Look at the cover lines of well-known equestrian magazines and chances are that at some time during the year, each will carry an article entitled ‘Beat Competition Nerves’, ‘Survive Competition Stress’ or something similar.
Go to any show, except of course those where the only competitors are super-cool professionals, and you’ll see tense riders with pale faces. If you had to fill in a speech bubble over their heads, it would probably range between ‘I want to be sick’ to ‘Get me out of here.’
I’m allowed to say that, because I used to be one of them. I once nearly passed out at the end of a dressage test, because I was so nervous I forgot to breathe. So why do we put ourselves under such pressure?
One answer is that sadly, we often fall into the trap of defining our relationship with our horse in terms of competition success or failure. As a journalist, I plead guilty: if you’re writing about well-known riders, especially for a non-specialist publication, you automatically do it in terms of ‘Olympic medallist’ or ‘world champion’. And by the way, even Olympic medallists get nervous: they’re just better at channelling their adrenaline down a more productive route.
So first off, let’s have a new ground rule. If you don’t want to compete, that doesn’t necessarily make you a lesser rider. If your horse goes well for you and you give him an interesting life – as opposed to going in the same arena and doing the same thing, day in, day out – what more could anyone, two- or four-legged, ask for?
Second, ask yourself why you’re nervous. If it’s because you’re frightened that your horse will buck you off, take him to a few shows just to soak up the atmosphere, without competing and perhaps think about getting advice on using a product to promote calmness. If it’s because you think you’ll make a mistake and look stupid, think back to when you’ve seen other riders get it wrong. Did you think what idiots they were and spend the rest of the show laughing at them, or did you sympathise because they’d missed out a movement in a dressage test or couldn’t persuade a horse that there wasn’t actually a dragon hiding behind a particular fence?
Chances are it was the latter. If you are the rare sort of rider who enjoys feeling superior at the expense of others, hide your head in shame and remember that horses are great levellers: one day, the same will happen to you.
The best advice I had – and which actually stopped me riding into a dressage arena feeling that I should have a sick bag in my pocket – came from a wise teacher who asked me why I wanted to compete. Was it, he said, purely because I wanted to win rosettes? And actually, it wasn’t – it was because I wanted to prove that the work I put in at home was paying off.
So, he said patiently, who are you competing against? It took a moment for the penny to drop, but then I realised. I was competing against myself, getting satisfaction not from getting a better score than other riders in the class, but improving on my own performance.
The funny thing is, that as soon as I changed my mindset, I had a lot more fun – and yes, you’ve guessed it, my scores improved enormously.
Try it. It might just work for you, too.