Competing in an equestrian sport is no easy task. Just the same as every other sport: the rider needs to be prepared physically and mentally, has to have a cool, steady focus and navigate the stress that comes with being on display. But unlike most other sports, we have another burden to add to this already very full plate…our horse’s mental state and preparation!
Not only do we need to be prepared for the competition, but we need to prepare our four-legged partner, who would much prefer to be eating grass in their paddock. This brings with it a whole new array of pressures and problems that can unruffle just about any calm soul. In this article, I’m going to discuss some of my methods and ‘tricks’ that I use to make competing an opportunity to improve and find confidence, no matter the result.
As I compete mostly in Dressage, I will use examples from Dressage competitions but many of these methods can be used abroad in any equestrian sport.
Find Your “Numbing Effect”
Coming into a competition is always a time of high emotions. Between training rides beforehand, packing and organisation, it’s easy for emotions to swing between excitement, nerves, determination, and downright fear! The ‘what ifs’ start to circle and that’s when the mindset can really start to disappear. Setting goals, making a routine, and being prepared are all great ways to counteract this, but if you’re anything like me, this is never enough. You’re stuck on the hamster wheel of high emotions, and it creates a tense entry into competition day that transfers straight onto your horse.
Something that works for me is finding an activity that is both comforting and numbing at the same time. This activity then becomes your safety net, and you engage in it any time the overthinking escalates. That might be the week before, the day before or five minutes before you hop on. This keeps your emotions and thoughts in check until you’re up there, allowing you to stay in the right headspace. Some good examples could be reading, watching a comfort show, listening to music, crocheting, or working out. The main consistency between these activities is that they have a dopamine effect on the brain and can help to occupy you. The best way to find your ‘numbing effect’ is by trial and error. What’s an activity that you feel at peace doing? Does it distract you? Calm you down? Whilst reading might work well for one person, it could be terrible for someone else. You might even have more than one ‘numbing effect’. As an extreme overthinker, I have three. Reading, watching my favourite tv shows and listening to music. Working between these three activities keeps me level-headed and in the best mindset to work in with my horse.
Conquering the Warm-Up Arena
Sometimes, the scariest part of competition day isn’t actually the test.
It’s the warm-up arena. There’s people and horses everywhere, the noise level is through the roof, there’s dogs, cars, bicycles, tents and bunting. Though there are arena rules, chances are, there’s going to be a few crashes, terse words and tense horses. Plus there’s weather to contend with and gear check.
Not to mention, the warm-up arena has a huge impact on your horse, as well as you. If there’s one horse bucking and rearing, everyone else’s horses are uptight. It can be a tricky experience to navigate. The main goal: staying focused.
I have a few ways I counteract this. The first is to make a plan. Everyone tends to plan out their competition day but it’s easy to overlook planning your warm-up. What do you need to run through before your test? How long should your warm-up be? How many breaks should you take? How much time should you leave to get up to the ring? Planning for the warm-up has a lot to do with your test level, your horse’s stamina and tendencies and your own tendencies. Work out how quickly your horse tires. Do they get tense around other horses? Are they hotter or duller on competition days? What works for one horse and rider combination might not work for another. Take into account how much time you need for everything. My way of planning out my warm-up for each horse includes:
- Speaking to my coach. (The magnificent Riley Alexander). I find out what I should be working on before I enter the arena. What should I avoid running through? Your coach has a deep level of understanding of you and your horse and can give you a great insight into what is important to touch on in warm-up.
- Testing how quickly my horse tires. If my horse tires in 30minutes, I’d stick to a 20minute warm up. That way I have 10 minutes of prime performance during my test.
- Checking how many breaks is best for my horse. I test this at home to gauge if my horse prefers less or more breaks. For some horses, breaks are a great way for them to relax before a test. For other horses, this presents an opportunity for them to become uptight or stressed.
- Investigating how much time I need to get into the ring. For some people, it’s better for them to get up to the competition arena 10 minutes before they enter. For me, I prefer to get up there 5 minutes before I enter so I can head straight in and there’s no opportunity for me or my horse to get tense.
The other way to stay focused in the warm-up ring is to block out as much external noise as possible. For myself, this entails listening to music. When I have my headphones in, I can relax and suddenly I’m able to focus on my horse and keep my cool during warm-up. For others, this could be wearing loop ear plugs, listening to a podcast or wearing a headband.
I also prefer putting ear bonnets on all my horses because I find it allows them to focus well in high stress environments that appear on competition day. Despite this, I ride them without ear bonnets at home to try and desensitize them to noise.
Work on Improving ONE Thing
In Dressage, it’s quite common to aim for a certain score in a test which then gives you a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ objective.
This method is so toxic for my mindset. For a lot of people, aiming for a certain score drives them to do their best and can add healthy pressure to allow them to ride their best.
It does the complete opposite for me. It raises my standards, my emotions, the pressure. Suddenly, I’m not out to enjoy myself, I have one aim and if I don’t make that goal, I’ve immediately failed.
If aiming for a certain score/points affects you as heavily as it affects me, here’s a handy way I’ve changed my approach to ‘goal setting’ at competitions.
Instead of aiming to improve the entire test, or to reach a certain score, I aim to improve one thing.
Poll too low at the last competition? That’s my goal for today. Trot needs more activity? On it. Coach has been working on the straightness in the canter? That’s all I’m aiming for. Whilst I will ride my best through every movement and aim for the best execution of each, if I only place an expectation on one movement/goal, I set myself up for a much more positive mindset and I find I don’t get as overwhelmed. This way, if your score isn’t fantastic or you make a lot of mistakes, you can still find a big positive in your test if you’re able to tick off working on a weakness. The best part about this aim is that it always changes. One competition it’s activity, the next it’s angle in the shoulder-in. You can never run out of goals or ways to add improvement to a competition.
My best recommendation? Check in with someone! Chat to your coach, your friends, your gear stewards. Ask them if they have ways to stay calm/more focused at a competition or see if they can help you create a game plan for yourself. At the end of the day, equestrian riding is only a solo sport if you make it one! I hope these strategies have helped and that they allow you guys to tackle competitions in a slightly more positive and optimistic light.
If you see me out at any competitions, feel free to say hello and have a chat, I’m always interested in meeting new people and making equestrian sports that little bit less lonely.
Be kind to yourself, be kind to others and be kind to your horse!
Image credits: Govern Images