you get in your stomach before your round? That’s a sign your body is gearing up for a challenge. The flood of adrenaline increases your energy level and improves your reaction time. ??Physically speaking, that means you have an advantage over the rider who doesn’t get nervous at all. So appreciate those butterflies. They’re a sign of strength, not weakness.
8. When all else fails, reboot.
If your show rounds feel like Groundhog Day, try changing your routine to break out of the rut. The change can be minor or major, depending on what’s making you nervous. I didn’t rein in my first bout of nerves until I’d switched horses and trainers. That’s a pretty extreme reboot. You might get a new pair of boots or try lessoning on a different horse temporarily.
9. Lastly, don’t stress over the setbacks.
My junior nerves came back when I started riding again as an amateur. The circumstances were very different, but I was nervous nonetheless. Setbacks happen. It helps to accept that nerves can be part of who you are, but they don’t have to define you.
You might even feel like you are two riders in one. I do there’s the fearless kid on a gray pony and the fearful preteen with a knack for falling off. Know that those two riders can co-exist. And it’s not the end of the world if one of them takes over now and again.