Performance anxiety

Pressure vs. horsemanship

In today’s ever evolving equestrian world, horse welfare is becoming an increasingly hot topic. And rightly so! If we want to be able rely on our horses at peak performance level, we need to form a deep partnership with them. And equally important, this is the image and the message we should want to put out there in the world for the integrity of this sport we all love.

A subject closely entwined with this is performance anxiety, perhaps you are familiar with it as a rider? During this past time of lockdown, I participated in some online competitions (so much fun to be able to do in these strange times of Covid-19!), but with some of the horses I had in training, it brought up a sense of pressure in me and I felt my training was suffering as a result! I kept thinking; ‘I am a professional, I have to show them what I can do’. What have I learned from this? Read on!

I was feeling the pressure, because I thought people we labelling me as a ‘professional’, but mostly because I was labelling myself as one (and better be looking like one!) And even though these were only small, online shows, I was still feeling that ‘the time was now’. I always take care to have a gradual, step-by-step build up in my training, and always try to look through the horse’s eyes; but when it came to filming these online tests, I felt I was pushing things too much. I started getting anxious that my training horses going backwards instead of forwards in their training, which in turn caused frustration. I am a professional after all, I should know better than this!

What helped me, and may help you too in these kinds of situations:

Stop! And ask yourself if you are making things better or worse? The faster you can learn to find that ‘pause’ button and the better you get at asking yourself this question, the more your training will benefit. Is this easy? No, on the contrary, it may take quite some practise. Is it always fun? No, definitely not. But your horse, your training and your partnership will flourish. How can you learn to find this pause button? That may vary from person to person. Some people respond well to a breathing exercise, others like counting down from ten, or maybe even literally asking yourself this question out loud. Give it a try and see what works for you!

‘Horse, I need your soul’. This is an old Lakota saying, which shows that the First Peoples already knew to look at their horses. What does your horse need, in this moment? Again, asking yourself this out loud may help if you are having the feeling things are not working and you feel the frustration bubbling to the surface.

Remember you are not training for today, you are training for tomorrow. See point 1 😉 Is what you are doing right now making your horse better for tomorrow or not? If you would be able to time-travel ten years into the future, is filming that test for that online competition today really that important? And how will you feel about what you did today, ten years from now? Are you genuinely happy with the test you showed and can you look at yourself in the mirror with a feeling of pride and accomplishment? Or were your actions and reactions maybe slightly exaggerated?

Lay a solid foundation. Continuing on from the previous point; it is much more important to give your horse a solid foundation for tomorrow, for next year and for the rest of its life. So yes, horsemanship should trump performance! As I once heard a great trainer say; you are only as solid as what you build on.

Look at it from the other side. I noticed it had an impact on me when friends or clients would say things like; ‘but you’re a professional? You should have to start in the advanced classes’, or ‘If you are competing, I will withdraw because I will not have a chance’. Of course none of this was meant that way, but it still had a big, paralysing effect on me. What really helped me in the end, was looking at it from the other side: an (online) show is supposed to be a kind of reality check, right? A test of where you are in your horse’s and your own training at that moment? Then start looking at it that way; as a challenge, not as a problem! Learn from it and you will be able to grow through it.

Do you know anyone that needs a little nudge in the back? Please feel free to share this blog, and let me know in the comments if you felt this was helpful for you.

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