by Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in Showbiz Magazine January/February 2010

You ride beautifully at home, even in group lessons with people watching and waiting their turn – so why is it that the horseshow spectators can feel so different?

While it is true that the ‘Audience Effect’ can help some riders focus more, and perform better, there are those riders for whom it creates nothing but worry and concern. Which type of rider are you? Would you like some ideas to make riding in front of people at a show a consistently positive experience?

Reverse Psychology

Let’s say you are tired of feeling anxious and uncomfortable when you notice a lot of people watching your ring at the show. It is maddening that you make so much effort to be there, spend countless days preparing, and then it is all thrown out the window by distractions that feel out of your control. Stop for a moment and ask yourself, why did you go to the show? You are aware that spectators are a part of competing; surely it is not a surprise. A key question becomes: What would happen if you never went to another horseshow? You would keep your horse, take lessons, and work to improve your skills; you just wouldn’t horse show. Consider that option and then ask yourself: Would riding be as much fun to you?

Be honest as you turn the question over in your mind. Notice the ‘But I want to show because…’ and the reasons you can quickly list that make your motivation clear to you. By reminding yourself that the ‘pros’ outweigh the ‘cons’ you re-acquaint yourself with the simple fact that you have a choice in the matter, you signed up to attend, and you truly want to be there no matter what. This knowledge is strength, and strength is what you need to overcome the distractions you face in front of an audience.

‘Notice’ vs. ‘Focus’

This principle is a fantastic way to acknowledge what you are aware of in your surroundings, without letting that awareness dictate your ability focus on the task at hand. For example, you may ‘notice’ your old trainer standing by the in-gate watching as you enter the ring, but you then make a conscious decision to say ‘Focus’ to yourself. You then return to activating your horse, staying tall with your body and getting a forward canter on the way to the first jump. You haven’t denied who you noticed on the rail, but you have taken charge of the situation by purposefully directing your attention to small, specific goals that will help you have a beautiful start to your course. You can remind yourself throughout the day to observe what you ‘notice’, but to direct your ‘focus’ productively at every opportunity.

Trying to Impress, Instead of Going after Success

Trying to control other people’s opinions of you is a no-win situation. Hopefully you have a healthy desire to go ‘show off’ – after all, it’s a horse show! But if you go in the ring with the all-encompassing desire to have everyone impressed with your riding, your horse and your round, then you are setting the stage for an amazing amount of unnecessary stress. You don’t control other people’s beliefs, ever. It is a simple fact but can be hard to remember. To achieve excellence you must ride into the show ring for yourself; striving to accomplish your goals. Constantly remind yourself to focus your mental and physical energy on things in your control (your position, your goals and strategies, your course plan, etc.) in order to lower your anxiety level and use your skills to their fullest.

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.