Competing with a Better Mental Game

Another horse show weekend over, and I have a few more weeks until the next one. I had a very busy January and February doing two horse trials, a jumper show, and quite a bit of schooling with Dancer. I feel like mentally he’s just about ready to move up to the next level, but I am giving him some time for his body to catch up.

I had a nice nudge that the plan was going as hoped this past weekend when we finished the weekend with a win! I am always more focused on the phases themselves, but it does feel nice to come away with a blue. Plus, I really wanted him to qualify for American Championships, so it is nice to have this out of the way.

During the competition, I had a lot of time to watch the other competitors and enjoy the competition. It was a bit strange because last season I usually had two horses competing which kept me so busy; this weekend I actually had time for lunch and to be a spectator. While watching riders go by, it’s hard not to notice that so much of this competition is left up to your mental-game. We can only do so much with finances to buy an incredible horse, new tack, and learning all of the skills necessary to complete each phase. If we do all these things only to get to the competition and have our nerves kick in, all of the other things can mean very little.

P/C Katelyn Finch

I have suffered from nerves and anxiety competing in the past. I’ve written about it. But, I’ve made some developments since then that have allowed me to stay focused whether I’m riding Frye at an FEI event or a young horse at Novice.

  1. Be Competent at the level you’re competing at. This sounds simple enough, but how many times have we seen the rider rush to move-up when they weren’t prepared. Simple enough. If I’m competing at a certain level, I can ease my nerves by my confidence that I am completely trained and capable of answering the questions asked.
  2. Know your weaknesses. While I know that my horse and I are completely able and confident at the level, this doesn’t mean we aren’t stronger in some area than others. For instance, I currently ride two stallions. Stallions are hyper-aware of their surroundings, and the warm-up ring isn’t always user-friendly. If I feel my stallion becoming unnerved, rather than becoming unnerved myself, I just react accordingly. Can I shorten my warm-up? I react to what he needs from me. And in the nonchalant reactions, I actually get the best horse. So many riders try to fix all of their weaknesses in the warm-up at the competition which just causes more frustration. If I know my horse is weaker going to the left, I can’t fix this strength issue in fifteen minutes. I may accept the 6 for the movement, and rock all other twenty opportunities to get 7s and 8s.
  3. A “Give my Horse the Best Ride” mentality This may only make sense to me, but sometimes I’d rather compete a very difficult horse than a made one. With a difficult horse, I know exactly how to respond. Is he too careful? Ok, I’ll ride very assertively. Is he heavier on one rein? Ok, I’ll ride him very straight. With difficult horses you don’t necessarily have the pressure to come away with a certain result, but to train them. I feel way more pressure riding the made horses than I do the ones that are more difficult. So to combat my nervousness to come away with a specific result, (Because my current horses are angels) I still ride each competition as a stepping stone in the horse’s training. Then, if we do well I can celebrate after. It really takes my own aspirations out of the equation. I certainly want to give my sponsors and owners great results. But, if I focus on wins, I get sick and anxious. So, as simple as it sounds, I just put the horse first. What can I do, to give him a good experience and prepare for the next fence? Sometimes, that does mean reacting to a green moment on course, but it alleviates the pressure I’ve experienced in the past by taking myself out of the equation.

I really think I have gained a lot of the enjoyment from competing without the anxiety because of my three points above. I’ve put myself in a good barn and have a foundation where I know that I have the correct training to compete the horses I’m riding. I am self-aware of what my strengths and weaknesses are before I get to the event, which help me react accordingly. Then, I focus on giving my horse the best ride possible rather than focus on a specific colored ribbon.

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