Each year, you eagerly await horse show season so you can ride and compete your dressage horse. But when the time times, the fear gremlins creep in and you end up feeling paralyzed by “stage fright”.
In my own personal quest, I’ve discovered practical techniques that have given me a performance edge at dressage shows. I’ll share some of them with you here.
“DRESSING UP” YOUR PRACTICE SESSIONS”
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of dress rehearsals. Your practice sessions should include dress rehearsal on a regular basis before a live audience.
Grab a few relatives and friends and invite them to your “performance.” Have some on the sidelines and one or two in the “judges’ chair.” Before the rehearsal, braid your dressage horse’s mane. Put on your horse show clothes. Can you feel the adrenaline already starting to surge (for you and your horse)? Can you feel the anxiety building? With enough practice, these preparations won’t create stress for you.
“What do the judges/spectators think of me, my dressage horse, my performance? Do they think I’m a poor performer? “Are they critical of my horse training?”
Riders often get so side tracked and preoccupied with what other people think that they can’t do their job in the horse show arena. Dress rehearsals give you an opportunity to practice concentrating on your performance with the distractions of people watching and judging you.
At home, try warming up in one arena (the way you would at a dressage show), then moving to a second, performance arena. Often at shows moving from warm-up to performance arena produces anxiety. Watch your and your horse’s reactions as you go from one venue to another. Practice moving until you and your dressage horse are so bored with it that it is no longer a novelty, just a “ho-hum” part of the routine.
Better yet, load your dressage horse into a trailer, go a short distance down the road to a neighboring farm, and hold your dress rehearsal there (with the permission of the owner, of course). The action of loading and unloading and being away form your home turf will add an extra dimension to the practice.
Dress rehearsals are great because they can call attention to problems or details you may not be able to anticipate.
My own personal experience is an excellent example. I was preparing for a schooling show in Florida with a Grand Prix dressage horse. I was very hot, so I was warming up without my jacket. I was actually quite relaxed, having done this show for years.
I finished the warm up and put on my jacket–a long tailed shadbelly coat. I proceeded into the ring. My dressage horse, who had been just fine during warm up, was suddenly and unexpectedly very tense. I mentally reviewed what might have changed from the warm-up ring to the performance arena. The only difference was that I was now wearing my jacket. I finally realized that the long tails of the jacket were brushing my horse’s back in the wind. From then on during practice, I pinned a bath towel (not very elegant but it did the trick!) to the back of the saddle pad to desensitize my horse to the feel of something brushing his back in the wind. If I hadn’t rehearsed, I wouldn’t have become aware of the problem until the day of the show.
Use the dress rehearsal to learn how to continue on after a mistake. It’s important not to focus on the problem you just had. If you do, you’re sure to ruin your next three moves. Stay in the moment. Don’t let it snowball.
JUST ANOTHER SANDBOX
Robert Dover has certainly done it a few times! Dover, a six-time Olympic champion and dressage coach to many Olympic and World Championship students (including me) taught me some valuable lessons. One in particular can help you overcome the fear of competing at horse shows.
Dover used to say that whether you were performing at the county fair or the Olympics, you were just doing your work in another 20-by-60-meter sand box but in a different place.
I’ve used this idea by making competition a very personal pursuit for me. It’s just another opportunity for me to get into a sand box and build an even better sand castle. I compete against myself. I set up personal achievable goals both for me and for my horse, and I concentrate on those. I’m relaxed to the point that I don’t even look to see who is in my class or what the scores are.
One winter, I was exhibiting in my first Florida show of the year with a horse that was competing for the first time at 4th Level. I had set up three very achievable personal goals: (1) use my corners effectively; (2) perform clean flying changes (this was the first time my horse would be doing these in sequence in the show ring); and (3) do well using a double bridle (again, a first for this horse in the show ring). After the show, it didn’t matter to me how I had placed. All that was important for me was that I had met all of my goals.
A couple of days later, I met up with one of the other riders competing in my class. The conversation went something like this:
Him: “You beat me!”
Me: “I did?”
Him: “You won all the money!”
Me: “I did?”
I was oblivious of the results. I was totally focused on my personal goals.
So when you make horse shows personal, it removes so much of the pressure.
DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE!
Deep breathing exercises can add to your relaxation. Yoga breathing exercises are excellent for helping you to get into an Alpha state, in which brain waves slow and you feel relaxed, free, and easy.
When you inhale, keep your shoulders DOWN, and let your stomach expand as if you’re getting fat. That means that you’re breathing deeply and lowering your diaphragm.
When you exhale, relax your butt into the saddle. As a trigger phrase, say, “My butt is a marshmallow.” Also, imagine your butt dissolving into your horse’s barrel so you look like a centaur.
IT’S SHOW TIME!
Get to your horse show early. The day before is best; it gives you and your dressage horse time to get used to the venue.
Ride your horse before you compete so you can see his reactions to his new surroundings. Put him away for a few hours to relax, then bring him out again. Notice that the second time he’s more relaxed.
If you can’t ride him (or in addition to riding him), hand graze him. Get him out of the trailer or stall as many times as you can (of course with rest periods in between). Each time you’ll notice that he’s more relaxed. The more relaxed your horse is, the more relaxed you’ll be.
Your mind set is most important. Remember: This is just another ride, another day, just a different place. Be sure
not to change something because you see someone doing it differently. Stick to your routine. This is not the time to try something new that isn’t part of your practice. Have your personal goals in mind. Make those your focus.
Take three deep breaths, lower yourself into the saddle. Visualize what you have done over and over again in your dress rehearsals: 20 meters in trot; pick up canter; ….
Your subconscious has done this all before and will serve you well. Remember, if you make a mistake, focus immediately on your next movement. The mistake is only one score of many scores. This is only one of many horse shows to come.
Have fun with your dressage horse at horse shows this summer! Competition is just another great outing for you and your horse. And isn’t having fun the reason we do this anyway?
Click here for more tips on competing your dressage horse at dressage shows.