5 Ways to Get Your Riding Nerves Under Control

April Clay, prepare for horse show, nervous for horse show

April Clay, prepare for horse show, nervous for horse show

By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist

There you are, standing at the in-gate, trying to present a picture of poise and confidence. But the reality is that there are butterflies slam-dancing against the walls of your stomach. Right now you want nothing more than to just get this over with so you don’t have to feel this way ever again. 

Then some well-meaning bystander offers you a granule of wisdom.  “Just relax!” she chirps. Don’t you just hate those two little words?

Of course you would relax if only you knew how. And commanding yourself to do so doesn’t work… but there are other ways. There are things you can do to tame your show ring butterflies and they have nothing to do with deep breathing or Zen postures.

#1 - Reframe your thoughts

Butterflies are normal. Your body needs to activate itself in order to perform. Although these changes can feel unpleasant and distracting, the uncomfortable physical sensations have a purpose. They are sending blood flow to your muscles, sharpening your vision, and focusing your mind. So when you first become aware of your body’s reaction to stress, instead of thinking about how nervous you are, view these sensations as your body preparing for action.

Reframe your thoughts to something like: Good, I am getting ready to give my best; or, Bring it on – it’s time to super-power my ride. When you take the positive aspect of performance stress and embrace it, your mind will be far less likely to travel down a negative spiral.

April Clay, prepare for horse show, nervous for horse show

Show ring butterflies are normal, they’re the body’s way of preparing for action. When pre-competition butterflies begin to flutter and thoughts turn inward, anchor your focus outside of yourself. Think about what your horse needs to perform well, and focus on helping him feel calm and confident.

#2 - Find a different focus

Typically, when we’re nervous or stressed, our attention goes inward, so we can look at all those scary thoughts and images and freak ourselves out. Before we know it, we find ourselves in this horrible bubble of uncomfortable sensations and nasty predictions. Next thing you know, your head is screening a new horror movie about showing horses and you’re the star. Oh no!

Find an anchor for your focus outside of yourself. Lead yourself out of your head by anchoring onto something or someone else. Your best bet is to think of your horse’s needs. What does Jelly Bean need from you today to feel confident? Zone in on helping your teammate navigate the show environment with cool ease.  

#3 - Do a perspective check

How you choose to perceive the act of competing and how much weight you give it are entirely up to you. You can make it huge and overwhelming by telling yourself that you must ride well or you’ll disappoint other people, or you must get a ribbon or you’re not a good rider.

Don’t compete for such high stakes. Make sure you create a perspective that leaves you free to compete and use your skills. Try telling yourself it’s just another competition among many. Or that you ride to please yourself, not others. Remember, the task remains the same as it was in training, this is what you have trained for and hence it follows that you are prepared.

#4 - Watch your language

I’m not referring to profanity. If your language is scary, you will be scared. So take the time before the show to make sure you have some statements ready to rely on. Think some guiding thoughts about your ride that will leave you feeling in control.  Try a mantra that links back to your training, such as: Do your best and forget the rest; or, Keep calm and ride on. Instead of being mean to yourself, try activating that nice inner coach and using encouragement. Replace that scary thought with thinking that says: I’ve got this, I’ve done this before.  

Finally, don’t talk to yourself in “don’ts.” Your brain will go to the thing you are saying not to do and focus on it. Don’t be nervous. Don’t screw up. These thoughts will leave you stressed and focused on making mistakes. Talk to yourself in terms of what you want to do, for example: Breathe and maintain pace; or, Sit up and support my horse. You will be surprised how much better you feel when you give yourself clear, positive instructions.

#5 - Consider modifying your target

Riders often create their own stress by falling into the expectation trap. Unrealistic expectations make for ongoing anxiety. Instead of an expectation, turn your target into a process goal that focuses on the elements of your ride that you can control. Change your expectation of placing in the top three to focusing on maintaining a consistent pace. 

Focusing on a prize will do nothing but drive your pressure up. You can want it, but let it go when you’re in the tack and make sure your focus is targeted on the process, on a goal like pace control or riding the corners. Your brain will be locked into tasks and how to accomplish them, similar to the way you think and ride in training. This will help you stay calm and focused, and no one will tell you to relax because you will already be the picture of poise.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main article photo: shutterstock/Chris Van Lennep Photo


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