It is four in the morning. You wake up and in the predawn dark you remember; you are competing in a horse show today. “Why did I ever think this was a good idea? What was I thinking?”
If this has happened to you, rest assured, you are not alone. I know many people who suffer from competition nerves,some to the extent of feeling physically ill. Even the most famous Olympic riders have to deal with nerves and performance anxiety. This kind of nervousness is something that can beset us before an important presentation at work or an interview for a job . But I would like to focus on the nerves involved in competing in horse shows. What makes a horse competition unique is the horse. You have a competition partner who is of another species, who does not speak your language and cannot join in with a pregame pep talk. Being nervous has never been a sensation I have enjoyed. Here are some of the things that have helped me to be excited but not nervous.
1. I like to prepare well in advance: check my show clothes and my boots and all accessories. Does anything need to be repaired or replaced? If I do this in advance I have time to solve any problems. I also check everything for my horse; does he need anything repaired or replaced, is all my tack in good order?
2. What about getting to the show? Do I need to book transport? Is my coach going? Is anyone else from my barn going? Do we need to book a tack stall at the show? Shavings?
3. I find it much easier to be calm if I know there will be no last minute surprises. So I look for things that could be surprises and make sure they can be sorted out.
1. I find visualization very helpful so I will visualize the show grounds and then visualize riding my test in the arena I will be in. If you do not know the show ground then try to make time for a visit or at least look at photos.
2. Do you like to have music to listen to while driving to the show? Do you like to have music while you are braiding or while taking a break in the tack stall? Choose the music you like for inspiration or for relaxation.
3. Do you like to be socializing with your friends while you wait for your test? Do you like to be on your own and not be disturbed as you get into the “zone”. Everyone is different and it helps to know yourself well enough to know what would work best for you to have you calm and approaching your competition with excitement but not nervousness.
4. Do you like to braid your own horse or do you find it frustrating? I enjoy braiding and find it relaxing but not everyone feels like this. For me it is a nice time to spend with my horse one on one.
1. I make up index cards with the time of my test and all the “times” that lead up to that: time of arriving at the show, time of braiding, time for a snack or something to eat, quiet time seated by myself, time to get my show clothes on, time to groom and tack up, time to mount up and start my warm up. I know….it may sound excessive, but I have a poor sense of time and I HATE to be rushed so for me this type of planning allows me to be calm and feeling well organized. I always add in extra time because there may be something unexpected that will crop up.
2. I always bring something to eat. Snack type food not big meals my favorites include: peanut butter and honey sandwiches, fruit and nut bars, small oranges, bananas and a recovery drink which can be a sports recovery drink or chocolate milk, almond milk etc. And of course, lots of small bottles of water.
3. Do you like to have friends come and watch you compete? Or do you want them to stay home as their presence will just add to the performance anxiety? I don’t mind either way as long as my friends understand I will not be socializing before I ride my test. As for other people who may or may not be watching…I do not give them a thought as, other than my coach and my husband, they are not part of my day to day life.
4. I like to mount up in enough time to be able to walk for at least 10 minutes. This gives me time to get my aged joints loosened up and gives Biasini a chance to stretch and relax as well.
5. I always ask my coach to give me time to get my show coat on if I have warmed up without it in hot weather and time to walk calmly to the ring I will be riding in.
These are all the things that help me to be feeling happy and excited about competing and not feeling stressed and nervous. They work for me and some may work for you. These are just simple suggestions. If you experience nervousness that impedes your ability to ride or to get the best out of your showing then perhaps consult a sports psychologist who has worked with equestrians. A couple of years ago I struggled with thinking I was too old for competition. I worked through that with sport psychologist Dirk Stroda, who has worked with many equestrians, and it helped me a lot. Whatever you decide I believe it is worth planning how you can be at your best at a competition and able to really enjoy it.