Our mindset, beliefs and past experiences have a big impact on how we feel about competing. Sometimes just thinking about going to a horseshow can already cause us to freeze and feel anxious. This physically unpleasant feeling is our survival mechanism at work. This mechanism has developed over thousands of years and helped us survive. However, when we are on a horse, this “fight or flight” response is not very helpful. Although this survival mechanism is pretty powerful and it takes some practice to overrule, the following exercises will help you create a more manageable amount of pressure.
The reason why deep breathing and relaxation exercises are so important is because by doing so we send a signal to our brain that the “danger” is over. Imagine your horse freezing or running away after seeing something scary. 2 minutes later he will be happily grazing again. The grazing actually helps him to relax the muscles in his jaws and thus sends the same calming signals to his brain as you do by breathing deeply and relaxing your own muscles. Thinking your way out of anxiety never really works, as the “rational thinking” part of the brain gets shut down when we are in survival mode. This also explains why we fail to make rational decisions under pressure and why we can’t remember our course plan. So, next time you feel anxious, thank your brain for trying to protect you and shift your focus towards your lower abdomen. Then breathe in through your nose on a count of 4, hold your breath on a count of 7 and breathe out through your mouth on a count of 8. Repeat 4 times and make sure to practice this type of breathing twice a day to exercise your ability to relax your body and mind. After about 4 to 6 weeks you will be able to feel the benefits when you need it the most.
Set clear goals
In preparation for your show, make sure to set a clear process based goal for yourself, something you have complete influence over. Like “taking 10 minutes to prepare yourself mentally before the class” or “taking a deep breath in the turn between jump number 5 and 6” for example. You can also set a goal for your horse, like “keeping him in front of you” or “keeping a forward rhythm in the ring”. Stick to maximum two goals until you have mastered them and they have become a habit or an automatic reaction, you can then set new goals. This way you are less likely to get overwhelmed by anxiety and much more likely to improve.
The more we go over a certain situation in our minds, the more we fire specific neurons in our brain and create a neural pathway. By thinking about what could go wrong, you strengthen a negative neural pathway. By thinking about or imagining how it could go right, you activate and strengthen a more desired neural pathway. Visualization is therefor a great tool to strengthen your mind and focus. Two ways to use visualization at a horse show could be: One, visualize your best round ever. Go back to a memory of when you rode really well and everything just seemed to come naturally. Make sure you remember that great and exciting feeling, as positive emotions are a powerful way to activate the desired neural pathway in your brain. The second way would be to visualize your course exactly the way you want to ride it, do this three times and then let it go and trust yourself that you will ride the way you imagined you would.
Our mind has a powerful way of impacting our body. It can make our heart rate go up, our legs feel like jelly and our tummies turn. However, by turning it around and changing our body posture, we can impact our mind too. Imagine an anxious rider going into the arena, what does their body language look like? Small posture, hunched shoulders, tense face? Now think of the opposite, a rider with confidence, how would you describe this body language? Shoulders back, open chest, smile on their faces? This difference in body posture activates different hormones and therefor how we feel and think. Studies have shown that an insecure body posture activates the fight or flight system, making you feel more anxious. However, a confident posture will increase your testosterone level, making you feel more confident, in control and ready to take more risks. So take on the posture that represents the state you want to be in and just fake it till you make it.
Perhaps the most important influence on how you feel about competing is your mindset. What do you believe to be true? Do you believe that you must have natural talent to become a great and successful rider? Do you believe making mistakes in the ring is proof that you are not good enough? Or that having to put in a lot of effort means you don’t have what it takes? And do you define success by winning only? If you recognize yourself in these statements, you have probably adopted a fixed mindset, which is not helping you at all. Instead, opt for a growth mindset and focus on becoming a better rider through practice and learning from your mistakes. When at a show, do your very best and take charge of the process. Successful riders are obsessed with becoming better riders, not just with winning classes.
If you have worked on the exercises above, but still find yourself becoming very anxious when at a show, this could be caused by a bad fall or negative experience(s) in the past. If that is the case, it might be a good idea to get some help from a professional, such as a (sport) psychologist or a mental coach. Experiences like this can definitely be overcome by using techniques like EMDR or EFT.