by Tonya Johnston, MA

Featured article on, October, 2014

How do you keep yourself calm, cool and collected while you are trying Mr. or Ms. Maybe-Right? Let’s face it, trying new horses can be a lot like going on a bunch of highly recommended blind dates. You hear about each new prospect with a hope that maybe this will be “the one”. When it comes time to ride the horse you want it to go well, try to put your best foot forward, have heard great things about him or her, and you often meet in an unfamiliar location. It’s understandable that you might have some butterflies, feel some self-induced pressure to be “good”, or be distracted by a lot of choices and opinions.

Regardless of whether you are shopping for a long-stirrup horse or a high junior jumper, the trial process will rev up your passion and motivation for the sport—and therefore a lot of big emotions. Though this is completely understandable, when you actually get on the horse you want to be organized, calm, thoughtful and effective so you (and your trainer) can figure out what you feel and assess if it is the right match for you.

The following are tips for you novice or intermediate riders, first-time horse buyers, trainers looking to help clients deal with the stress of the trial process, and everyone looking to bring their best to finding Mr. or Ms. Absolutely-Right!

Communicate Ahead of Time: Fear of the unknown is such a big part of what can intimidate riders in the trial process. Information is power, and it is also a very useful tool in building confidence. For those new to riding or horse buying, some pre-planning and clear communication with your trainer can ease a lot of worry and stress during the ride. It can also be a good idea for you more experienced riders with clear ideas of things you want to do on the horse to make those requests clear before you arrive to ride the horse. Have a plan about what things you should do or want to do when you get on, and an idea of what your trainer may ask you to do as the ride progresses to ease your mind and help you focus on the ride itself.

Channel Your Energy: Riding a sale horse for the first time can tempt you to become a blank slate in order to “see what the horse does”. Instead of wiping your focus clean in an attempt to read the horse (which can be tremendously stress-inducing for more novice or intermediate riders who can then feel vulnerable and out of control) give yourself little performance goals to channel your energy toward. Small things that give you confidence, such as looking up or keeping your heel anchored and lower leg underneath you, can provide wonderful, specific goals that keep you feeling proactive and effective.

Starstruck? Nope: Trying a horse with a fabulous reputation and show record can cause performance anxiety— so can having it shown to you by a big name trainer you admire. Do a quick reality check: is this a job, a selection trial, or an audition? No, this is only about you and for you; simply stay focused on working together with the horse. Keep your expectations of yourself realistic and kind. No one is asking you to be perfect, they just want you to…(see below.)

Be Yourself: This is truly your only job. Be yourself and believe in yourself, your skills, and the talent you have as a rider. This is the goal of the process, to find the right horse for the rider you are right now. Therefore, remind yourself that any mistakes you may make will simply help you gain more information. You want the horse you buy to be comfortable with you being you, just as you want to be comfortable with them being themselves.

Keep Breathing: As obvious as it sounds to keep breathing, when we are figuring something out we unconsciously try to be still so we can hear or think better. In this situation, your desire to be quiet and receptive to the horse you don’t know can lead to holding your breath or shortening your breathing rhythm in an effort to “notice” more. Unfortunately, this can create tension that interrupts the very goal you have—to feel and test your lines of communication.

Keep your breathing regular and slow as much as you can before you get on the horse and anytime you take a walk break. Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth, keeping your face and jaw relaxed. As you are working you can also look for specific times to exhale through your mouth to consciously release any tension or built up psychological pressure.

Even though you may not be able to have the ring to yourself like this, you can stay focused on your own process by directing your attention appropriately.

Focus in the Moment: Trying a horse in a busy, unfamiliar environment such as a horse show warm-up ring or a bustling training barn can be challenging, to be sure. Take time to remind yourself that your focus and attention is something you have control over, and do not allow yourself to develop a negative attitude about any distractions you face.

Direct your focus and narrow it productively. For example, find focal points; think about your position as it melds into this horse’s way of going; or plan a specific track through the traffic. The fact is that any distractions will only serve to help you notice how the horse handles other horses, bad weather, getting squeezed at the rail, etc. and your focus in the moment will help you feel in control and organized.

Take Breaks: Taking mini-breaks during your ride can be a great way to collect your thoughts and re-group. It can be very overwhelming to be objective, evaluate the situation and feel the horse all at the same time, particularly for more novice riders. Instead of over-loading your circuits, simply feel, ride, be effective, take opportunities to breathe (again) and talk with your trainer or ground help during small breaks in the action.

Taking small breaks to talk with your trainer can provide useful re-grouping moments, as well as create opportunities to communicate openly.

Video: As you know, people often video when they ride sale horses to evaluate the horse and partnership, but it can also have a wonderful, positive effect on your psychological state. It can feel overwhelming to think that you have to remember every little moment and occurrence during your ride in order to review it later—videoing your rides can help you stay in the moment, relax and trust that you don’t have to remember everything because you will be able to watch and review later to gain added perspective.

Above all remember to enjoy the search, Mr. or Ms. Absolutely-Right is out there waiting for you!