Nerves of steel

The right approach can give you the competitive edge

Text: Mandy Schroder

We all work hard at our riding, often with the goal of competing. However, while we may be focussing lots of energy on schooling  at home, we don’t always prepare for facing the show ring. 

Many of us dedicate hours to honing our skills and readying our horses to compete, then on the big day realise that we haven’t prepared ourselves mentally and our nerves ruin the ride. What most of us need to remember is that bravery is not about never knowing or feeling fear; it is simply feeling afraid and having the determination to carry on anyway.

Break it down

For most of us fear can be broken down into a number of factors: 

  1. Fear of failure
  2. Fear of ridicule or embarrassment 
  3. Fear of not being in control of the situation
Don’t let your fear control you!

The good news is that there are steps that can be taken to help manage your fear, and like most things in life success breeds success. A positive cycle can be developed where every small triumph you have fuels your confidence, which helps you reach your next goal. 

Prepare yourself

Kevin Wessels –  a professional rider – in action! 

Preparation is key to confidence. Being ready before the show will leave you with fewer things to worry about, so you can focus on your ride. Some activities can start weeks in advance, like learning your dressage test by heart in case your caller doesn’t arrive, while others may be done the night before. Here are some handy tips:

  1. Have a show list and check that everything on it is packed the night before. Not only will your mom be your new best friend (no shouting matches in the morning), but you don’t have to panic about running late or forgetting something. Nothing is more unsettling than getting to the show only to realise you don’t have something that is vitally important. Also, leave enough time so that unexpected delays like a roadblock on the highway won’t ruin your show. 
  2. Have a plan in mind of what you need to do and when it needs to be done. Try to arrive at the show at least an hour before your riding time so your horse has time to relax while you get everything ready and check that classes aren’t running early or late. 
  3. Surround yourself with a support team. Ideally they should be positive people, who calmly help you stay focussed, and they should also be aware of what needs to be done at a show. Normally your instructor is best for this – as much as you love your friends, they won’t be much help if they are not horsey, and panic more than you do!
  4. Work with what you and your horse are good at. On the day, don’t try to fix what you can’t already do. It will only put pressure on your horse and make you lack confidence. 
  5. Go to more shows, even if it is just as a spectator. Get to know the venues, the vibe and the people. With exposure comes more confidence because you’ll learn what to expect when you get there. Better yet, volunteer as a helper at events. This will give you a real inside knowledge of how it all works!
  6. Finally, accept that things may not go according to plan – it’s not the end of the world. If things go wrong, don’t panic; keep calm and keep going. Everyone at some point in their career has had an embarrassing moment. Look at the top Olympic riders – even they fall off from time to time! Their success comes from looking forward, picking themselves up and carrying on.
Make a plan – it will remove a lot of stress on the day

Practice makes perfect

Believe it or not, we can train our bodies to react a certain way out of habit – that point where your body naturally does something without you having to think about it and riding becomes instinctive. 

Picture it! 

Practise riding the perfect test or jumping the perfect round in your mind. Feel it, see it, even hear the comments from your friends complimenting you on your ride. Your body doesn’t know that the image isn’t real. If you practise often enough, your body accepts this as normal and it becomes a more realistic expectation. 

Release the tension!

Think about what makes you tense and become aware of what changes in your body. Do you get stiff in your neck, jaw or arms? Does your breathing become shallow and quick? Do you lean forward? As you become aware of your body’s response, you can start to control it. Consciously correct your body, your breathing and your seat. The more you deal with the response to the stress and ease it, the better the body’s recovery is. 

Be positive!

Many believe that what we think about will ultimately become reality, so focus on what can go well. Instead of thinking, “I always fall off at that jump”, think “I’ve worked really hard and my horse now clears that jump”. Make positive thinking a habit!

Think positively – we will clear the jump!


If you struggle to deepen and slow down your breathing – especially if you tend to hold your breath when you ride – then hum a song. You can’t hum with no breath! The song forces you to breathe at regular intervals. 

Word games!

Change your vocabulary. Instead of using the word ‘nervous’ which has such negative connotations, replace it with the word ‘excited’ – it really helps. 


Ride one step at a time, and stay focused on the present. Don’t invent the problems; the ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’ don’t matter. 

Have fun

We all like to think that we are in control all of the time and in doing so we miss a lot of fun and new experiences. Trust in your training, believe in what your trainer tells you, and most of all love and trust the relationship with your horse. 

Most importantly – have fun!

Nerves of steel


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