by Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in Showbiz January/February 2009

Riders of all ages and abilities share something that helps them strive for excellence in the ring: good old fashioned competitive fire. Passion to succeed will vary widely by person, but the ability to harness it, for every rider, is one of the most important things a rider can learn.

‘Competitive Fire’: Keep it under Control

Visualize this: Two girls go into the second round of the Junior Hunter Classic, within one point of each other – it is up for grabs. Each one has a true desire to win. One rider envisions a way to shine, determined to nail it with a clear plan of how to get her horse forward and straight out of the corners. The other wants to be positive and imagines herself with the neck ribbon on her horse, but she is scared that a bad habit of being too conservative in pressure situations will disappoint her trainer.

Often called a ‘will to win’ or ‘killer instinct,’ some riders know just how to use their competitive fire. Others have the desire, but not the skills to channel it productively.   Keep one thing clear: riding horses over jumps is not swimming, or football, or weight lifting. There are many ways in equestrian sport that the drive to win can ruin your performance and prevent your horse from doing his best.

How can a ‘will to win’ go wrong?

  1. Loss of focus: When you pay attention to winning, points, or beating a certain person, you can distract yourself from the task at hand.
  2. Increased nervousness: Because winning is ultimately out of your control, you have created a stressful situation characterized by tension, anxiety and fear.
  3. Lack of sportsmanship: A desire to win at all costs can sacrifice good sense, horsemanship, and true sportsmanship which is  where you value competition as a place to strive for personal excellence  while supporting those around you in doing the same.

Harnessing your competitive fire

Ø      Ideally, your will to win creates a will to prepare. Getting to know the things that help you ride your best is an important piece of the puzzle. What helps you feel confident and focused? Watching a lot of rounds? Spending some time by yourself listening to your iPod? Visualizing a good round at the back gate? Your passion to be successful should fuel your motivation and commitment to prepare yourself before you get on your horse and/or ride into the show ring.

Ø      Know the energy level at which you compete your best. Do you need to motivate yourself at the end of a long week of horse-showing? Or release extra nervousness before an important class? Either way, remember that your energy is in your control, and you can use sport psychology skills to adjust it as necessary.

Ø      Employ strategies to stay in the moment. Often competitive fire can have us looking too far ahead of ourselves (especially on the way to the last jump when the first seven have been beautiful). We need to stay in the present moment, riding our course plan and the horse we have underneath us.

Confucius said, “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”
As you start your 2009 show season, let your competitive fire burn bright, but keep a keen eye on it to be sure that it doesn’t burn too hot.