by Tonya Johnston
Appeared in Equine Wellness May/June 2008

In order to handle your show nerves successfully, it is helpful have some strategies in place before you even get there. Use the following five performance tools to reduce your nervous energy and channel the remaining good energy into things that can help you in the ring.

It’s natural to feel nervous at a horse show. You have spent time and money to travel with your horse to a new place, taken many lessons, put in hours of practice, cleaned and polished just about everything you will use in the ring, and the list goes on. You have made a significant investment in the process — and make no mistake, that’s a good thing!

Why do I get anxious?

It goes without saying that when you are heavily invested in something, you care a lot about how it turns out. But this same care, if left unchecked, can mushroom into feelings of pressure and fear of failure that often create excessive nervousness. This can affect your enjoyment of the show, and will certainly impede your ability to ride well.

Another reason for show nerves is that when we are faced with a challenge (like a big class at a horse show), our bodies generate extra energy to accomplish the task. Often, what you perceive as nervousness is simply a mobilization of energy in your body and a strong desire to meet your goals. But no matter what the label – “nerves”, “energy” or “excitement” – the important thing is to be sure these feelings do not distract you or limit your ability to ride effectively on the big day.

In order to handle your show nerves successfully, it is helpful have some strategies in place before you even get there. Use the following five performance tools to reduce your nervous energy and channel the remaining good energy into things that can help you in the ring.

Five performance tools for nixing nervousness

  1. Nutrition/hydration: When we are well-fueled, our bodies feel prepared to handle challenges, such as a jumper class or a first level dressage test. When a nervous stomach prevents you from eating until after a ride (and, at a show, your last ride can be pretty late in the day!) your body is stressed and you may feel distracted, weak and extremely anxious. By eating and hydrating consistently throughout the day (complex carbs, protein, fruit, water, sport drinks, etc.) you build feelings of strength and well-being, reduce nervousness, and feel prepared to ride your best. Toolbox tip: Figure out what foods your stomach will tolerate at a show and bring them with you so you can eat small amounts frequently rather than a few large meals late in the day. Feeling properly fueled will put you in control of your energy.
  2. Rest: Proper rest means getting high quality sleep, but it also includes taking breaks during long horse show days. It’s essential to create opportunities where both your mind and body can have a “time out” from the hectic demands of the showground. It is difficult to focus effectively when you’re tired. Additionally, feeling physically weak can create worry and anxiety about your ability to ride well. Toolbox Tip: Plan times during the day when you can rest someplace quiet and take your mind off of the show. Bring a book, an iPod, a silly magazine and find a place to lie down if possible – anything to take a break from watching others or thinking about your own riding. Remember, in a typical eight-hour horse show day you are usually only competing for ten to 15 minutes. Learning to manage your energy wisely means you’ll arrive at the ring feeling confident and collected.
  3. Breathing techniques: One of the most fundamental and powerful ways to impact your body’s ability to manage energy is through proper breathing. A basic technique called Circle Breathing involves three main components: breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, pausing between the inhale and the exhale, and exhaling for longer than you inhaled. Let go of excess energy by concentrating on the exhale and relaxing specific areas in your body where you typically hold tension. Toolbox Tip: Find several times throughout the day when you can take three to five Circle Breaths to relax and let go of anxiety. Examples include at the in gate, at the start of your warm-up, or on the mounting block. In the show ring, shorthand this technique with an exhale through your mouth during opportune moments such as a downward transition or a long canter through the corner on a hunter course.
  4. Visualization: Imagine yourself successfully negotiating your class, course or test, and you’ll gain confidence on several levels. You practice channeling your energy productively towards your focus, position, and plan for the ring, and you become more comfortable with the ring itself and the riding challenges ahead. Toolbox Tip: As part of your pre-ride routine, try to positively visualize the entirety of your ride – from walking into the ring to patting your horse on the neck as you exit. Use all your senses to create a vivid and realistic mind/body experience.
  5. Focus on progress: Be disciplined about seeing your positive progress in every ride. Focus on your own performance goals rather than relying on the outcome of the class to tell you if you have done a good job. When you direct your energy into riding details that you have control over, you will feel more prepared and confident. Toolbox Tip: Be sure to integrate one or two performance goals into your plan for the ring (e.g. eyes up on focal points, checking your rein length in each corner, etc.). After your ride, you can give yourself feedback on your personal goals and recognize specific facets of your progress — irrespective of the overall outcome.

These tools here may seem straightforward, but give yourself time to think them through and practice them at home. Then, the next time you pack your tack box for the show, remember to bring your performance toolbox as well so you can enjoy feeling poised and prepared!

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a sport psychology consultant and hunter/jumper competitor. She has worked with equestrian athletes for the past 15 years. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, from local shows to national titles and awards. Her website is