Competing a tiny 14.3hh horse at Intermediate / 2* level and without fail always being on the smallest horse in the warmup arena, does mean that I am often referred to as “fearless”, “brave” (or slightly mad!!) But the truth of the matter is that just like everyone else, I get nervous. Whether I am competing an experienced horse at a high level or a baby at 80, you still get that crazy feeling of excitement/nervousness/what on earth am I doing this for in the lead up to an event. When I am eventing a youngster in their first competition I will be worried they may leave the arena or spend the whole test calling to their travel companion, knock every showjump down and make you look stupid or refuse to go over a certain jump cross country so you have to do the ‘walk of shame’ home. On a more experienced horse I may be worried about letting the horse down or ruining their good BE records. The truth is when you spend so much time preparing for these events, getting your horse fit and in my case often taking a valuable day of holiday the pressure you put on yourself to do well and make it worthwhile is crazy.
Over the years I have learnt to channel these nerves into something positive. I still get nervous, but I think I have just learnt to deal with it much better now than I used to.
In August 2013, ironically also the only time I have ever been number 13 at a competition, I was involved in a serious cross country accident where I severely fractured and crushed T12 vertebra in my back. It was an unstable fracture which meant that I needed surgery and have had two more operations since. My horses pushed me to improve each day, made me set goals (mostly hugely unrealistic and crazy!) and made me want to get better quickly. The thought of getting back out there on my horse and proving the doctors wrong after they said I wouldn’t be riding for a year pushed me to make sure I got better. Riders are stubborn people when they are told they can’t do something and within 6 weeks I was back in the saddle (in a very robotic/bionic woman sort of way). I finished the season with double clears and placings and by October I had gone clear in my first CCI* at Aldon…..about 10 weeks from the day of my accident. It was the most amazing feeling and I was so focused on getting back out there that I didn’t even have time to think about being nervous.
Winters are the worst things for riders though. Months and months of cold, miserable weather, fresh horses and thinking time. That winter after my accident the buzz of my amazing comeback soon left me and by the beginning of the next season I had worked myself up so much that I was a complete nervous wreck! 2014 was one of the hardest years for my riding and I think I just thought that I was going to break my back every time I rode and that if I fell off again I was completely doomed! It almost took my first fall for me to get up and think…..hey, look I’m fine! I began to realise that sometimes things happen due to pure bad luck and just because something happens once doesn’t mean it will happen every time you compete. Lisa Sparrowhawk is a performance coach who helped me a lot with my nerves after my accident. She used to tell me, “there is no such thing as failure, only feedback” and this is definitely something that comes up in my head a lot.
As humans we will always fail and nobody is perfect (with the exception perhaps being Michael Jung!)
So, here are my top tips for dealing with competition nerves:
· Good preparation – nothing makes me feel more nervous than when I am unprepared! When I go to an event I like to think that I have done everything physically possible to make sure that I am ready for the challenge. If there are no “unknowns” the amount of things there are to get nervous about are dramatically reduced. In eventing for example I will make sure that I have done a dressage test and a showjumping round at that level or higher before entering. Especially on a young horse where their brains can get fried quite easily it is important to break it down first so that you feel confident in the individual phases before putting them all together in one day. If you have had lessons, done the training competitions and got your horse fit enough to me that ticks off a huge amount of stress. It also reduces the “what if” questions if something wasn’t to go exactly to plan!
· Don’t overanalyze things – I am especially bad at this. Especially now with the wonderful invention of course pictures for eventing, the nerves start earlier than ever before due to the fact you know what to expect! Of course pictures can be a really good thing – your horse may hate ditches and you may see that the course has really inviting ditches so it may help you decide where to go. Knowing what to expect can also help a huge amount as you can train over similar jumps at home or feel safe in the fact that you have done something like it already. But it is important to use these amazing resources wisely as it is easy to get hung up on a particular jump and decide before you even arrive that it looks really tricky as this just implants negativity into your head before you even start! The chances are anyway (and this has happened to me many times) that the course may be totally different to the previous year…..and all of your worries about a particular horse eating fence may not have been necessary anyway!
· Count from 1 to 8 – I used to get very hung up on ‘seeing a stride’ and found that in a way this made me ride defensively and probably likely to mess things up even more. I remember several years ago now, I had a lesson with Lucinda Fredericks and she told me that as she jumps around a showjumping course she counts her canter strides; 1 to 8 over and over. At first I was skeptical that anything could distract me from panicking about seeing a stride, but since then I have used it on all of my horses and it actually works brilliantly. It means that I am thinking about the rhythm rather than putting in last minute/nervous half halts and it doesn’t matter how big the fence is it really seems to work.
· Rewatch videos – videos are a great training aid as they help you constructively criticize yourself so that you can improve, but most importantly the good ones make you feel really confident when you watch them back. At the end of the season I will always make a video of the best bits, which I re-watch before the start of the next season. It makes you realise that you can do it and if you have a video like this from each year you can also hopefully see how much you have improved over time. Improving is different to each person and doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be now winning every event you enter. It could be that your horse’s rhythm has improved, your lower leg is more secure than it was or you are looking down less than you used to.
· Don’t compare yourself to other people – people put so much pressure on themselves (especially now with social media) to step up a level or do well that sometimes it does you no good at all. Riding a small horse in big classes means that I have come to realise that we will never look like your typical eventers. Finley’s legs look like they are moving really fast because they are so short and he generally looks ‘different’. But it is so important to be proud of the things that make you different and to set achievable goals which make you feel confident and good about your riding rather than doing things just to keep up with other people. It is just as much an accomplishment for me to go clear in my 4YOs first 60cm class as it is to go clear in a 2* with Finley.
In the words of my amazing friend Hannah, “dream big, fight hard and never give up on what you truly believe in”.
Good luck to everyone who is starting their season (or trying to)! Stay safe and most importantly have fun…..that is what it is all about after all :).