By Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in The Plaid Horse October 2008

Horse shows are always challenging, but some carry more weight for us than others. Let’s face it; a local A-show will not have the same impact as a medal final you have never been to or your first time at indoors, right? Happy feelings of excitement and enthusiasm can often morph unexpectedly into their negative counterpart: pressure.  This shift can come from our own desire to excel, from the high energy environment, expectations from those around us – a vast array of places. The most important thing to be aware of is that pressure, if not addressed, can have negative and potentially debilitating effects on our focus and performance.

Another Show

It is a good idea to remind yourself that even when you are at a special venue; it is simply another horse show. Normalizing the environment can have a positive effect on your attitude, nerves, and ability to focus. A pivotal scene in the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers” provides a nice example of this principle. A small-town high school team has made it into the final four at the state championship. The team arrives to the big city by bus and walks into the hallowed auditorium where the games will be played. You can tell the players are overwhelmed by the moment as a hush falls over them and they stand mid-court in silence, looking at the massive building. Gene Hackman, playing the head coach, gets right to work and tosses one player a measuring tape. He has him measure the length of the court, the distance to the free-throw line, and the height of the basket. While the player shouts out the dimensions of each item you can see the ice thawing as the rest of the team starts to laugh and get excited – it is (of course) exactly the same as their court at home.

What the coach has done is to normalize the environment for his players. They can trust that their preparation and experience will serve them well in the biggest games of their lives. As a rider, you can also perform this sort of focusing technique. Yes, the ring may be a different size or shape and the jumps may look unique, but the height of the jumps, the questions posed, and the demands of your ride are all things you have practiced and perfected. By simplifying the situation, looking at the bare bones of the course and its challenges you are empowering yourself to ride with confidence and composure.

Preparation Routines

It is extremely important to prepare yourself at the ‘big’ competition in the same ways you do at shows where you are more comfortable. These preparations can be simple, but planning ahead of time and doing them when it counts will allow you to feel assertive and ready to excel. For example, if a particular food or beverage helps your energy level and ability to focus, try to have it on hand by bringing it with you to the show. If you like to watch a lot of trips in your ring before your round but can’t because of scheduling, you can replicate that experience by giving yourself extra time ringside (even if the ring is empty). Imagining and visualizing either the course you will ride or a course you make up will have a positive effect on you because it so closely replicates your regular routine.

Body Awareness

Pressure often translates into physical tension or rigidity, although everyone may store that tension in different places in their body. Where do you often feel tense? Shoulders? Legs? Neck?  If you don’t know, think back to the last time you felt anxious at a high-pressure show and try to imagine how your body felt. Having this information will help you build a routine to stretch and relax before you get on, in the warm-up ring and at the back gate.  Even simply shaking out your arms and rolling your ankles, wrists and neck can release trapped and tense muscles that could prevent you from communicating effectively with your horse and riding your best.

Back-gate Cues: Leave Pressure Behind


You really, really want to do well at _________ (the important show). For a million reasons you feel that you ‘should’ do well. You feel that others expect you to do well. All of these factors added together can start to feel quite heavy, like a weight has been tied to you. It is no longer a fun, positive, exciting experience – it now has downsides, consequences and scary ‘what if’s’. Thoughts like, “I don’t want to disappoint my trainer” or “My horse is so good, if I don’t do well it will all be my fault” may enter into your mind.

To help combat this pressure, use your imagination to create an image that will help you take back control of the situation. In one example you might imagine that all of these anxious thoughts, feelings and worries are in a backpack that you carry all over the show grounds. Before you walk into the show ring imagine yourself taking off the backpack at the in-gate. Roll your shoulders back and appreciate how tall and light you feel. You have made a clear choice to leave the heaviness and pressure behind, enabling you to go ride your course with style and polish.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a sport psychology consultant and hunter/jumper competitor who has specialized in working with equestrian athletes for the past 15 years. Her consulting sessions provide support and insight for riders while helping them develop personalized routines. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, including national titles and awards. She conducts “Sport Psychology for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.