The confident rider is a competent rider, and there are many components and benefits to becoming a confident rider. A confident rider possesses the skills and ability to compete at a level that suits them. They are capable of recognizing and coping with their fears and are accepting of the nerves involved with competition. They possess the tools to control their anxiety and the power to channel that anxiety into a focus and determination that puts them in “the zone.”
Competency in riding is having the skill set to compete at a level at which you and your horse are qualified. At most hunter/jumper horse shows there are many levels of competition. It is your responsibility as the trainer or rider to have an honest understanding of the level in which you should be competing. Not only does the rider need to possess the ability and skill, but your horse also needs to be suited to your division. After all, they are the most important part of your team. If they are not suited to their job it will be very difficult to succeed! Do not allow your ego to take over and exceed your or your horse’s limitations. Do the right thing and move up when the time is right. It is better to be suited to your division and have a respectable class than be over faced and feeling defeated.
It is important to understand the difference between true confidence and false confidence. True confidence is having the ability, skill set and preparation for competition. False confidence is ego driven. Choosing to enter a division because you want to impress others with how high you are jumping, or because you feel brave that day (even though you haven’t jumped a course that high before) is a recipe for leaving you feeling defeated, embarrassed and upset. If you choose to compete in a class because you are well prepared you will be better able to cope with all aspects of showing. You can feel confident that you are competing for the right reasons. You are competing because you and your horse are capable, prepared and ready to win!
Most great riders have the ability to control their nerves, but how have they gotten to this point? The answer is miles, and then more miles, and then hundreds of competitions. However, most of the greats in our sport still get the jitters from time to time.
One great way of dealing with competition nerves is learning to control your focus. Focus control consists of a combination of eyes, ears and thoughts. Eye control is focusing visually only on what is important to your round and not allowing outside things or people to distract you from your job. Ear control is listening only to what is important to your round. Listening to your trainer is very important, or listening for when you go in the order, but listening to who won the class two rings away will be very distracting and might make you miss an important instruction or miss your turn! Thought control is the most difficult and yet the most important tool for focus. Positive thoughts are imperative to success. Most people win because they believe they can.
Have you ever thought to yourself “I hope I don’t mess this up?” That kind of thought is valid, but ineffective in competition. It leads to more negative thoughts like, “What if I miss my lead change or what if I miss at a jump?” By the time you get in the ring you are a wreck and you will be lucky to pick up the canter much less get around a course. Instead, if you can learn to stop that pattern of thought by only allowing yourself to think positively and to stop yourself when you start getting negative you will be a lot better off. For instance, in the same situation if you can learn to think to yourself, “I am prepared to do my best and my horse is prepared,” everything will work out. Or, “I am capable of doing this course and whatever comes up on this course I can deal with,” or “I will do my best no matter what.” These types of thoughts will help you stay more focused on your course and will not distract you from the task at hand.
Fear is another block for a rider’s confidence. It is natural for riders to be fearful, but we cannot allow our fears to control us. One way that is really helpful in overcoming your fears during competition is to discuss them with your trainer. I always stress to my clients while we are walking the course to tell me if there is any part of it that concerns them. When they tell me a particular jump or turn or succession of jumps scares them, I can advise them on how to best execute that portion of their course. I also tell them to visualize successfully completing that part of the course. It helps them to feel less anxious. When I started doing this with clients I had one tell me that the whole course scared her. I told her that she didn’t have to show that day if she didn’t feel comfortable. For some reason knowing that she wasn’t going to be forced to compete soothed her. She rallied and had a great round!
As a rider that has competed and trained at all levels of competition, I have developed these ideas and training methods through trial and error. Having used and reaped the benefits of sports psychology in my own riding I have incorporated those principles into my teaching style. This method of teaching has helped me to successfully bring along riders at numerous levels of competition and it has also made me into a more focused, confident and successful competitor. These tools will help any rider to become more competent, less fearful, more confident, and, inevitably, more successful!
Author Kelley Fielder is a hunter/jumper trainer whose business, Surfside Show Jumping, is based at Ridgemar Equestrian in Del Mar.