Have you decided to start riding again after taking a long break from the sport? It's not as easy as it was when you started. But not to worry, we have some insightful advice on common issues, like fear and fitness, for those of you getting "back in the saddle."
This weekend I went with my friend Beth to her first horse show in a while. Even though it was just a schooling show, it was still a big deal as Beth’s lovely Hanoverian “J” (names have been changed for privacy) has only really been to a few shows and tends to get a bit “revved up.” So much so that her last show on him, almost 2 years ago, he decided to do an impromptu air above ground, which led to Beth being popped off. She landed on her feet, so no big deal right? Well no… she landed on her feet so hard that she broke her ankle and was out of the tack for 8 months.
Needless to say, it was a pretty big deal for Beth and J to go to their first show. Practicing second level dressage at home, they decided to stick to the KISS principle (keep it simple stupid) and just do training level for their first show back.
After a great week leading up to the show, that included a mini-field trip down the road to the local riders club, Beth knew J was going to be fresh at a new place, but was feeling good about the upcoming show because she had worked J through lots of different techniques to help him relax and focus and felt confident that they could both enjoy themselves. Plus, I offered to go with her and be the guinea pig and get on him first at the show. That way, if he decided to be a bit frisky, she wouldn’t have to worry about having a repeat of when she broke her leg. I figured I’m taller and have longer legs, so despite having only ridden 10 times in the last 5 years, I’d probably… hopefully… be able to wrap my legs around him and not get dumped. If I did, I’m younger than her and a little more likely to bounce than break!
When the alarm went off at 5 am and it was still pitch black out as I drove to the show to meet Beth, I secretly thought to myself, “I sure don’t miss having to do these crazy early horse show mornings anymore since I quit riding!!” An hour later when I arrived at the show the sun was peaking over the hills and sure enough J was a bit more perky than usual when I helped Beth take him off the trailer. Thankfully another friend of Beth’s came along to help out and took him for a nice hand walk and graze till he looked a little less like a giraffe. When I did get on, he felt 18 hands instead of 16.1 and definitely a little more “on the muscle” than normal, but was being pretty good about trying to listen. Or at least until the warm-up arena went from having just 3 of us in it to 10 of us.
Then he did a little air above the ground, not a buck or bolt, just a little leap and sideways skitter. Who knows, maybe there was an imaginary jump or plastic bag that I just didn’t “see.” Luckily, I kept my balance and rode it out. In that moment I was really happy to be on him rather than Beth.
A few minutes later it was obvious he was still pretty wound up, and with Beth’s ride time looming less than 30 minutes away, we decided to throw him on the lunge line before she got on. It was the best idea we had all morning! But instead of letting J gallop around all wild, Beth encouraged him to calm down and “grab a brain” by only letting him trot and do a bit canter. After just a few minutes you could literally see the light bulb turn on; it was like the routine of being lunged with side reins was his security blanket. I got back on just to be sure he felt safe and immediately thought “yep he’s back to his sweet mellow self.” The fire breathing dragon is gone. It was like night and day!
We figured that his excitement earlier was more about all the horses in the warm up area than anything else. For this reason Beth decided when she got on, that instead of warming up in the warm up area with everyone else, she’d just walk J around near the show ring and let him relax and take a breath. She knew he was plenty “warmed up” so she took this time to focus on herself and the test. I gotta give her kudos, many riders would have watched their horse doing airs above ground and had a melt down, saying, “Nope! I’m not getting on that thing.” But she didn’t, she was totally unfazed, later saying, “I was determined not to let my nerves ruin my first show with my horse.”
More props to Beth, as a lot of riders would not be able to get on and go into the show ring as quickly as she did. Fortunately, at dressage shows they let you ride around the outside of the arena before the whistle and then you enter the ring to do your test. This ended up being the perfect amount of time for her to walk and trot J around a bit before she went in the ring. In the end her test went really well. The judge even commented that J needed to be more energetic (if only she knew how “energetic” he’d been that morning). Beth was thrilled!
An hour later, after J had a nice break, they did their second test, again she chose to do a light warm up in an open area near the show ring rather than in the warm up arena. And the second test was even better! The judge gushed about what a quality horse J was with so much potential!
All in all, the day was a success because Beth, the experienced horsewoman that she is, was able to stay calm, be positive and not dwell on J’s morning shenanigans. She knew better than anyone that horses are animals, they don’t have to be perfect, and J really wasn’t being bad (he doesn’t have a bad bone in his body). He was just really excited (to be expected since he’s only been to a handful of shows over the last 2 years and the last one being 6 months before with a trainer). Most importantly both Beth and J showed off their best attributes: the ability to focus and be calm after a little hiccup.
The most important thing that had to happen at the show was both my horse and I needed to have a great time. So even though I knew everybody would be watching and my horse started a bit fresh, I didn’t let myself worry. I kept my mind absolutely clear and calm. I was able to do this because I had two great horsey friends there to help me so I could just focus on what I needed to do as a rider. Quite the treat because in the past I always went to shows on my own and played the part of coach, groom, braider, shipper etc.
I didn’t try to be perfect. Instead I tried to be present in the moment. I accepted what was happening as it happened and didn’t over analyze everything. This helped me be more focused and actually be MY best. Amazing how it’s all in the mind and heart! I couldn’t have reached this point without recognizing how important it is to seek out people who can help you achieve your goals. And I’m so thankful and grateful for that.
For some tips on how to stay present in the moment, get over fear and mentally prepare for a horse show, check out the following video topics that EquestrianCoach guest coach Tonya Johnston did on mental skills:
Getting Over Fear
Mental Skills Coach, Tonya Johnston, shares some strategies you can use to get past an event or situation that is, perhaps inhibiting your performance and/or enjoyment of the sport. Tonya is joined by amateur rider, Lauren Craft, who sustained a serious injury during a jumping accident. Together they discuss how to overcome fear.
Running Time: 14 minutes and 35 seconds
Preparing For An Important Show
Mental Skills Coach, Tonya Johnston, shares some mental strategies you can use in the weeks before a special event to bolster your confidence. Tonya is joined by Junior Hunter & Equitation rider, Caroline Delehanty, who is anxiously anticipating a big show and several medal finals.
Running Time: 15 minutes and 12 seconds
Grand Prix veteran Susie Hutchison & Mental Skills Coach, Tonya Johnston, talk about the power of visualization & mental preparation to enhance your performance.
Running Time: 12 minutes and 11 seconds