coverThe Waiting Game: Handling Down Time at Fall Shows

Appeared in The Plaid Horse, October 2015

By Tonya Johnston, MA ~ Mental Skills Coach

The fall season’s important classes, medal finals, indoor venues, and special shows often have unique schedules that may cause you to have more down time in your show day than normal. The added free time is not necessarily bad or good, what is potentially difficult is being thrown off of your regular routine when it matters most. This can lead to things like over-thinking, butterflies and (strangely enough) mental and physical fatigue. Here are some strategies for handling this added down time with composure and confidence, as well as great personal examples from some top riders and trainers.

Nutrition – Eating foods that work for you is of course essential as an athlete, particularly when you want to be at your very best. Adrenalin and excitement at important fall shows will often mask your energy level, so waiting until you feel hungry is risky. Instead, plan out your healthy snacks and meals ahead of time so you are sure to balance your day. Down time can afford you the opportunity to go “off campus” to get food that is more enticing or nutritious, but going to the grocery store and bringing your ideal snacks and meals is also a great option. When showing in unfamiliar cities it is helpful to bring snacks from home or map out where the best grocery stores are ahead of time so you can be sure to go there early in your trip.

“When you find yourself with down time it is good to check in with how you feel and take the opportunity to eat some protein and drink something with electrolytes if possible.” – Hope Glynn, Sonoma Valley Stables

Keep your food consistent so that you reduce the amount of change your body goes through and you have a better chance of staying in your comfort zone – both physically and mentally. By taking action to maintain your nutrition routine you are also putting in positive effort, action and attention to detail that will add to your confidence.

“When waiting for a class I will always eat a banana… They seem to calm me down, weather that’s actually chemical or mental I don’t know… [but] always eat a banana when waiting for a class.” – Geoffrey Hesslink, Champion 2014 USET Talent Search Finals East

Watching – Think carefully about how much you want to watch, and make specific plans to do what is best for you. Just because you go 73rd in a medal final does not mean that watching 48 trips is necessarily a good idea. Be strategic and disciplined about which riders, how many, and from where you want to watch to maximize your energy and effort.

“The best thing for me is that I make sure not to watch too many people. I go through the list and watch the riders that I know will do very well… if I watch too many people it causes me to over-think and change my plan.” – Sydney Hutchins, Champion 2014 USET Talent Search Finals West

I watch about 20 trips but then go back to the barns. I don’t like to watch to many trips because you can freak yourself out.”Victoria Colvin, Champion 2014 Maclay Finals

Watching your ring from various vantage points before and after the course walk (if you have one for your class) is a way to use your time productively as well. As they say, “Information is power” and this acclimation process or “ring research” before you show will create increased confidence and comfort in a new and/or pressurized environment.

I get to the ring at the beginning of the day, walk around and get a feel for it and learn the course. I spend about an hour just thinking and planning and then I go hang out [elsewhere].” – Kaitlyn Van Konynenburg, Grand Champion 2015 U.S. Junior Hunter Finals West

“It is good to watch your course some, especially if you have a chance to watch professionals do it before you go. My clients and I talk a lot about each horse [because] I think it’s important to look at the course with your horse’s tendencies in mind.” – Amanda Steege, Ashmeadow Farm

Mental Breaks – So you have such a long wait that you want to “get away” and take a break, but what should you do? General distractions that will not wear you down mentally such as reading, playing a game, napping or chatting with friends about non-horse subjects are all great ways to pass the time.

“I think it is important to not over-think the course – which I always want to do. So I need to find things or do things to distract me. Whether that means reading a book, talking with friends or even sleeping.” – Geoffrey Hesslink

In addition, doing things that feel productive but are not directly related to your ride can burn off extra energy that would otherwise turn into anxiety. Working, homework, chores, polishing boots, organizing equipment, helping someone else prepare are all examples of useful downtime strategies.

“When I need to pass the time, I find small things to do that will keep me focused but not obsessive. For example I braid all of my jumpers, so I might use that downtime to practice on one of the other horses.” – Kelli Cruciotti, 2015 $100,000 Devon Grand Prix winner

“The best way I spend downtime waiting to show is helping set jumps for the other kids we have showing. I like to watch some of the trips then stay busy… I do not [want to] watch so many I start to over-think things.” – Ashton Alexander, top junior rider

Music – Music is a terrific way to add fun and positive energy into your down time or preparation routine. Things to remember: 1) keep your music fresh and new so it is engaging and fun, 2) make sure you have varied playlists so you can adjust your music based on your mood, and 3) incorporate some upbeat music to dance/walk around/move to so it facilitates a warm-up for your body as well as your mind.

“I enjoy listening to music to help dial in my focus.” – Ashton Alexander

“I come back to the ring about an hour before I show and sit and meditate on what I am going to do while listening to music.” – Kaitlyn Van Konynenburg

“I like listening to music when I have to wait.” – Victoria Colvin

Mental Preparation – With added down time you will have ample opportunity to utilize all of the mental skills that get you focused and in your groove before you show. Energy management, self talk, breathing, and visualization are terrific choices. When you have a long wait time you have an ideal opportunity to visualize yourself riding the course and executing your specific plan. Be sure your visualization includes the last moments of your wait at the back gate, the opening circle and course, as well as the positive emotions and satisfaction as you exit the ring after a job well done.

“[To prepare] I normally sit by myself, close my eyes and imagine jumping the course through my own eyes as if I were actually doing it, including counting my strides out loud and turning my body like I will eventually in the ring.” – Geoffrey Hesslink

“I visualize… I know my horse and where I might need left leg or right leg or where I might need to slow down. I repeat the video until I picture it going perfectly and then I zoom in on what I’m doing where. When it’s time to show I feel like I have trained my body and a lot of it just happens.” – Amanda Steege

Tonya Johnston, MA is an equestrian mental skills coach and an A-circuit competitor with a master’s degree in sport psychology. Her book, “Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse” is available on Tonya can be reached through her website or on Facebook at