Fit to Ride: Head in the game

Fitness isn’t only about sweaty, “Eye of the Tiger”-themed training montages (or whatever the equivalent of that is for you and your horse). Being mentally fit is important, too. Biz Stamm explains.

From Biz:

Hey there, Horse Nation.  So as I mentioned last week, my first horse of the year is just a couple weeks away.  I’ve been practicing my dressage tests, conditioning my horse, and conditioning myself.  Physically, the two of us are ready, but mentally I’m not sure if I’m prepared.  Even though I’ve been riding forever and doing the whole horse show thing since I was 9, I’m yet to conquer my horse show nerves.  I know some nerves are normal, but if they get out of hand, they can affect the way I ride.  The surefire way to tell if my nerves have gotten the better of me is to look at my elbows.  When I get really nervous I have a tendency to lock my elbows, which usually invokes a resounding “screw you!” from my horse.

Tonto the wonder pony successfully packed me around many horse shows despite my nerves.

My current mount, Kalvin, is quick to respond to any aspect of my riding he may interpret as annoying, so before our first horse show together I’m going to explore some techniques to attempt to finally tame my nerves.

Harnessing fear

It’s been awhile since I’ve done any kind of substantial showing (6 years!) and I’ve learned a lot between then and now.  In my other life as a graduate student, and now as a biology instructor, I’ve had to deal with my fear of speaking in front of large groups of people.  I still get really nervous when I think about standing at the front of a seminar hall, being judged by my peers, but I’ve managed to nail a couple of my talks and as a result have new perspective on my fear.

Being nervous, whether it be before a big horse show or a big seminar, is completely normal.  On top of that, fear harnessed correctly can actually improve your performance.  I’ve noticed that the more nervous I am about giving a seminar, the better I perform. The great thing about fear is that is can be very motivating.  So if you use your fear to motivate you to prepare for whatever big event that’s making you nervous, you will be that much more ready to put in a stellar performance when the time comes. So next time you think “Oh $h!t! I have a big show coming up,” follow that thought with “I better go practice!”

Visualization: because even reality is somewhat in your mind

You can only physically practice so much before you completely exhaust yourself and your horse, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mentally train as well.  One technique I’ve been toying with (somewhat successfully) these days is visualizing my ride when everything goes right.  The important aspect of this technique is to visualize every detail of your ride.  For example, when I visualize riding the perfect corner (The dressage kind. Not the cross-country kind.) here is what goes through my head.

“As I approach F I push my horse into my outside rein with my inside leg, sit up and back, and contract my abdominals to half halt.  Following the half halt, I slightly open outside rein, and point my inside hand towards my outside hip without crossing the withers. With my inside leg I ask for more bend to fill up the space I’ve made with my now slightly open outside rein. Going into the corner, I weight my outside seat bone, and bring my outside shoulder slightly back.  Coming out of the corner I straighten my hands, shoulders, and even the weight in my seat bones. I simultaneously add leg to maintain (or sometimes increase) the level of energy in my horse’s gait”

This is what should go through my head every time I ride a corner, and by practicing this thought process even when I’m not riding I can create some mental muscle memory.  Hopefully in a moment of mental panic, I’ll be able to focus on the process I’ve practiced and ride effectively.

Put things into perspective

Let’s be honest, folks.  This is a horse show.  Not a matter of life and death (unless you’re one of those crazy eventers).  I once had an instructor ask me before entering the show ring “Biz, in the grand scheme of your life, how much will these next five minutes actually matter?” Chances are if you ask yourself this same question the next time you head into the show ring, the honest answer will be “not much.”  It’s most likely that after a day of either celebrating success or mourning your failure, life will return to state very similar to what it was before the show.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that we do this because we think it’s fun.  So relax. Have fun, and maybe kick some a$$ in the process.

Go riding!


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