By Emma Weinert
Photos by Velvet WD
I was never really a nervous competitor.
When I hit Grand Prix – things got a little crazy.
I remember my first Grand Prix test. It was at Showpark in Del Mar, California. My friends and family were so supportive and came along to cheer me on. I have no idea if it was hot or cold but I know that, either way, I was dripping with sweat!
I was SO nervous, I got tunnel vision and I couldn’t feel my legs. I was in no way in control of my mind. I don’t even know how that test went, all I know is that I wasn’t even really present to experience it.
As I did more Grand Prix competitions, things got a little better but still every time a new milestone came up, the wave of nerves would hit me again.
Something had to change. I knew I had to learn how to deal with these nerves, so I enrolled in a two-day workshop with sports psychologist Jonah Oliver.
That workshop was the beginning of learning how to deal with my nerves. It wasn’t about how to stop being nervous, but more how to think about nerves.
What are you nervous about?
You’ve got to look at WHY you’re getting nervous. I mean, really break it down.
Many of us get nervous about other people – the spectators, other competitors, the judges maybe, rather than focusing on our own riding and our own horse (which is what you SHOULD be doing!).
It’s very easy to fall into that trap of thinking about other people or comparing yourself to others. You have to make yourself focus on the process of riding your horse, or you’ll drive yourself nuts and won’t do the best that you can do.
Some people (like me!) get nervous about getting nervous. That’s a whole new challenge! When you start to feel like that, you simply don’t want to compete – you want to do anything BUT compete.
I totally get that, but training with Shannon and Steffen Peters has made me push myself to get out there and compete because you know what? That’s the only way to learn to do it.
You might get nervous about failing. I think when you feel like this, it’s really useful to change your perspective around the competition. Look at the big picture – what is your ultimate goal? How is this competition a stepping-stone to your big goal?
If you’re getting nervous about actually being able to get through the test at all, make sure you’re not competing at a level that is too high or challenging for you or your horse.
You should compete at a lower level than you’re training at home and try not to get caught up in climbing the levels before you’re ready. I also used to do that and it is nerve wracking because you’re just not ready, so it ends up being unsatisfying, and counter-productive if you’re really interested in training your horse properly.
Everybody has a bad test sometimes, in fact lots of times. I’ve had more bad tests than I can remember and YES it felt awful each time, BUT each was a learning experience, each made me expose myself to a situation I felt uncomfortable with, and each was a stepping stone to reach my goals.
You’ve just got to smile at the end of your test, take it for what it is, be gracious and be above getting upset. This competition is not the ‘be all and end all’. Try to put yourself into plan mode. Analyse what went wrong and WHY it went wrong so you can start creating a plan for that to be avoided in the future.
Don’t forget – even if you’re uncomfortable, you’re still learning.
Your nerves aren’t going away, so you might as well learn to work with them
Over the past few years, I’ve realised that we all have nerves to some degree, and that’s a good thing! Nerves show you care about what you’re doing. They make you sharp and responsive, they can actually make you perform better.
I found the only way to improve my own nerves was to get out there and expose myself to the competition environment.
You could start gently, by attending a show without your horse, just watch how things work, ask questions and get talking to people. They’ll be only too happy to share their experiences and knowledge with you.
Once you’ve learned all you can about the situation, it’s time to tackle it with your horse.
Saddling up with your nerves
As you know, horses are so sensitive and can pick up on your nerves before you even step foot in the stirrup.
Don’t rush around, be mindful of how you’ve moving around your horse – how fast or aggressively are you brushing him? Horses pick up on all of these things and sense when there is a difference. Allow plenty of time so you aren’t adding unnecessary stress to the equation.
For me, visualisation is massive! I take the time at a show to do LOTS of visualisation. Just before I get on, I find a quiet spot and I spend 20 minutes going through my test VERY SLOWLY, breaking down every stride, every transition, every aid and working through every scenario. ‘The horse will do this – I will do this – this will be the outcome.’
You know your horse and you know what scenarios to work through in the visualisations. For example, with Velvet I know that in the 2nd corner of every short side, she wants to rush off into the next movement. So I plan to half halt stronger into that second corner to combat that – and that comes into my visualisation.
Visualisation helps me practise and put a process into place so when it comes to the crunch, it all feels quite automated.
In terms of my body, I’m sure I do get more tense at shows but I try to keep the same focus and attention to my position as I do every day at home – to sit correctly and effectively. I never stop thinking about correcting my position at home, so I don’t stop at the show either.
In the test I try very hard to slow down my thoughts and to be in the moment, otherwise I tend to get a bit hectic and have all sorts of rubbish racing through my mind.
I want to ride EVERY STRIDE.
I want to be focused only on my horse.
If competing is a stepping stone to your riding goal but your nerves are getting in the way, then give what I did a try and focus on yourself and your horse, practise visualisation and most importantly, be OK with your nerves – saddle up with them and go for it!