The following article was inspired by a reader who told me "I have a
wonderful, talented thoroughbred. We can do Second and Third level work at home, yet when we compete, we can barely get through a First Level test. The missing link seems to be relaxation. My horse is off the track and we seem to feed off each other's tension. How does a normally tense person learn to relax?"
This rider is right in thinking that relaxation is her priority. When you're tense, your work can't be of as high a quality as when you're relaxed. That's true for both horses and riders. Sure, a certain rush of adrenalin is normal and even welcome. But when you're so tense that you feel immobilized, you've got a problem. Here are some tips to help you relax at shows.
1. First, try to figure out why you get so nervous at shows. Are you worried about what people think of you? Have you put unrealistic pressure on yourself to win? Are you afraid you won't measure up to the expectations of others? If those are the kinds of things that make you nervous, focus on "performance goals" rather than "result goals". In other words, rather than having a goal of scoring 65% or placing in the top 3, make a new goal that reflects your effort rather than the outcome. For example, how about sitting elegantly and quietly, or remembering to breathe, or maintaining a metronome-like rhythm for an entire test?
2. Do you ride defensively because you're afraid that your horse will be fresh at a new place? If so, go to the show a day early. Work your horse on the longe line so he can get his bucks out of his system. Take him out of the stall several times for hand walks or grazing around the arenas. You'll be amazed at how grazing your horse calms him down. By the time you ride, he should be as comfortable with his new surroundings as he is at home.
3. Stage some dress rehearsals. Drive to neighboring farms; take your horse off the trailer, warm-up, and do a practice test. Do this often enough that going to a new place and "performing" gets to be old hat for both of you.
It's even a good idea to braid and put on your show clothes to simulate a competition. I remember one horse that would warm up beautifully, but as soon as I went around the ring, he'd get tense. I didn't think I was making him tense, but I would consistently "lose him" between the warm-up and the competition arena.
I finally figured out that I never wore my shadbelly jacket with its long tails during the warm up. When I finally put my coat on, the tails brushed his sides, and he'd catch a glimpse of them moving out of the corner of his eye. These new sensations scared him. So for several weeks, I pinned a large bath towel to the back of the saddle pad. When he moved, the towel flapped against his body, and he could see it waving. He soon got used to it, and our problem went away.
4. Use humor to break up tension. Go to shows with friends who get silly and make you laugh. The less intense you are, the more fun you'll have. Go around the arena and as you pass the judge, think to yourself, "Hey, Baby! Get ready to have your socks knocked off!" Hear the bell and say under your breath, "Oh, Yippee! It's my turn!" Come down the centerline, see the judge sitting in the trailer, and visualize that you're going to put the tailgate up so she can't see you. Do whatever goofy thing helps you to dissipate tension.
5. Think about what happens to you physically when you're tense. Muscles get tight while respiration and heart rate increase. The good news is that with a little work, you can regulate all of these reactions.
Let's address muscle tension first. Understand that the more you tighten a muscle, the more deeply it relaxes when you let go. To learn the feeling of muscular relaxation, sit in a chair and tense every muscle in your body. Hold the tension until your body quivers. Then let go and feel yourself sinking heavily down into your chair.
Now, go through this process starting at your head and working down to your feet section by section. Each time you release the tension in a muscle group, anchor this feeling of deep relaxation, by saying the words "let go". Eventually as you ride, you can scan your body for tight places. "Talk" to that area with your cue words. For example, say out loud, "Neck--Let go." Wrists--Leg go." "Legs--Let go."
6. Now, let's talk about breathing. Normally, when you're tense, your respiration becomes more rapid and shallow. You might even find that you occasionally hold your breath. You can be sure that if you do this, you'll transmit your tension to your horse.
So, practice deep breathing. As you inhale through your nose, keep your shoulders down and let your stomach get "fat". As you exhale through your mouth, feel your seat lowering into the saddle so that you "dissolve" into your horse's body. Consciously breathe like this when you first get on, during every break, and as you go around the outside of the arena. In fact, one of your performance goals can be to take a deep breath in every corner.
7. You can also train yourself to regulate your heart rate by using the stress and recovery cycle that occurs during exercise. Go for a twenty-minute walk and periodically increase your heart rate by walking faster or even jogging for 10-30 seconds. Each time you slow back down to a comfortable walk and feel your heart rate and breathing returning to normal, anchor this feeling with a specific cue. Pick a cue that you can use easily when you ride. For example, clear your throat, touch your thumb to your forefinger, or tap your fists together. Then when you feel tense at shows, you can use your cue to slow your heart rate because you've trained yourself to do so.
You're not alone. Everyone gets tense when competing. Contrary to popular opinion, professionals are not immune to sweaty palms and rubbery legs. But the exciting thing is that you can learn to deal with your anxiety so that you can still do your job well and enjoy yourself. All it takes is some handy tools in your toolbox.