Some riders feel that the warm-up ring is a consistently scary place, and sometimes even savvy, confident riders can get themselves into a pickle due to circumstances or dicey environments. What everyone wants to avoid, however, is allowing nerves, fears or general dislike of the warm-up ring ruin their two minutes in the show ring. Rather than dread the experience, or allow it to compromise your attitude, or try to avoid it by not warming up at all, be proactive by filling up your toolbox with ideas and techniques that could be of use to you in the warm-up ring. Here are a few of my mental skills tips for getting focused and ready for a positive warm-up ring experience.
1. Practice warm-up ring scenarios at home.
Sometimes it isn’t the actual warm-up ring itself, but the fact that it signifies you are about to horse show. Rehearsing warm-up scenarios at home can help normalize the process. For example, during a walk break in a lesson or schooling the week before your show, use your imagination to set the scene of the show facility’s warm-up rings and competition arenas in as much detail as you can. Next, imagine you are warming-up your horse for a class. If possible, brainstorm with your trainer ways to warm-up with a similar routine as you would at a show, and then if possible, move to another ring to jump a full course. If that is not possible, at least walk out of the gate and back in, imagining you are about to start your class. Pretend that you have ‘one shot’ at riding the course to simulate competition and to practice being appropriately focused. This will help you get more comfortable with the ‘warming-up’ process.
2. Create a mantra for the start of your warm-up.
After the (sometimes rushed) tasks involved in organizing yourself, tacking up and getting on, use a mantra to make a clear transition into the riding portion of your day. By using a mantra to get you centered and balanced, you can be sure your time management and horsemanship responsibilities do not interfere with your state of mind for your warm-up.
Right before you get on or right when you allow your horse to walk off toward the warm-up ring, say a mantra to yourself to re-focus you to the new task at hand: riding with confidence and composure. “Balanced and together” or “Dialed in” or “Commit to each choice” are examples of mantras that you can say to yourself to shift gears and ready yourself for your ride.
4. Control your peripheral vision and attention.
Your peripheral vision often narrows with arousal—therefore if you are nervous you will see less, making it more likely to be startled, surprised, or run into. Added to this is the human tendency to squint, wrinkle your face, or cringe when you are somewhere you dislike and you can imagine how your sight is affected. At the other end of the spectrum is the rider who is overwhelmed by her surroundings and cannot pay attention to anything but the other horses in the warm-up ring. To help with both of these scenarios, practice widening and narrowing your awareness during your warm-up. Take a breath and expand your vision by actually turning your head, looking at everyone in the warm-up, and appreciating the environment. Shift back to a focus on you and your horse by taking a complete breath, reminding yourself of a performance goal, and using a physical trigger you have chosen ahead of time such as stepping into your heel.
5. Breathe again.
6. Make a ‘reset’ cue.
Mistakes happen. A rider who pulls on the reins and repeatedly adds strides to her jump in the warm-up ring will benefit from having a predetermined way to mentally and/or physically stop, ‘shake it off,’ and regroup—a ‘reset’ cue. For example, that rider may do a brief body scan to find any unwanted tension in her body before heading to the jump again. After noticing her typical habit of tensing her shoulders, she exaggerates the tension by squeezing her shoulders up under her ears, holds for two seconds, and then exhales and relaxes her neck, shoulders and arms. Alternatively she may take a big breath in, look up at the sky, and exhale the mistake away from her as she puts her gaze on back down on a focal point ahead of her. She has done her ‘reset’ routine and can now more effectively put the mistake behind her.
7. Gain perspective on the days when nothing is working.
Everyone has experienced a day in the warm-up ring where it feels like nothing is working and nature seems to have conspired against them. Giant puddles shrank the warm-up to the size of a postage stamp; a truck backfired; a loose horse galloped through the show grounds—suffice to say the list of challenges was varied and stressful. When this happens, try to take a breath and shift to an ‘eagle eye’ perspective. Adopt a long-range view, even if for a brief second, to remember that your training and your relationship with your horse will endure. Remind yourself that your riding talent and horse’s abilities are never measured by any one day in the show ring, or the warm-up ring.
Good luck out there and remember; positive focus is a skill you can bring to every ring and riding challenge you face!