Competitive situations can be intimidating. I should know.
Last summer, I entered a couple of horses in a good-sized and therefore, intimidating dressage competition. My first class of the day was on a sensitive and inexperienced young mare. As we practiced our transitions and circles in the warmup arena, I began to glance at the other riders, who seemed so much more accomplished, so much better prepared than I felt. From the arena fence, a couple of trainers coached their students. I recognized one of them as a USDF gold medalist, another as an accomplished clinician and FEI-level competitor. Neither the other riders nor their coaches were there to look at me. In my head, I knew that, but nonetheless I imagined they were looking, with cold, critical, comparing eyes. My confidence wavered. My horse’s confidence, predictably, did the same thing. My anxiety about not being good enough kept me from listening to my horse. Instead, I began to ride like a mechanical wind-up toy, preoccupied with what I looked like, instead of feeling and breathing. Our ride was not as fluid as it could have been, which I felt and which our score reflected. Luckily, I remembered how to breathe and focus to some degree before our next class, which went much better.
Elena and I, finding our calm at a show.
When someone you perceive as judgmental, is watching you work your horse, it’s difficult to ride your best. Years ago, in an effort to learn as much as possible, I rode in every dressage clinic I could afford, and some I could not afford, regardless of who was teaching them. A few times, the clinician’s comments about my riding, my horse, or both of us were so scathing that I slunk away, feeling like I would never learn to do any horse-related thing correctly. I’ve since learned to spend my lesson money on instructors who offer constructive feedback, but nonetheless, I sometimes find myself riding in front of people who may not like the way I sit on a horse. On those occasions, anxiety creeps into my riding, which affects my feel and timing. But even when negative feedback is not an issue, like when friends or clients are watching, I tend to not ride my best because then I have to be careful to not show off the horse just to impress my audience. I don’t want to sacrifice real throughness and connection for the fleeting pleasure of a stroked ego.
Presenting at the BHPS Summit, in from of a larger audience was a challenge, but a joyful one
Is it, then, best to avoid the watchful eyes of others and only ride when you are safely alone? No, definitely not. We can’t always avoid riding in front of an audience if we want to become better riders. Lessons, clinics, competitions, and group rides are opportunities to connect with like-minded people, in addition to learning new skills. Plus, for many of us, it’s just as difficult to ride our best with no audience at all. We tend to become sloppy and complacent. We tend to ride egg-shaped circles and squiggly straight lines. We tend to repeat our favorite patterns and exercises, regardless of whether the horse we are riding needs them on that particular day, at that particular point in the training session. When we ride alone, we tend to stay in our comfort zone, which often becomes smaller and smaller over time.
It's easy to get a little sloppy in my riding when no one is watching. Time to imagine someone is.
So, how can we learn to ride our best, more consistently, in more situations, regardless of who is or is not watching? Everyone is different, but it’s useful to pay attention to how an audience influences our work with horses, and to harness the positive effects an audience can have while minimizing the negative ones. For me, the trick is to ride like no one is watching when someone is, and to ride like someone is watching when no one is.
I now try to view competitive settings as an opportunity for growth, not as a particularly painful form of self-punishment. Dealing with the discomfort of real or imagined mental pressure is a skill we can develop over time, with the help of good friends and maybe a few sessions with a sport psychologist. I should know. I used to suffer from anxiety attacks at clinics and competitions. I also used to beat myself up for having these anxiety attacks, which ultimately made them worse. Now, I try to treat myself like I would treat a horse with similar issues: with kindness and calm reassurance. I also use visualization. When someone - anyone - is watching, I imagine a huge, bouncy soap bubble. The horse and I are moving inside this translucent space, shielded from negativity and my own ego alike, listening to each other. The watchful eyes are out there, the scathing comments too, but they can’t come inside my bubble unless I decide to let them in. This technique may not work for everyone, but it works for me.
Riding my best is easiest in front of a supportive, constructive teacher
On the other hand, when no one is watching me work my horses, I often pretend someone is watching. Not just anyone, but someone knowledgeable, constructive, supportive, and kind. Someone who is not easily impressed, but not hypercritical, either. I usually picture one of my revered mentors, casually leaning on the arena fence, or riding alongside me, glancing over every once in a while, offering encouragement or gentle corrections. My imaginary audience makes me sit up straighter on my horse. My imaginary audience keeps me on the edge of my comfort zone, ready to expand it. My imaginary audience makes me ride with focus and intention, choosing exercises that help each horse I’m on to become a happier athlete. My imaginary audience keeps me paying attention to how the horse feels and adjusting my expectations accordingly. In short, my imaginary audience helps me ride my best.
When do you ride your best? With no one watching, with someone watching? I would love to know.
Ride happy, with or without an audience,