A touch of anxiety before a horse show show is normal and healthy for riders. It’s what pumps you up for the challenge, keeps you focused, and gives you the competitive edge you need to strive for a win. Having performance nerves means you care; it means you are paying attention to what you are doing, it means it is important to you.
However, too much anxiety can be a performance killer, so knowing how to use your show nerves to your advantage is a key competitive skill every rider should strive to have. Here are five simple techniques to de-stress before you approach the in-gate:
Accept your nerves. The key to competitive anxiety is accepting it. It is a normal physiological change that means you are becoming alert to the challenge of doing your best. Once you accept it and learn how to manage it, it can then be used to your advantage to facilitate your performance. So embrace the change. This is a vital step in pointing your nerves in the right direction and getting them to work for you. Instead of saying “oh no” when they turn up, try reminding yourself of their value to your performance. Come up with a welcome or greeting like: “Transforming into super horse show me, awesome!” or “Thanks for reminding me – let’s go!”
Anchor your focus in the now. What do you do when your horse spooks and gawks at something? You bring him back to the work, to an aspect of the goal you are trying to achieve that day. This is the same approach you should take with your mind. Being nervous can easily divert your focus to distractions and worries instead of the job at hand.
To get your focus back on track, create an anchor in the present moment. Choose a variable from the scope of what you will be focusing on. Make sure this element is relevant to what you are doing; for example, focus on your line straightness rather than a fencepost. With practice, you will start to feel the ‘weight’ of this anchor pulling you back.
Change your language. Have calming, reassuring words ready such as “I’ve got this”, “I’ve trained for this”, or “One fence at a time.” Plan this ahead of time. Much pre-competition anxiety comes from negative thinking. “I am going to fail” or “I’m not good enough to beat my competitors” are common phrases that may run through your mind before a class. Consciously choosing positive phrases can greatly reduce your anxiety, build your confidence, and improve your performance at show time.
Breathe into your horse. When we’re nervous, we tend to breathe shallowly through our chest. This change can impact your balance and muscle tension, possibly negatively altering the connection to your horse.
A strategy I like to promote is the use of a “connecting breath.” When you first get on, either stand still or do this exercise at a walk. Breathe out on a count of four, while visualizing your breath moving into your horse through your seat and connecting you to him. Similarly, on your next inhale, imagine you are drawing the energy back into your body. Think of it as an exchange, an exercise in connection where you are matching your energy with your horse. This is a wonderful pre-ride routine to use on a regular basis. It ensures you are starting from a place of relaxation and connection while ensuring that much-needed oxygen is getting to your muscles.
Have a process goal; get your mind off outcomes. An outcome goal has to do with a particular result (win or lose). You won the class or you didn’t. It is stated in very black-and-white terms and leaves little room for error. Research with athletes in all sports reveals that when only outcome goals are used, they can produce a lot of stress. It’s not hard to tell why; you cannot completely control outcomes. By contrast, process goals define what you need to do in order to achieve the outcomes you desire. These goals are the kind you can control, like consistent pace or riding deep into every corner. These kinds of goals cannot help but make you feel calm as they focus your efforts on productive tasks, thereby bringing you closer to that winning ride.