By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.
Have you ever wanted to do well at something so badly that everything you do is somehow connected to it? It’s (almost) all you think about, and you plan your free time, budget, living arrangements, wardrobe and hairdo around it? Have you spent more on horse health care, nutrition and shoes than your own? Have you made a house payment to your horse trainer so your horse can live a better life? If your answer is yes to these questions, you probably show horses. If none of this has ever happened to you, then quit reading here, please. I am not your people. But what if you invest every bit of your life into showing horses, get to the horse show, and things don’t go well…not because you didn’t prepare physically, but because you weren’t ready mentally? Take it from the judge in me. The Harris saddle won’t hide the fact that you’re off pattern.
I became interested in sport and performance psychology for many reasons…the main one being that for years, I was the person described above. I was the original AQHA Nervous Amateur and in spite of wanting to do well more than anything, I often tried so hard that I failed. Repeatedly. When you have so much invested in a sport that comes down to 2-5 minutes of performance, it’s easy to 1) be so tense that your horse is also tense and 2) make a mistake or 3 when it counts. Add to that the fact that your teammate is NOT aware of your investment and could really care less, and things can unravel pretty quickly.
Looking for a way to get a handle on “show nerves” I realized that elite athletes in many sports use Sport Psychology techniques and mental performance training (Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, anyone? They seem legit). I started exploring, mainly for my own benefit, and later because I became very interested in the things that people will do with and TO horses in the name of competition. Before I knew it, I had a doctorate focused on sport psychology in equestrian sport.
To say that I have it all figured out would be a lie. I still get nervous and screw up sometimes, especially now that I’ve started Reining. Now I’m a rank beginner again AND I can screw up faster and with even more enthusiasm! I still get butterflies in my stomach, but can do some things to get them to fly in formation, at least. I have some tools in the tool box to patch things up, and hopefully this blog will let me loan you a tool when you need it.