Eventing Nation: Eventing is a game of confidence and competence

Kate Samuels explains how sports psychology can elevate riding performance.

Top photo: Kristin Carpenter & Khaleesi, finishing 2nd in Novice at VAHT

From Kate:

Every time I go to a competition, I am wowed by the fabulous horses and skilled riders that I watched compete at varied levels all weekend. No matter how my horses behaved, or how I rode, I always have something or someone to look up to, even if it’s just a show jumping round from a friend who has a young horse, or watching a professional through a tricky combination on cross country. Usually I’m wondering how they scored ten points better than me in dressage, or kept all the rails up on that baby horse with legs every which way!

When watching the competition, it’s so easy in our sport to get stuck thinking, “Oh, that horse is so much fancier than mine,” or “Well, that’s a professional rider and I just can’t compare with that!”. I’m not here to tell you that the winning ride isn’t because their horse is a better mover, or it isn’t based in some way on that rider’s physical skill level. Of course Eventing is in part influenced by these matters, but laying the blame wholly at the feet of competence is a false way of thinking. You have to obtain a level of physical skill to play the game well, but you will succeed more if you are confident in your choices and yourself.

After a rather lackluster competition myself this weekend, I found that I was sulking a bit, and dwelling on the poor riding that I exhibited, much to the chagrin of my poor horse. In these times, I allow myself to indulge for a certain period, and then I actively seek some source of renewed faith. Enter, Dr. Bob Rotella. Haven’t heard of the man? He’s a genius. He’s actually the best sports psychologist in the game of Golf, which strangely enough shares a lot of factors with Eventing. Both games are played on a one-shot basis, with no do-overs and drastic consequences for small mistakes. Each game is highly mental, in addition to being physical in sometimes a very subtle way. Dr. Bob writes amazing books, and you should certainly spend some time exploring them, namely “Golf Is Not A Game of Perfect”.  However, for today’s purposes, I have compiled a list of ways to sharpen your game for the next show, and improve you confidence as well as your competence. The list is adapted for Eventing, but inspired by Dr. Bob.

The monster that makes me look much more competent than I am in real life. Photo by Jenni Autry.

1) Believe you can win. When I started Eventing, at the tender age of 12, I didn’t even remotely know what I was doing. I had a lovely tolerant coach who was at an age where she was happy to have a constant shadow following her every move and gratefully cleaning tack in exchange for lessons. I didn’t get the whole “dressage” thing, so I watched her lessons. What was she doing that I wasn’t?  How was that movement happening? While you may not have the skill set of that professional rider today, who’s to say you won’t achieve it in the near future? Believe in that future, and you’re just that much closer to it. We all put our pants on one leg at a time, and once upon a time William Fox Pitt didn’t know how to get a horse on the bit either.

2) Don’t be seduced by results. How many times have we seen riders go into show jumping on the last day with the lead and choke? It happens all the time. No matter what your placement is, despite your dressage score, your plan should remain unchanged. Of course, we all get excited about the “what-ifs” when we find ourself in a top position, but if you’re one of these people, just don’t go looking for your score. Ride your horse how you need to ride it for that course, for that day, and figure out your score number later. That isn’t to say that I suggest riding casually and throwing away points, I just don’t condone recklessness in the sight of a possible blue ribbon.

3) Sulking won’t get you anywhere. Didn’t win the dressage? Boo hoo. Eventing is nothing if not a long game, and unless you’re competing against Michael Jung (or Jock Paget), there’s probably still hope for you yet. Wallowing in your self-pity or dwelling on small mis-haps is certainly not going to up your game, and it will probably just make you feel worse. Sulking helps you stay distracted from the next phase, or the next jump on course, and that’s just simply not acceptable.

4) Have a routine to lean on. Ever watch the riders in the warmup for Rolex and wonder, “How do they look so calm and composed?!” Trust me, some of them have more than butterflies in their stomachs. The key to succeeding in pressure situations like these is a lot of things, but having a focused plan and routine before the act is important. Know the amount of time it takes you to get ready, so you don’t ever feel rushed. Know how much warm-up you need, and where you’re supposed to go. If you follow the same physical and mental routine before every round, it helps to manage your nerves.

5) Find somebody who believes in you. The greatest thing any rider can hear before they go into the start box is “I know you can do this, you’ve got it!” Find that person. Don’t surround yourself with Negative Nancy and Sour Susan. Find a coach who sees you doing great things in the future that you yourself can’t quite envision yet. Believing in yourself is important, but having somebody who you respect and trust believe in your is equally integral to your success.




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