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How to Shed Horse Show Jitters

By: Marcia King

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Anyone who has participated in horse shows knows about it: performance jitters. This is not the normal edginess most riders feel before competition, but an undermining fear that erodes confidence, turns a soft body into a rigid lump, and turns the brain into panicked mush.

It's the kind of fear where the jumper who dazzled fellow students at the schooling barn with accurate courses, topples easy rails. Where the equitation rider who maintains a nice, relaxed pace and fluid transitions at home, sits stiffly and fumbles through transitions. Where the accurate barrel racer's timing is off in the show ring and the flawless dressage rider forgets the patterns.

Fear Affects Competition

Fear of performance can knock a good rider out of the competition in two different ways.

  • First, when a rider stiffens or becomes sloppy and is performing differently in the show ring than at home, the horse responds in a different manner. The rider who sits heavier on the horse, whose hands are not as giving, whose legs are clamped on the horse's side, who is leaning too much on the shoulder is communicating a whole different set of aids to that horse. Those subconscious, adverse aids usually will alter the horse's way of going.

  • Secondly, a horse picks up a rider's fear and may subsequently become nervous himself. The rider who is suddenly tentative when approaching the jump is actually telling the horse to watch out, there is something here to fear.

    Where do these fears come from? Why does a rider who performs well at home fall apart in competition?

    "A lot of the fear in competition comes from the fear of psychological harm - the fear that we're going to embarrass ourselves or make mistakes that make us look incompetent," says Dr. Janeane Reagan, a clinical psychologist who specializes in equine sports psychology. "In some cases, these fears come from perfectionist thinking; the individual tends to expect a great deal of perfection and can't allow themselves to make mistakes. Other fear sources may be from people around us who have extreme expectations of us."

    Reign in Your Fears

  • Practice makes perfect. Know your sport. Keep working on your skills, improving weak areas. But do not over-train. Marathon sessions can tire or sour the horse. Instead, work a few minutes each day on specific trouble areas. Slow, steady work is best. The more comfortable and confident you are at home, the more likely you'll retain those skills and confidence in the show ring.

  • Prepare yourself mentally. Use visualization and relaxation techniques to train yourself to be calm and confident in the show ring. It works. At least a week before competition, find a quiet place for 15 minutes each day, close your eyes, breathe deeply from the diaphragm and let your body relax. Imagine how your body, your legs, your hands and your seat should be during the competition. Think about what you'll be asked to do and visualize your performance. Picture yourself remaining calm and triumphing in various trouble situations that could occur. Visualize yourself putting together a confident and successful performance from start to finish.

  • Erase negative mental images. If, while visualizing your performance, you see yourself losing control, becoming nervous, or flubbing up, "rewind" your mental tape, go back to the point where you were confident and in control, and begin again, making an effort to keep negative images out of your visualization.

  • Keep proper perspective. While it's easy to get caught up in winning and performing well, in the overall scheme of things, ask yourself how important it is to have a perfect performance. Says Reagan, "Regardless of the outcome of the class or competitive trail ride, the rest of our lives will go on quite well. People will still love us and our dog will still be happy when we come home. Winning is important, but it's not that big in the overall realm of who we are and what we do in our life.

    "When you can say, 'So what? I'll get it next time,' you will be more relaxed and confident more likely you will get that correct lead. Look at the sport as a personal challenge and decrease the emphasis on competitive goals."

  • Recognize your choices. Examine your motives. Are you competing because it's what you want to do or because your family or trainer expects you to and you don't want to disappoint them? Not everyone is cut out for competition. If you feel, deep down, that competitive riding is really not for you, re-evaluate why you are competing and consider devoting your riding time to satisfying non-competitive personal goals.

    If your trainer places more emphasis on winning than you feel is healthy, or he otherwise pressures you too much, then see if your competition goals are similar to your trainer's. If not, then consider hiring a trainer who is more in sync with you.

    By examining your competition goals, keeping the right perspective, and working diligently at training yourself mentally as well as physically for the show ring, you can reduce those show ring jitters and get on with putting on a good – and enjoyable – performance.

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