by Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in The Plaid Horse, March 2010

It’s a dark night outside, and you are bundled into your hotel. Tomorrow you have to be at the show grounds at ____ (early!!). Your most important class goes first, and you are hoping you feel prepared and ready to go when you enter the ring. Your horse has been schooling well at home, your trainer is happy, and you are riding effectively and confidently. So why is it that you are sitting in your hotel room biting your nails, feeling tired and slightly queasy? And, more importantly, what could you be doing instead?

‘Rest’: You Need it, How to Get it

It is safe to assume that the night before a long horse show day you need to take it easy; but what truly counts as rest? Is resting staring at the ceiling for three hours worrying and hoping that you lay down the winning trip? Is it resting if you stay up late eating pretzels and talking about horse show gossip with your friend? How about those two hours from 2 – 4 am when you lie there in the dark? Do those count as ‘rest’?

Rest can be defined in a variety of ways (leisure, sleep, physical relaxation, etc.) but we will define it here as time you are not thinking about riding or physically exerting effort (or holding tension in your body in any way). So how can you rest when you need it most? Experiment with the following to find the best combinations for you.

Physical Rest and Relaxation

There are various ways to help your body feel that it is in a state of relaxation. (Do any of them involve pacing your hotel room or running up and down the hallway at the hotel being silly with your friends? Ah, no.) Good ideas do include: Gentle stretching, yoga, a hot shower or bath, lying down with your feet elevated, slowly doing range of motion exercises, etc.

Mental Rest

Taking a true break from thinking about the show, your horse, or riding in general is very important. You can plan to occupy some of your down time with fun TV, movies, magazines, music, books, games – anything that is enjoyable and low stress that will hold your attention away from horses will be useful. Plan ahead to have these kinds of things on hand! (Notice how homework and work were not on the list, those may be required of course, but do your best to also have some true time off if possible.)

Relaxation Techniques

So you want to relax but you just can’t seem to do it. Now what? These can help: long, slow breaths with a focus on exhaling for longer than you inhaled; tensing and then completely releasing all of your major muscle groups, particularly areas where you tend to be tight; or creating mental and physical relaxation by imagining you are on a beach in Hawaii (or some place you associate with resting, relaxing and being at peace).



Preparatory Visualization


Realistically, you are going to spend some time thinking about the horse show. It’s best if you can harness that time and make it truly productive. When you vividly imagine yourself riding successfully in the show ring, you are in effect teaching your body how to respond to the challenges you will face in competition.

By drawing out some courses for yourself the night before the show you can visit the environment you will be riding in the next day. Keep this brief, ten to fifteen minutes at the most. It is ideal if you have shown at the venue before, or if you have at least been at the show grounds and know the ring you will be in so that you can create a specific and accurate image. If you are at a multi-day show, use some time at night to revisit the best parts of your rides that day to strengthen the aspects of your performance that you want to repeat. (Be disciplined about focusing on your successes and imagining solutions to the things you would have liked to do differently.)



People have slightly different approaches to what they think is ‘good’ nutrition. Suffice to say that you may have an idea of the importance of eating a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fresh fruit and vegetables, etc. especially the day before exerting yourself in competition  – go with that knowledge! What follows are a few suggestions about nutrition management the night before the show and perhaps while you are on the road for a few days.

  1. Plan ahead: Be realistic about your timing for dinner (yes, be sure to eat dinner!), eating at a reasonable hour can greatly impact your ability to fall asleep and to get going in the morning.
  2. Bring healthy snacks from home: Have things on hand that you can use to fill in that last pang of hunger before you go to bed (a candy bar from the vending machine is less than ideal!).
  3. Drink water: Staying away from caffeine and sugared beverages at night is hopefully something that has already become of your regular routine before you show. If not, consider changing your habits as you will see a real difference your capacity to settle, calm your mind and get your body into a relaxed state.

Going to a horse show is a time to focus on having fun and feeling confident in your ability to accomplish the goals you have set for yourself – use the above suggestions to help you prepare the night before!

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.