Top Tips for Riding Nerves

I am an extremely competitive person and have been horse-showing for as long as I can remember, starting around the young age of 5. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned there is so much more to winning. Starting with the foundation of building a bond with your horse both in and out of the saddle. Really the ultimate goal is to ride your best and be proud of the round you put in. If my horse is perfect, I am happy, and my trainer is happy, then that is a win in my book. The judge isn’t always going to agree, and that is okay.

That being said, no one competes to lose, so it’s always nice to walk away with a blue ribbon to show off all your hard work. Because I am so competitive the biggest thing that always stands in my way from putting in that great round that I know I can do, is myself and the mind games that I play in my own head. I end up putting too much pressure on myself and psyching myself out, causing me to lose before I even have a chance.

This is something I’ve struggled with forever, but it got really bad in my last Junior year, where the pressure was really me on to qualify for all of the prestigious finals. To attempt to overcome my competitive anxiety and the pressure I put on myself to win, I’ve talked to professionals, read numerous books, and attended seminars. Here are some of the things that I’ve picked up that I have found to really work and make a difference for me. I hope they can help you overcome some horse show anxiety as well!

Being Nervous Is A GOOD Thing!  

That feeling right before you walk in the ring, when your stomach drops and your heart starts to race faster and faster, as an athlete, that is actually your body’s natural response to being ready to compete. It’s a good thing! But typically, we see it as nerves and stress. I’ve had to work really hard to shift my thinking that when I get that feeling at the ingate it means I’m ready. And instead of letting it hold me back I use it as a way to feel pumped up and excited to step in the ring.

Fuel Your Body  

I always hear a lot of people say they can’t eat before horse shows, but I am the kind of person that needs to eat a substantial meal, or I get cranky and can’t focus. It is not just our horse’s working hard and needing the right nutrition to perform their best, we do too!

If I show in the morning, I need to eat something with eggs, usually my go-to is a breakfast sandwich. If I’m showing later in the day, even when it’s hot I need to force myself to have lunch, I usually try for something high in protein like chicken or a hamburger. My favorite go-to snack is a banana for that extra potassium energy boost. And always remember to stay hydrated!

Remember To Breathe  

This can be hard to do in some of the more complicated equation courses because the jumps and turns often come up very quickly, but usually what I try to do is to take the short ends of the ring to regroup. In the corners I will take a deep breath and shorten my reins. If I have enough room, I will even close my eyes while I take a deep breathe just as a quick mental check.

One Jump At A Time

Like I mentioned earlier, I play a lot of head games with myself. One of them is when I’m having a fantastic course my brain panics and I just keep telling myself not to mess up. But when I do that of course what happens… I mess up. And there is nothing worse than having the most beautiful round and then chipping the last jump.

Something that helped me a lot is to really break the course down into pieces and focus on my flatwork in between. And once a jump has passed, whether it was good or bad, to completely put it out of my head and not to dwell on something that I can’t change. Usually a mistake feels worse than it looks so if I mess up the first jump I can’t give up and let that impact the rest of my round.

Focus On You 

The horse world is a small world, and I have great memory on who my competitors and their horses are. But again, going back to my mind games, I’ll look at the list of who is in my classes and think to myself, “Oh they’re better than me, how am I supposed to beat them”. And that is just a negative mindset I need to move away from because in reality I am perfectly capable of winning in my current divisions. So, something I’ve been trying to do is not look at who is even in my class, because it really doesn’t matter. I need to know how many people there are so I can plan timing wise, but I don’t need to know who they are. So now I look at the how many, but not at who is actually in the class. I also like to watch a few rounds to see how the lines and turns ride, but if I can avoid it I try to stay away from watching my own division and instead watch a division that has the same or a similar course, so I don’t actually see any rounds from people who are directly competing against me as seeing a good round definitely causes me to play those mind games and psych myself out before I’ve even had a chance.

Talk to Your Horse  

I’ve tried singing and humming too, but what really works for me, especially on a super long Hunter Derby course, is having a full-blown conversation with my horse. I tell him he’s a good boy, but I also loop him in on what’s coming up in the course. For example, I’ll tell him how many strides are in the line and if it’s forward or short, and if we have any high options I’ll tell him which ones are bigger and to pick his feet up extra as we approach.

Call me crazy, but I swear he understands me and listens. By talking to him, it also keeps me out of my own head and from thinking negative things because I’m too busy chatting away.

Don’t Think Too Much  

Recently, I’ve found it really successful to not be thinking about anything while I’m competing. This is especially hard as an adult because we just have so many things going on it’s hard to fully clear your mind. I even try not to think too much about actually riding, my body knows the motions so truly just completely clearing my mind and just letting my riding happen naturally.

I’m no expert, and these are definitely all things I am constantly reminding myself to do when I’m competing, but hey, easier said than done. I hope some of these tips can help you in the show ring and remember just ride your best, and have fun!

By Danielle Franchi
Courtesy of SmartPak