by Tonya Johnston, MA
appeared in The Plaid Horse, August 2009

In the ideal world you are always confident, focused and positive right before you go in the ring. However, most of us live a world with a bit more variety. Some days are terrific, some not-so-good. How about you? Have you ever found yourself at the back-gate wondering when the butterflies in your stomach would stop doing jumping jacks? Preoccupied with worry about being in the top four so you could be champion? Or perhaps you have been busy noticing who was on the rail to watch your trip? If any of these sound familiar (or if you could write your own list of similar off-track concerns) you may be interested in some suggestions on how to effectively and consistently utilize those last moments before you walk into the ring.

Setting the Stage

You have finished your warm-up and you have a moment to yourself – no one is talking to you, and the starter is about to send you into the ring. These few moments right before your round can get you focused and on-task– or they can create feelings of anxiety and doubt that can sabotage even the most prepared and well-mounted rider. Once your trainer finishes his or her final words of wisdom, you often have from 30 – 90 seconds on your own to gather yourself before you walk into the ring. So, how can you best use that time?

Keep it Smart and Simple

Use a preparation routine to create confidence for the ring.

Preparation is your key to confidence at the back gate. It is something that can’t be faked. By creating a preparation routine that is based on things in your control, it allows you to recognize when you have finished getting ready – just like checking off items on a list. When you are at the gate, you will know absolutely that your preparation is complete. Your preparation routine may include several things such as: visualization, taking time alone to rest and focus before you get on, eating a ‘power’ snack, writing the course down with specific cues for your course plan, listening to music – the list is personal and endless!

Experiment with different ideas and keep track of the ones that work. Create a plan that can remain the same no matter where you are showing. You will then be able to arrive at the back gate knowing you have done everything you need to do to have a great round. Completing a regular routine for each class at a show will improve your confidence at the back gate, and therefore your consistency in the ring.

Adjust your energy level.

You may need to bring your energy either up or down as you walk into the ring. Are you nervous or anxious? Or do you feel flat and ‘blah’? Either way, your awareness is essential. When you acknowledge how you feel, you can then take action to create your optimal energy level. An organized breath in through your nose and out your mouth can do the trick.

To relax, focus on an extra slow, gentle exhale through your mouth. Imagine all of your tense muscles relaxing and letting go as if you were blowing out a small candle in front of you. To increase your energy, lift your chin, open your chest and focus on a strong breath in through your nose; picture yourself breathing in strength and power to store for later use on course.

Use a mental or physical cue to transition from analysis and planning, to being fully ‘in the moment’.

You know the course and have your plan in place. It is time to transition out of your mind (and your assessment and analysis of the course) and into simply riding and reacting in the moment to your horse. The plan stays in your psyche, but only as a foundation for your focus. Now is the time to shift gears and make sure your mind and body are in sync, aware and on task in the present moment.

Having a simple cue to facilitate this transition can be helpful. You can use one of your goals for the course and shorten it down to a motivating word or phrase. For example, if an overall goal is to keep your horse in front of your leg, “Forward” or “Create” can be used as a final thought that sums up your plan and explains it succinctly to your body. You an also use a physical cue such as stepping into two-point, or rolling your shoulders back. The cue should help you lock into the moment through a sense of heightened physical awareness.

Entering the show ring is a time to acknowledge and own your readiness, then let go and enjoy the ride. Pick and choose from these ideas and ones that have worked for you in the past to create a consistent back-gate routine. You will then have some ‘quick keys’ to use before you walk into the ring to help you ride your best in every class, every day, at every show!

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach who specializes in working with equestrian athletes. Her coaching sessions teach mental strategies for optimal sport performance and help riders develop personalized preparation routines. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, including national titles and awards. She has presented at both the USEA and USDF national conventions. Tonya has a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. She conducts “Mental Skills for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.