EQUESTRIAN: Handling Competition Nerves

The very patient Marlon Zanotelli warming us up in Rome

Hearing both professional and amateur riders in the sport talk about how they don’t get nervous or feel pre-competition anxiety makes me just a teeny bit envious. My nerves teeter on the edge a lot of the time, balancing on the fine thin between performance enhancing and performance destroying and have on a number of occasions questioned whether I actually want to carry on riding.

To control the feelings, I have over the last few years sought help from professional sports psychologists.

Not only has this been a huge help for me to be able to understand why I feel the way I do but also try to channel those feelings to be helpful not a hindrance.

There are not many situations in day to day life that I can honestly say make me feel nervous so when I started to feel the stomach churning symptoms of nervous anxiety just before a show, it was an uncomfortable experience which gradually, as I ignored it, got worse.

Ask me to stand up in front of a room full of people and speak…no problem…ask me to go into a big show ring and jump a course…. And I felt physically nervous which in turn began to really affect my enjoyment of the horses and the shows.

I am not going to say that after seeing the sports psychologists I don’t get nervous at all but I am happy that I can just about keep control over the feelings and the majority of the time I don’t allow them to overwhelm me.

Showjumping (like most sports involving horses) is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. One day you are winning the class and the next day you have a few fences down so being able to brush yourself off and move on is essential at any level and it’s something I have really struggled with.

I used to watch videos back of my bad rounds hundreds of times analysing the mistakes I made and beating myself up about it.

Once I asked a 5* rider what he did following a bad round and his advice was simple….. “watch the video back if there is a lesson to be learnt from it, then delete it and if feeling low in confidence watch good rounds back to remind yourself of times you have ridden well and made good decisions”.

Repeatedly reminding myself of the bad experiences wasn’t helping build my confidence and self-belief and was actually only reinforcing negativity and self-doubt in my head.

Things I have found really helpful to keep control of the nerves and negative feelings are:-

  • Trying not to dwell on bad rounds and only watching the videos back once or at most a couple of times (sometimes easier said than done)
  • Even if I feel the round was not my best, trying to pick 3 positive things from it to focus on and only one negative.
  • Surrounding myself with supportive, positive people in the practise ring and ringside
  • Focusing on myself and my horse during the warm up, trying not to get distracted by other riders/horses
  • Breathing – if I am feeling particularly nervous before going into the ring, taking some deep breaths and visualising jumping the course in my head helps to focus my thoughts positively and distract my thinking from the physical symptoms of nerves.

Books I have read which have been useful for conquering and understanding nerves and anxiety:-

The Chimp Paradox – not specific to riding but a really interesting way to look at why your nerves can get the better of you and how to help control them.

Keep Calm and Enjoy the Ride – This book is written by Annette Paterakis, who has been an international show jumper herself so understand the riders nerves and anxieties faced at shows.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Frances says:

    If it’s any help to know, you never look nervous at all and are always charming and friendly 😊 Am going to read the Steve Peters book in the hope that it will help deal with the things that really make me feel sick with nerves 🤢

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