How to Make Horse Shows Fun Again
By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist
There may come a time in your riding career when you find yourself saying: Why do I put myself through this? Why do I show? It usually arises when you’re under considerable stress, or after a cycle of disappointment. It can happen for many reasons, and when it does, it’s time to put the joy back into competing with your horse.
#1 - See Competition as Cooperation
Competition can make you very self-centered… if you let it. Your thoughts can become consumed with the need to win, and therefore others need to lose. Enjoyment goes out the window, and a talented rider can end up walking away from something she loves.
One way to look at competition is as a cooperative act. You and others agree on rules and codes of conduct in order to compete together. These do not have to be opposing concepts. Much fun can come from focusing on others. How can you give back to fellow riders at the shows you frequent? How can you support others? Getting out of your head and into someone else’s needs can be motivating.
#2 - Redefine Success
Everyone needs to experience success in order to feel motivated. Without a ribbon in hand, many riders don’t feel successful. They are sometimes referred to as perfectionists who kill their own motivation. Whatever we do in life, we need to feel as though we are making progress and having an effect. So if the fun has gone out of competing, adjust your measuring stick. Measure for effort, for risk taking, for horsemanship, for skill development. Success comes in many forms, so don’t limit yourself to just one.
#3 - Get Back to Basics
Why did you decide to ride and compete in the first place? As a young rider, what did you celebrate about horses? Chances are you felt very privileged to be around them. How are you lucky to be where you are? How many others cannot do what you’re doing? Getting back to the basic love of your sport can help you feel grateful again. The joy is in the doing.
And remember to thank your horse, because horse and rider are a team and you’re doing this together.
#4 - Develop a Focus Switch
When thinking about competing and riding never stops, burnout can occur, and thinking can turn to obsession. The trap is thinking that if you just keep turning it over in your head, you’ll improve. You won’t.
Just as a muscle needs to strain then relax in order to strengthen, your mind needs a recovery period in order to function efficiently. Plan time to problem solve and think about riding, and when not to. When that focus switch is turned off, it doesn’t necessarily mean your mind is empty, just that there are no horsey thoughts being entertained. You could be listening to music, or hanging out with friends. Even at a horse show, you need times when the switch is off to clear your head.
#5 - Embrace Butterflies as Friends
Performance anxiety can diminish the enjoyment of competition.
Feeling apprehensive, the knot in your stomach, and your racing heart may have you wishing you had just stayed home. If you can accept the experience of butterflies as a normal part of competitive life, their fluttering will not escalate. Some anxiety is normal because your body is changing in preparation for a challenge. The next time you sense those butterflies stirring, change your mindset from: I’m feeling nervous, I can’t compete, to: My body is making me sharper, helping me prepare, and I’m going to be okay. This one small change in your inner dialogue can improve your comfort level and performance.
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
#6 - Play the Same Game
If you like training and feel comfortable there, learn to feel more at ease in the show ring by remembering just how much training and showing have in common. You have the same horse, the same skills, the same tack, the same coach, and the same challenge, whether it is a jump course, a reining pattern, or a dressage test. Getting your thoughts on this track will remind you just how ready you are to go in there and shine.
#7 - Understand the Value of Competition
Competing can encourage comparison… with a rider in a higher division, with a better horse, with better skills. Before you know it, walking into the show ring feels completely futile. But chances are you are not being fair when sizing up the competition. There are so many variables involved in horse sports that it’s impossible to do a straight-up comparison.
Instead, compete against yourself. Do better than your last ride. If there are others riding better or on more talented horses – and there will always be better horses and riders – consider a different approach. Thank them for being so skilled, for showing you the way, for helping you grow. That’s the value of competition.
#8 - Correct Your Mistake Formula
Too many riders have this formula: Mistakes = Failure. Given that mistakes will always be part of riding and life, this formula can cause you to retreat from risks, ride tentatively, and confuse your horse. Mistakes are actually quite valuable; without them you would not move forward, improve, or take risks. You really need mistakes and should respect them.
Consider changing your mistake formula to: Mistakes = Opportunity + Learning + Growth. This one change can make competing a lot more enjoyable. Instead of riding to avoid errors, you’ll ride to reach a new level of improvement.
This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: Photo: Shutterstock/Olgaru79