Coping with Competition – Tips and Tales for Riders to Curb the Nerves

You’ve practiced your dogs leg and related distances and worked on your approach to the square oxer that you’re sure you will meet at fence one.

Show day and you arrive at the venue, park up, and walk the course. You walk the related distances, eyeball the seemingly ma-hoosive oxer at fence one – and doubt that you will be able to see a stride or make the distance. You frantically tack up and get yourself ready to ensure you have enough time to watch a few other riders go before you enter the swirling vortex of doom that is the warm up.

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“Hello Fence One, I’ve been expecting you.”

At this stage you’re telling yourself you’ve done this a million times, that you’ve practiced at home and to stop being ridiculous.

Hey! That’s me!

Sound familiar? I have had confidence issues in the past. I wrote about it previously; about accepting the fear of failure and finding the determination to keep trying anyway (you can read it here).

Despite now living by the “face the fear and do it anyway” mantra, I still suffer from pre-competition nerves and occasionally battle the “what if it goes wrong” mentality, as do many other riders.

Competition nerves are perfectly natural regardless of what discipline you ride. I’ve teamed up with equestrian bloggers Natalie, Orla, Darielle and Serena to ask what is it that triggers their anxieties before a show. Below, we share our experiences and offer our tips on how to cope with the competition nerves – cos despite feeling like it at times, none of us have puked on our horses or soiled our jodhpurs just yet!

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Natalie and Paddy at the AIRC National Team Show Jumping Final 2018 – RDS Simmons Court Arena – Photo Cred to Louise O’Brien Photography

When Doubt Comes Calling

One of the most common anxiety triggers is the self-doubt and feeling of not being prepared for show day. Last year, Natalie from Inside Track Eventing, realised her dream of jumping her Irish Sport Horse gelding, Paddy, at the RDS Dublin Horse Show. However, Natalie has first hand experience of pre-show jitters and explains:

“For me, anxiety or nerves all boil down to not feeling prepared or feeling like I am not ready for the show I’m attending. Sometimes I’m right – but most of the time I’m completely making it up in my head.”

This is something that Darielle, one part of the dynamic duo from the blog, No Bucking Way, also experiences. Darielle and her friend, Orla, blog about the ups and downs of bringing on their young horses. For Darielle, arriving at the venue with her horse Dante, is when the nerves kick in and says:

“[arriving] automatically gives me the “Why am I doing this” feeling. The feeling of why am I doing this, I am not ready.”

Orla, too, feels that her fears get the better of her when she has too much time to think about the competition. This is normally on the drive there, or as she waits to go into the ring.

“On the drive, especially if I’m by myself, my thoughts can really get the better of me. I always go to the worst case scenario and think, “what if today is the day I have the worst possible fall?”

What Will People Think?

Serena started her blog, Make Up and Muck Heaps, to document her recovery from a serious fall which left her out of the saddle for a long period of time. Last year she put her feet back in the stirrups, and this year is making the leap back into the ring. For Serena, going out in front of a crowd is her main hurdle. She says:

When others are watching is something I’ve personally struggled with for years, my view of their view of me!”

Serena
Serena with a pre-ride Sissco Selfie

Naturally, we compare ourselves to others. It is human nature, after all. As Serena pointed out, the pressure to perform in front of others, not letting yourself or your trainer down and doing right by our horses inevitably hinders our ability to do so.

For some, putting yourself out there can feel like you’re opening yourself up to criticism from those who take pleasure in discrediting your efforts. Darielle explained that comments made at shows on the size of her horse have negatively impacted her belief in her ability to ride him, contributing to her competition nerves. Natalie admits that as much as she hates it, she also can worry too much about the opinions of others.

I feel that this is probably one of the most relevant issues when it comes to competition nerves. We live in a social media driven world which has its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that there will always be a minority who take pleasure in being judgmental, or enjoy intimidating others – we’ve all seen it in the warm up! (FYI, if that’s your experience just know it says a lot more about the (lack of) character of those who do it, then it does yours!)

However, learning to focus on yourself and ignoring the crowd is a real challenge that many of us face. The majority of the equestrian community are genuinely supportive and enthusiastic people, who want to see you do well, as hard as it is to believe at times (just read that sentence again, because it is true).

The Fear of Getting it Wrong

I can relate to the feelings that fellow equestrians have experienced. My nerves stem from the fear of getting it wrong, which was exaggerated by all the worries the girls have addressed.

My fear of getting it wrong came from my imagination. Foreseeing a mistake that would cause my mare to get a fright and make her stop. This was a real life problem a couple years back. I would doubt my ability, worry about who was watching, be intimidated by the big square oxer and low and behold, we’d have a stop. I’d end up on the ground and the viscous circle would start again. This is something Orla also relates to with her mare, Coco.

“I’ve had a lot of falls in the last year and all bar one have been while jumping, so these experiences always come back to me on show day in an attempt to psyche myself out.”

But she also explains that ironically enough, none of these falls have happened at a show but yet this is where we tend to be most effected by our past negative experiences. So how do we cope?

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Gritting my teeth and jumping the Freaking Boat

Nerves Are Good

“They show how much you care about what you’re doing and give you the boost you need to do your very best”

Quote cred to Orla’s Dad (who has to be a legend with that kind of encouragement)

So I know what you might be thinking – how do we get out of the bed to compete at all at all? Well, as Orla’s dad has pointed out, we do it because underneath it all, we love our horses and we love what we do.

But we don’t make it to the show grounds because of love and determination alone. We have learned that there are certain things that help us cope with our nerves. These routines and rituals help us overcome the feelings of dread, help us to put ourselves in the right frame of mind and enable us to put ourselves in the ring.

Here’s how we do it.

Natalie’s Tips – Inside Track Eventing

Music: I have a Spotify playlist that I play in the car on my way to a show, it’s full of upbeat and motivating songs – and I’m not ashamed to say I will sing along and dance in the car like a madwoman! It takes me out of my head, brightens my mood and gets me to the competition venue in a good mood.

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Leaving the arena with a smile – photo cred to Louise O’Brien

Routine is key for me – I do the same things, the same way, every time. From how I pack the night before, the order in which I load at the yard that morning, my pre-show coffee, to how I tack up and warm up at a show. I feel ‘safe’ when I do something I know, something I feel secure in, and routine and consistency helps keep me and my horses feeling confident – like “yeah, I know this, I can do this!”

Support – I often have to compete alone, but I have endless support from my close friends and coach over the phone. Sometimes, I am lucky enough to have them there with me. Even if it’s just for them to say “you’ve done the work, you’ve got this” or “just remember to have enough canter coming off that turn” – a bit of reassurance and support when I’m caught up in my head and turn to jelly means the world to me.

Keep reminding yourself that you’ve earned your right to be here and you’ve worked damn hard for it – now go enjoy it!

Orla and Darielle – No Bucking Way

I think we both give each other those pep talks in the warm up, which is great. It really is great to have someone who can understand & push you through the hard times! – Darielle

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Focus on one thing at a time – Just get to the venue. Learn the course. Put in your entry. Watch a round or two (if you have time)…and so on. – Orla

Try not to overthink things. This sport should be about you having fun, enjoying your journey with your horse not stressing out or putting tremendous pressure on yourself. I do try to remember that I am not competing for an Olympic golf medal! So going in & enjoying yourself is key & remember ride as if you are at home! – Darielle
Believe in your abilities as a rider. You wouldn’t have made the decision to go if you didn’t think you were able to handle it. Yes, things can go wrong but every outing is another experience to learn and improve yourself. – Orla
Having someone with [Darielle’s] energy there really helps to distract me and stops me from overthinking everything. She helps me enjoy the full show experience rather than letting my nerves take over and ruin the day. – Orla

Serena’s Tips – Make Up and Muck Heaps

Visualization – Picturing the warm up the same as the arena at home, or the course the same as the local one you school in regularly.

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Breath – As we warm up I practice my breathing, concentrating on breathing in positive and breathing out negativity, sounds daft, but it really calms you down, increases the oxygen levels and relaxes your body, shoulders and hands.

The Right Support Crew Have someone who knows what you want in a warm up, both in flat-work and jumping. Having people tell you jump again or change the canter etc. works only if they know what you and your horse need. If you have a support crew that know what you need you’re onto a winner all the way.

Encouragement is key – of yourself and others. For the most part this is an individual sport. I think, where the team comes from, is your support network – you get back what you give. You may have all the fear in the world boiling inside you, but so does someone else, sometimes speaking positively to someone else reverberates inwards too.

And smile, the endorphins will flow and things will just kick in to place!!

Courage is deciding if the world is going to stare then why not give them a good reason to!!

Cat’s Tips – Wild Atlantic Rider

Trust in your method: You have practiced and you have prepared. Trust that your preparation has been sufficient and that your homework is done. The show is just the test of how much of what you have learned, cos if you didn’t test it, you wouldn’t know!

Acceptance – You might not remember all you’ve learned on the day, and accepting that can be very liberating. I have a saying that every day you’re either winning or learning – and if you’re learning, it’s a win in itself!

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Watch your old videos: When the pre-show nerves and doubts start to creep in I watch videos of competitions that went well for me. Sometimes I need to remind myself of the good days, and that I am capable of doing it again. This just brings me back down to earth and reminds me that I can do it, cos I have before!

So there you have it. We all get that the knots in our stomachs and factor in the several pit stops to the loo before we actually make it to the ring. But using these methods has helped us all face the nerves and get ourselves out of our comfort zones.

Just remember, nerves and excitement are the same sensation. You wouldn’t be at the show if there wasn’t a part of you that believed in yourself. Embrace it!

A special thank you to Natalie, Serena, Darielle and Orla for sharing their own experiences and contributing to this post. You can follow them all on their blog pages and social media accounts. Until next time!

Cat x

Inside Track Eventing

No Bucking Way

Make Up and Muck Heaps

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