Getting a Grip: Dealing With Pre-Show Nerves

You know that feeling before going into the arena? The one that is part adrenaline, part nausea and all nerves? Me, too. Here’s how I conquer it (or try to)!

Showing horses can be stressful, even under the best of circumstances. No matter what your discipline or how big/small the show, packing up and preparing feels a lot like a cross-country move. Even if I am only showing at the grounds up the road, somehow I cannot manage to pull out of the barn without a full trailer and truck bed. That in and of itself is enough to raise someone’s blood pressure, but add in the grooming of the horse, the possibility that the horse might go lame or throw a shoe (as they love to do right before a show), and that’s a recipe for stress.

But all of this is normal and part of showing horses. What really gets to me is the nerves that set in once I’ve arrived at the show grounds, tacked up my horse, warmed up my horse and am waiting for my turn in the go order. Even at smaller local shows, I have difficulty settling my nerves and tackling the course in a confident and relaxed manner.


If my nerves only affected me, I wouldn’t worry much about them. After all, what’s a little stomach acid, cramped abs and gastro-intestinal distress once the day is done and the competition is over? But the fact is, it’s not just me that my nerves affect. Much more important is the message my tightly clenched hands and – ahem – seat send my horse.

More than once I’ve come out of the warm-up pen and commented to my friends that my normally quiet and probably too pokey horse is feeling fresh. Fortunately, I am blessed with a brutally honest group of friends that will not hesitate to remind me that the issue may not be how my horse is feeling – at least not directly.

So, the question becomes how do we get a grip on these pre-show nerves (I switch to “we” here because I’ve learned that, in the horse world, if this is something with which I am struggling, so is someone else). Simply telling ourselves to relax isn’t enough. We all know this. The result tends to be that after telling ourselves to relax and failing to do so, we get more worked up because we’re not relaxing.

For me, the key to actually getting a grip on pre-show nerves is to focus on three main things I can actually control. This doesn’t mean the things in my physical world I can control, but those within my psyche.

First and foremost, I focus on my breathing. This may seem obvious, but for me it’s more difficult than it would seem. However, when I remember to breathe deeply and feel the air fill my lungs, it does so much for quieting my too busy brain. I don’t meditate or practice yoga (I probably should, but that’s another issue), so simply concentrating on my breathing isn’t something I do very often; it’s only when I’m on the back of a horse. Remembering to breath and focusing on it enables me to sit on my pockets, relax my shoulders and feel my horse move beneath me. It allows my horse to do the same. I always say that my mare is a champion breath holder when it comes to being girthed up and relaxing. The reality is, I’m the one holding my breath. She finally exhales when I do.


The next big thing for me is to visualize my pattern. Whether I am riding a preset course or competing in a flat class, visualizing each step I need to execute and picturing myself and my horse doing it smoothly sets up both of us for success. I ride western and I am just getting started in Cowboy Mounted Shooting. A fellow competitor (who competes at a much, much higher level than I do) said something to me that really hammered home this point. As we were talking about course management, she said to me, “You can only do one thing at a time – you can turn or you can shoot.”

What she meant by that (I believe) is that if you don’t know where you need to turn before you run your course, you’ll be focusing on the turns and not the shooting (so you probably won’t hit many of your targets). If you’re focusing on the shooting and you don’t know where you’re turning ahead of time, you won’t turn (at least not when and/or how you should). This may seem tangential, but it relates directly back to visualization. Picturing the course, having a plan and knowing it before you go into the arena (whether it’s to shoot, jump or transition on the judge’s/announcer’s orders) makes actually getting the job done much more likely.

Knowing that before I go into the arena and really focusing on what I need to do to get my job done helps me to relax my breathing a bit and develop the mental edge necessary to compete in the sport for which we all have such a strong passion.

Photo by K D Gowins Photography.

Another thing that can help me work through my pre-show nerves is to focus on my progress and my horse’s progress. I’m highly competitive. I can’t help it and I’ll never get over it. As a result, being relatively new to equestrian competition has been … a growing experience. For as much as my eyes are always on the proverbial prize, thinking about winning amongst a group of people with much, much more experience and skill than I isn’t the most effective way to control my nerves.

Instead, I set small goals for myself and my horse throughout the day. Every time I go into the arena, I think about what I want to accomplish during that particular ride. Maybe I didn’t set up myself for my turns very well in my last run, so that’s something I’ll work to fix. Although the competitor in me feels like that’s “settling” in light of not being to pull off a win, I have to remember that my horse is still green and so am I. Therefore, again, I focus on what I can control and how I can take steps forward.

Pixabay/patrick gantz/CC

Other factors can contribute to my nerves as well. I need try to make sure I am well rested, hydrated and fed. This doesn’t happen nearly often enough, but a feeble attempt can go a long way (compared to no attempt at all).

To be honest, I still get nervous most of the time. However, as my confidence in my horse and myself increases, my nerves decrease and I am better able to keep my head where it belongs. My goal is to keep those nerves from getting the best of me. I hope you’re able to do the same – go riding!


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