Tackling show anxiety can be quite a feat for many riders. Fortunately, others are willing to share their experiences to help others. This week, SmartPaker Viviane Pilicy discusses how breathing and organization keeps her nerves at bay.
Originally published in the SmartPak blog. Written by SmartPaker Viviane Pilicy.
When I showed in Germany in my teenage years, I remember I was always so nervous about show day. I can remember how I felt in the warm-up and then in the ring. It was not a nice feeling and after I was done with my test, I was mostly disappointed that I was not able to ride the way I could ride. I was not able to show our full potential. That gets frustrating after a while.
If you were to ask me what was the single biggest thing that changed how I ride in the show ring today I will say it is my breathing. I had two very influential coaches growing up. One was more military style, very strict. It was all about the horse and we as young riders had to function – do not get me wrong I learned a lot from him. Later, when I was around 18 years old, I had to move my horse and thus switched to another trainer who had the fantastic ability to be empathic with me and my horse. Our relationship was new, we went to a show and right before going into the show ring for my ride she saw my face get all red and said to me, “Breathe. You need to breathe. If not, you will stop riding and he (my horse) will stop moving in a supple and elastic way.” This was the first ride that felt so much better right off the bat. From then on, we strategically worked on where my “breathing breaks” would happen in the test since you can imagine this takes a while to break a bad habit.
Even today I take my biggest breath down centerline, in corners, and then in the walk. The walk is not there to relax it’s there to focus and the deep breathing helps to regain energy for the second part of the test. Also having a horse with the tendency for tension and thus a lateral walk in the show ring, breathing slowly and deeply has helped both of us.
This is of course not the only thing that has helped me but till this day it is one of the biggest influencers to my show nerves.
Feeling prepared, organized, knowing your test, and knowing how long you need for every task helps to keep the show nerves down. Here is my process:
Before the show: I practice the test before the show, but I don’t run through it too many times. I ride it once, figure out where the weaknesses are, and practice those. Or if the challenges are caused by a lack of basics, I go back to the basics.
Show day is here: Show day and it all starts at home. To avoid running around like a headless chicken to find my show clothes I have them set out in one corner of my closet. I use the same gloves, breeches, helmet as I use in training. It should all feel the same, I don’t want to be uncomfortable and it causing stress at the show.
Once I get to the barn, I have a routine and I know how long everything takes me. Even when I feel a bit nervous while getting ready the routine and being in good timing for hooking up the trailer, braiding, packing etc. makes me feel calm again. Having control and being organized is very helpful to calm those nerves. I always plan a couple extra minutes too, making yourself run behind is not helping.
Once at the show it helps to know where you are going. If I don’t know the show grounds I scout out where the warmup ring is, I go look at the dressage ring and when I ride a new test, I stand there for 5 minutes and go through the test in my head looking at the ring. Visualizing your ride, how exactly you will prep for each movement, how you will ride each movement, and how it will feel helps immensely.
When I get myself and my horse ready, I again have a routine and know how long it takes. I always get myself fully ready first and then tack up my horse so that he does not have to stand around waiting for me. Those are the minutes where horses can get antsy too when standing and waiting for their riders. That may make you nervous so try to avoid that. I am at the point where I can go to a day show by myself but when someone comes with me I make sure I am not asking this person to do something they will struggle with. I avoid anything going wrong since that just causes timing delays and stress that no one needs on a show day. For example, I would never ask my husband to bridle my horse. Knowing where your tack is, having a warmup ring bucket/bag prepped etc. these are all helpful little things that make for a smooth experience not causing stress.
If for some reason I am having a hard time remembering the test I do two things. One I ask a friend to read. Two I walk the test myself and while I walk it, I do not only think of where I need to go but also how I need to prepare the movement and ride the movement. Just like I do when I go look at the show ring without my horse when I get to the show grounds.
In the warmup ring I think about each movement I will be riding today in my test and strategically plan out what I definitely need to touch on during my warmup. Once I start working, I of course need to feel my horse out where he needs a bit more help that day. And if my horse gets nervous or overwhelmed, I go back to very simple basic exercises that are easy for both of us. I always wear a watch and keep an eye on the timing. If I need to put my show coat on, take boots off etc. I do not do that last minute. Know when to do it again avoid hectic situations.
Most importantly show day is not a training day. It is the day you get to show what you have practiced at home. It is time to feel the joy and enjoy your riding. And there it is again. Take a deep breath before you go in the show ring.
Once in the show ring, I show my horse the judge’s booth from both sides and if there is a spooky corner, I make sure I go by that one too. Now it is time to blend out the world around you and just ride for your joy. Ride every step, stride, jump, and if mistakes happen move on. Do not dwell on it. It will just stress you out.
Finish your ride with a smile, you made it and hopefully you had fun and did not allow the stress or nervous feeling to take over.
After the show is before the show. Once it is all over and done reflect and think what you will do differently next time when prepping for the show, getting your horse ready, packing, and of course the actual ride etc. with every show the whole process should be improved, get better, and smoother which makes for a more relaxed experience.
You can find this and more on the SmartPak blog. Go SmartPak and go riding!