While getting ready for my first show in over two years, I really focused on the mental preparation it takes to be comfortable and confident in the ring. I had a few things going against me:
- New horse (we had a solid month and a half together)
- First A show
- First time showing on grass
- My last horse show was a disaster; my last horse really undermined my confidence
Needless to say, I was a bit nervous, but I made it a point to be positive and to have confidence; rather than worrying that I’d forget the course or make a huge mistake, I ran through a mental checklist of things I could do, and reminded myself to ride confidently and precisely, to trust my horse and to be calm and focused. I read a few articles and books on mental preparation for horse shows and found it to be a fascinating subject.
My main oppenent in riding is my mind; I have mental blocks that prevent me from riding as I’d like to. I’m physically capable of doing what I need to, and I believe that I have the knowledge to ride correctly and effectively. The rub is that to put that knowledge into action, the brain must process and direct signals, and divert that thought or idea into motions. For example, my last horse would land and spin riders off, and for pure self-preservation I adopted the nasty habit of sitting up too early. My current horse is a saint, but he’s powerful and his jump isn’t easy to stay with; couple that with his tendency to overjump, and my brain automatically tells me to sit up sooner than I know is correct. I have to force my body to override the signals from my brain telling me to sit up and assume a defensive position.
Mulling all this over really illuminated me to the importance and power of the mental aspect of riding. It is common thought that riding is an extremely mental sport; besides all the memorizing and split-second planning that dressage and show-jumping require, the disciplines demand a high level of mental activity. Riders must understand the horse on a deep level; that true connection simply cannot come from mere strength, and instead relies on the mental strength and function of both rider and horse. Not only does a rider need to have a storehouse of knowledge about the horses they ride, such as their history, habits, and quirks, but they must be able to “read” their mount’s signals while riding, whether in the warm up or on course.
One of the most interesting points I read while preparing myself was that nervousness or jitters before shows should be embraced and not seen as unwanted or “bad”. These feelings are completely normal, and must be accepted and channeled towards one’s performance. Address those feelings, realize what has prompted them, and then focus on the strong points. I find it helpful to completely clear all thoughts of showing from my mind; a few hours before my class, I direct my attention towards my strong points, and then rather than thinking of my weak spots, I go over what I need to do to strengthen them. So instead of pounding myself mentally because of my habit of sitting up too soon over fences, I’ll just remind myself to stay over and be smooth and relaxed in the air. Then I remind myself to trust my horse and to ride with confidence. The negative will always be there, and the key to dealing with it is to understand that and allow it to become postitive; it’s the old political spin.