A chaotic warmup ring can be the cherry on top of an already stressful horse show sundae. Seana Adamson Ph.D, USDF Gold Medalist and equestrian sport psychologist, shares some advice.
I am an adult amateur that considers the warm-up arena to be a death trap most weekends. I’ve had several bad experiences, and now find myself getting more and more nervous about the warm-up arena. My horse seems fine, but I’m a basket case! Do you have any suggestions?
In competition there are always variables that are out of the rider’s control. The condition of the warm-up arena is one of these variables. Fortunately there are a few strategies you can develop. First I will give you a few ideas on dealing with the warm-up arena, next you will find a few strategies for working through your anxiety.
1. Have a plan for your warm-up. Distract your mind from anxiety by focusing on exactly what you want to accomplish. Ride through your plan at home to make sure it works. Make your plan specific, but be flexible if your horse’s needs change. A typical warm-up schedule may look something like this:
Walk on loose rein: 10 minutes
Loosening work in trot and canter: 5-10 minutes
Canter work: 10 minutes (including walk breaks)
Trot work: 5 minutes
Final preparation: 5 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Your total warm-up length will depend on the difficulty of the test, your horse’s temperament, weather conditions, etc.
As well as focusing on what to DO in the warm up, Focus on what you want your horse to FEEL like in the warm up. Your main job is to create a feeling of oneness with your horse. For some people is a comfort to have your instructor talking you through each moment, for others an active instructor can be a distraction to creating a feeling of flow with the horse. Know what works for you, and communicate that to your helper (if you are lucky enough to have one!)
2. Some competitions are notorious for a lack of warm-up space. In this case consider doing an early schooling ride while the warm-up arena is quiet, followed by a second short warm-up right before your test.
3. If you end up in a very crowded arena then do a lot of up and down transitions. Riding walk-trot-walk transitions can do a lot to improve communication and suppleness while keeping you safe and controlled.
4. Claim your space. This is often easier if you have a trainer working with you. Find an area to make a 20-meter circle and hold on to it. Let others work around you. If you are unable to do this then find another rider who is “claiming their space” and work behind them. Let them “clear the track” for you.
5. Be vocal. Yell “outside” or “inside” to let others know where you are going (No, do not yell swear words. They somehow destroy the ambiance). Most knowledgeable riders will try to pass left shoulder to left shoulder. Be vocal and let others know if you are going to do something unexpected.
6. Keep your eyes up. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by seeing all the other horses, look for the gaps between the horses. Space will open up in that crowded mass of horses, but you have to look for it. As mentioned above, when moving in opposite directions it is traditional to pass others left shoulder to left shoulder. You can also try to work in the same direction as the majority of horses in the warm up, and then change directions as the “mass” does.
7. Take an occasional “focus break.” While you are giving your horse a rest in the walk, scan the warm-up arena and see what is happening around you. In almost every crowded warm-up there is an “oblivious idiot” who is inconsiderate or even dangerous. If you find yourself too close to this unfortunate soul then practice a few halts until they move away from you. Also look to see if there is a top rider in the warm up who can inspire you or help you picture what you’re trying to accomplish.
These warm-up strategies can give you a plan of attack, and at least a small sense of control. Your anxiety about the warm-up arena may feel out of your control, but in fact it is not. Sometimes our brain can get stuck on a thought or feeling. Have you ever had a song or piece of music stuck in your mind? It plays over and over. An anxious thought can get stuck in much the same way. When you catch yourself thinking a destructive thought you can use a technique called “thought stopping”. In “thought stopping”, each time you catch yourself thinking an unwanted thought then follow these steps:
1. In your mind see a bright red stop sign
2. Take a deep breath and relax at least one set of muscles in your body. (Your jaw, shoulders or arms are good ones to start with!).
3. Imagine the feeling you would like to create with your horse in this moment. And you can do better than just one leg on each side! You must have some magic or finesse in you, otherwise you wouldn’t be at a show!
It takes diligence to monitor your internal dialogue. Breaking the habit of anxiety requires close attention, but it can be done. In the next few weeks look for more installments on performance anxiety, and strategies for finding some relief. Hang in there with your warm up arena anxiety. Your greatest improvements will often be gained through simple repetition and experience. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email me directly at [email protected].
Seana Adamson Ph.D, is a psychologist specializing in Sport Psychology for equestrians. She is a United States Dressage Federation Gold Medalist, has been training dressage horses and riders for over 30 years, and is the author of “Memorize That Dressage Test: A workbook of mental games to improve focus and flow.” Learn more by visiting seanaadamson.com.