Baggage Claim: Five Tips For Managing Horse Show Nerves

By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.

I went to college with a kid who wanted to be a parole officer. He had also been in jail a few times. Some found this odd…I thought it was genius. Who better to understand the thought process of kids in trouble than a kid who had seen some trouble? Likewise, who better to discuss relaxation in the show ring than someone who has studied and practiced every tip imaginable in an effort to keep the wheels on the bus (and the horse on the ground) when it matters most? If you’re one of those people who never gets nervous while showing and has it all figured out, I’m sure you’ve got something better to do with your time. If not, please read on.

First, a couple of points that seem obvious, but we often forget. #1 Your horse is (innately) a prey-driven, herd animal who does not care how much you spent on saddle pads, how many hours you’ve worked overtime to afford those saddle pads, nor how badly you want “it” whatever it is. All they know is they’ll do what they’re trained to do if the circumstances are reasonably familiar to them and there seems to be no threat. If their “human herd mate and hopefully leader” gets physically tense, or feels “different” than usual, there is cause for concern. They make no real distinction between horsemanship pattern, reining run, or pack of hyenas looking for lunch. A threat is a threat, and their natural fight or flight instinct could ignite in a variety of ways, varying from resistance to cues to “PEACE OUT! Which could take the form of bucking, bolting or who knows what else.

Which brings me to #2. Your job in the show ring is to convince your horse that all is well, you’re prepared, and there is no threat. Which means you need to convince yourself of that, and of course, figure out what “prepared” means for your individual pony partner. While there is plenty of fodder for other blog posts in that statement, this article is just going to focus on ways to develop your own ability to relax. If you read the previous post, you know that this ability does not happen at the horse show, nor overnight. It takes awhile, and awhile is different for everyone. (Sorry. It can’t be helped).

While it seems obvious…breathing is pretty critical to surviving, after all, our breathing patterns do change when we’re stressed. It’s probably one of the first things our horses detect when we’re nervous. After all, they’re herd animals and are alert for danger in whatever their current “herd” happens to be. Once our breathing becomes shallow or rapid, our nervous system kicks in and adjusts our physiology in ways that our horse can also detect. Try Box Breathing next time you feel yourself getting anxious or stressed. You can practice in line at the grocery store, the car, and yes on your horse. Inhale deeply for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, inhale for a count of 4, repeat. If you think this is all “airy fairy crap”, the Navy Seals do it too. Ask them if it’s airy fairy crap. I’ll wait.

Muscular relaxation
Just as shallow, rapid breathing tells your horse something in wrong, muscle tension does as well. After all, what do they do right before they bolt? Prepare their muscles. To get ahead of this, practice progressive muscle relaxation. Get a handle on your breathing using the technique described above, then start at your feet, clench your toes tightly and hold, then “let it go”. Once you “let it go”, focus on how that feels. Then progressively work up through your calves, thighs, abdomen and so forth, relaxing each muscle group and noticing the difference. While this sounds easy, one thing we often do as riders, especially in horsemanship or equitation, is tighten our muscles…the trick is to control the muscles without constant tightening telling your horse they should be concerned. Some horses don’t care, but others really do. That is also a post for another day.

Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation has gotten a lot of press lately, and for good reason. It works! While it can be relaxing, it is extremely difficult for many to sit still and focus on breathing, in our fast paced, work worshipping modern world. Many people I know can’t actually meditate because they have “too many thoughts”. While clearing your mind is a nice goal, the truth is that every “unwanted thought” is an opportunity to refocus on your breath and “develop your mental muscle.” The other thing that meditation can do is separate your “thinking brain” and your “feeling brain”, such that you notice when less useful thoughts, emotions, or temptations come up and can stop and redirect them to something more productive. There are plenty of apps to help people learn to meditate. Headspace,10% Happier, and Calm are all good ones to try.

Physical routines
For some people, physical activity can help keep the nerves at bay. Things like feeding at a regular time, cleaning stalls, doing preliminary grooming, class entries, warm ups etc. and just generally keeping predictable pre show or class routines can keep the anxiety to a minimum and give you the chance to move through anxiety. Similarly, giving yourself a regular window of time before and after your class to focus on the matter at hand and debrief after the classes can be useful.

Know yourself (and your horse)
Not all horses will revert to flight behavior when faced with the change in energy that comes with a horse show. If you know you’re a person who tends toward show nerves, selecting an equine partner who is NOT also prone to show nerves is your best bet for the least complicated, most positive experience. A common statement is that “your horse is a reflection of yourself”. While that’s true to a point, I’m not a big fan of the concept, simply because horses come with baggage just as people do, and I don’t need the extra guilt in my life. I’ve got enough of that, thank you very much. If your horse is as prone to show nerves as you are, someone is going to have to develop and execute a plan for managing that anxiety and it’s you, possibly with some professional trainer help. It may also mean hanging out by your trailer, away from the fray, prior to showing, and getting as much sleep as is possible under the circumstances. It just depends on you.

One of my very favorite show horses has taught me more about emotional management, paying attention to what he needed, and doing what was best for both of us, than any other. Chip taught me that when I felt him get uptight, I needed to make myself relax as much as possible, because if I matched his anxiety with my own, a train wreck was sure to follow. While managing his quirks could get exhausting, once the plan was in place, he was one of the most talented and rewarding horses I’ve ever had. (He also made me really appreciate less complicated horses!)

Horse show anxiety can be a huge issue for many. It seems especially common in (but not limited to) women and girls with perfectionist tendencies, who really want to do well in their chosen sport. So essentially 90% of the horse show world, I suppose. It’s also compounded by the belief that if you work hard enough at home, it will just somehow all fall into place. Unfortunately, there is no realistic way to create the horse show atmosphere at home, no matter how much work you do. All we can do is “practice relaxing”, get to know what our horse needs and figure out the best plan for our horses and ourselves. Hopefully something here will help you along that journey.

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