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How do I deal with competition anxiety (part 4)

In my previous columns I talked about my anxiety and the concentration problems I experience during competitions. Via e-mail, Facebook and even while on competitions I get nice reactions to that. The question I get often is HOW I deal with my competition anxiety. So, this time not a story about my experiences (or maybe it will be), but more of an explanation about my thought- and work process in dealing with anxiety and stress before competitions.

When I started competing a couple years ago, I had some kind of goal. I wanted to be able to ride just as nicely as Anky van Grunsven and I wanted to know where I stood in comparison to other equestrians. Next to that, I hoped to get a bunch of constructive commentary from the jury, which I could learn from. After a few competitions, where I rode tentatively and uncomfortably, I wanted to get higher scores and win fun prizes. The result of such a goal was a long battle with myself. The goal of “winning” isn’t such a handy goal. You don’t have any influence on it yourself.

My basics consisted of riding outside, racing in the berm and a couple of years of riding school lessons. Through the group lessons at the riding association I encountered a nice instructor and I got my first winning points in the 3rd level with my mare, in a short period of time. I swindled a double bridle out of my parents and I got a dressage hat for my birthday. In the 4th level, I got myself into the regional championships of South-Holland, where I, because of my own nervousness, didn’t get any points. Obviously, that was a big disappointment. In that moment, I wasn’t convinced I learned from her, but looking back I often think about her reactions to my aids and the following acrobatic jumps she made with her lean body. My riding faults and competition anxiety stemmed from my own incompetence.

Over time, I rode more horses and learned to ride better. Slowly, I raised the bar to perform for myself. That ‘urge to perform’ resulted in even more anxiety. The good thing was… I knew to control that anxiety better bit by bit. I could ride nice tests, get farther step by step and got to reach my goals that way. The good performing had, next that it was good for my confidence, also a big downside. It evoked a certain expectation. Not only from the owners of the horses, friends and acquaintances, but even people I didn’t know let me know they had a certain expectation of me. The pressure I put on myself, but also the pressure of the people around me, made me more anxious. A year or five ago, on the regional championship in the 2nd level, I was able to maintain the first test, but afterwards that didn’t work out anymore. I even fell short for prizes and again, I had a hard time digesting that. Secretly, I put the blame on my horse, because well… He had to pee that bad and HE hadn’t been away from home for so long. Yeah! Even though somewhere I knew better, one way
or the other I wasn’t conscious of it.

Now, a couple of years later, I can put what happened into words perfectly. I even know now that I was nauseous when I entered the arena. I had the pretense I had to perform, to win! My stomach turned when I saw who was watching, which made it all went wrong. Instead of sitting in the saddle relaxed, my horse had to carry me as some sort of rigid plank. I was badly in the way of my horse and that I could finish the test was thanks to my horse who kept trying his best.

Meanwhile, I am certainly conscious of my anxiety and performance drive. Although I still find it hard to deal with in a good way. So that’s one of the reasons I started working on ‘learning to perform’. When I succeed in putting my own anxiety into ‘learning to perform’, I can start working on bettering myself. I have started reading into the subject. I bought some books and visited some lectures. I also talk about it with others and thanks to all of this, I got pretty hooked onto this subject. In January, I will even be starting an education which is completely focused on this. Not only for myself, but I’m hoping to help others with it too.

Back to the question I got asked by the readers of the blogs. What way do I work towards the competitions? How do I deal with my stress consciously and how do I keep my focus during the test?
Performing well starts with my own mindset, perseverance and motivation to be busy training horses daily for me. I work 36 hours weekly and give a good amount of private lessons. Additionally, I have three horses. With these three horses ‘learning to perform’ starts. I think that if you want to perform, you have to make sure everything surrounding the
performance is right. My horses have to be healthy and fit, good on the aids and they have to enjoy training and competing. To achieve this, I have to train the horses in a way that suits them. This also takes a certain training intensity and the horses need enough opportunity to relax next to the training. All three horses have their own character, their own learning mode, own qualities, power and stamina.

My daily training goal is to, as well as for my horse as myself, get energy and enjoyment out of training and to raise the bar sometimes while training. This means I make a lot of training hours weekly. That I think about what I do and am conscious about the effect the training has on my horse, but also what effect it has on me. If a horse feel less fit, I question why that could be. If my horse almost explodes out of fitness, I question why that is. I let them be checked (preventively) by a veterinarian and let the blood get checked if I have doubts.
The stable, the feeding policy, the training abilities, the material of the arena, the ability of turnout, the material I use and the lessons I take, all have to fit the goals I have. When a sore point arises, I can’t optimally ‘learn to perform’. That makes me have a good physical therapist for my horses, who comes when I think necessary, a nice dentist for my horses and a farrier who come when it’s needed. Is a horseshoe has come off, I don’t want to have to wait two weeks before my farrier has time to put it back under. In short, I believe ‘learning to perform’ starts with a healthy, fit and well trained horse, an environment that supports that and my own commitment and mindset to want to do something with this.

Of course, it isn’t easy to do this day in, day out. That’s why relaxation is also very important. The horses nicely in the pasture and myself with a thrilling book on the side is a situation that happens often. Because I take a lot of energy out of training and being busy with my horses, I can keep triggering myself to get better and continuing living my dreams day after day. I know what I want to accomplish (long term goals) and I know roughly how I want to work towards that (short term goals). I use the word ‘roughly’, since I still have to learn so much myself and have to take (almost) weekly private lessons to get a step closer to gaining training knowledge To be able to keep this up, I have to make sure I’m physically well myself. I want to have good stamina, I have to feel fit and I want to have a healthy body weight. I am more conscious about what I eat and have customized my whole way of living to my goals.

That doesn’t mean I go running every day (it would be amazing if I could) and that I only eat healthy (I don’t even want to think about it). I do make sure I have a good balance between my activities, my meals and that I take enough rest. Doing this consciously also supports the performance I want to give. If all of the above is good, I start working toward a competition. In my previous blog, I wrote about keeping lists and making a competition schedule. I’ll know in time when I have a competition planned.

A week beforehand, I make a schedule for the training. If I have a competition on Sunday, I try to take a private lesson in the week before. In the days in between, I make sure the balance is good for my horse to be able to build towards that performance. Each horse (every horse needs a different preparation) has a different training schedule and it’s also dependent on the circumstances. Is it currently very hot outside, I train differently than when it’s 12 degrees Celsius outside. This doubles back on being conscious about what effect the training has on both me and my horse.

I ride the lines of my test in the week before the concours, as well as my whole test. In the past, I didn’t dare to do this because my mare always thought before I did. Now I know I didn’t have that mare under control as well as I have my horses now. Now they wait (almost always) until they get the aid, before they jump into action. I got a fun tip of my trainer. She let me write my test out a week before the competition. For myself, I make a document on my computer where I copy the test components. In de column behind the components (where the judge puts the commentary), I write what my action will be during the test and what I want to focus on. I always do this in an easy way, so I can start thinking consciously about the actions I want to make. Prior to this I determine my competition goal. That goal differs. The coming competitions I want to have a flowing canter portion where I can act without having to think about every aid.

An example of the execution of my tests:
A-X Entering the arena in a collected canter

On the extended side, canter more forwards. Collect before the corner, let the hand loosen, look out of the corner nicely and turn. X standing still and greeting Make the horse straight and ride a bit more to keep him on my leg, slowly let it come back in tempo, breathe out and stand still. Wait until the horse stays and greet.

This way, I go through the whole test. When I’m on my way to work and am sitting in an overcrowded metro, I take the A4’s out of my back and I close myself off for my surroundings. This way I try to let a movie play in my head which only consists out of doing the named actions. I watch the test as if I’m doing extremely well and can even feel the aids I give and the reactions the horse gives. To be able to focus on this I got a few exercises out of the lectures I was part of. By trying these out, concentrating has become easier for me. It’s very important to know that the exercises may differ for everyone. That mostly is due to your own personality. I myself am introvert. That’s why it’s important for me to
prepare in a introvert way.

Below are some exercises that help me:

  1. I close my eyes and focus on one sound. I have to filter all other sounds.
    When I accomplish this my whole focus is on that one sound.
  2. Concentrating on one part of my body, for example my pinky finger. I keep my
    eyes closed. I keep concentrating until all stimuli go to my pinky finger only
    and I don’t think about what I’m going to eat tonight or that I can hear a car
    honk in the distance.
  3. After this I start looking at one point. For example a candle on the side table. I
    keep concentrating on the candle until the surroundings blur.
    Doing these exercises cost me a lot of energy. On the other side, I notice it gets

While on competition, I do these exercises while warming up and during the test. To be able to do this properly, I have to have the ability to take the time when I arrive. I also try to prepare myself for this introvertly. I go look at the arena I’ll ride in and where I can warm up calmly. Of course, I greet people, but I try not to start long conversations. This because I know that that makes it harder for me to concentrate. When tacking up and changing I say almost nothing and focus on the sounds my horse and I make. Then I mount my horse and go warm up. Because I have people with me who keep an eye on the time, I don’t have to pay attention to anything else. I am there and my horse is too.

The focus is on my horse first, making the other sounds fade, my focus goes to my hands, legs and seat to be able to feel my horse optimally and I let my surroundings fade. All just like I do at home in a smaller way. Sometimes this focus gets interrupted because someone breaks my concentration by talking to me, or because I lose my concentration because something happens in the arena. But because I practice this weekly, I can keep my focus better or get it back easier. When I ride in the competition arena, at the same time the film of my preparation plays. This way I learn to ride the tests better and I get closer to the flow which makes everything seam easy.

Lastly, I think it’s the most important in learning to perform is to look at your own insights, self-discipline and being able to and want to learn from the mistakes you make. Look at everything you do in a positive way, dare to make mistakes and be curious about others and learn from that. Don’t forget the most important thing: To enjoy your horse and the thing you’re doing!


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