Managing competition stress in horses & riders

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

The Effects of the Atmosphere of Shows

Have you ever tried to dress up in your competition gear for an everyday ride? I once made an experiment. I asked the riders at my Summer Camp 2017 to wear competition clothes for their training which included a practice run through a dressage test and a warm up plus practice run over a jump course. 

All riders knew one another, the whole thing was predominantly fun focused yet most riders commented afterwards that they felt more "under pressure", "more stressed" than when they rode in their casual riding clothes... There is this anecdote: if you are learning public speaking, you can pretty quickly become good whilst rehearsing at home in front of your dog or a cat or even a group of sympathetic friends. If someone took you there and then and sat you in a large room filled with 500 people you never met and asked you to public speak then, you'd very likely feel uneasy at best and refused to do it at worst.  We often subject both ourselves and our horses to comparative amount of unmanageable stress each time we enter a show. Many shows, even the most low key ones at local venues, come with an atmosphere of pressure and require you to dress up. Horses being incredibly perceptive animals pick up on the stress vibe easily and adjust their behaviour accordingly by being "nosy", "overly cautious", "unusually tense" etc  Most of these adjustments have a very considerable effect on performance as a very tense horse will not "work over the back", "reach towards the bridle" or feel the same travelling to a jump as he does when fully focused on the rider.  The solution seems to often be harder, more forceful, "louder" riding but that backfires more often than it helps and clashes with many riders sense of enjoyment, ethics and values.  Competition Education One way of dealing with the horse's and/or rider's competitive stress is to schedule shows that we are going to treat as "non competitive" in our training diaries. They can range from dressing up for a venue hire, boxing to small, local shows, entering shows where we livery all the way through to big shows with decent atmosphere... The mission of this being to become less focused on "placing well" and more focused on making it an educational experience, something the horse (and us!) comes out feeling like he/she was allowed to learn something from not made to do something.  Same applies to the rider, including young riders. If a young rider on his or her pony enters a show, I like to think they go into it thinking they are a team. If a pony gets stressed and canters instead of trotting in the middle of a dressage test or refuses to jump, or becomes very tense in a showing class, how good would it be if the rider patted the pony and gave it some confidence and belief that it's not the end of the world, nobody died of hunger, that they are a bit nervous too and that everything is fine after all and can always try again/another day?  I feel it's the same in an adult horse sport. If we trotted down that centre line thinking with each stride how can we help this stride to be balanced, how can we help the horse to be as confident as possible, we could change the way the horse perceives the sport too. I do believe a horse can tell the difference between an action of a rider whose intention is to help him move in better balance and one with an intension to submit to task. 

Real life situations

Let's think of some real life situations: if we feel the horse tensing up and wanting to throw the neck and head in the air trotting their 20m circle at C right in front of the judge, we could increase the grip on the reins and physically hold the horse in a position creating even more tension or we could chance some outside flexion for a couple of strides, maybe even one or two steps of leg yield that might enlarge or decrease the circle somewhat and help us regain horse's attention. Now, all of these actions will result in lower marks because the judge will mark down tension and forceful riding as well as "incorrect" flexion or drifting off a line BUT gymnastic questions are educational to both horse and rider. They logically re-focus the horse unlike the increase of rein action that just submits the horse via force.  On a jump course, a stressed horse is a worried horse and a worried horse is unpredictable. If we happen to also be stressed and worried, we are equally unpredictable to that horse and so likely to escalate all their insecurities even more. When ironing out that basic ring confidence we can enter the arena with a mission of maintaining a confident, rhythmic canter and good, fair turns to each jump. If we have canter issues or can't turn well, we are setting the horse to fail or at best make a huge effort for us with each jump. Unfortunately, many horses start refusing because putting unnecessary effort into each jump wears them down and make the task harder than it seems. Even seemingly scopey horses start stopping at jumps for that reason.  (I'll digress here and tell you an anecdote from the world of dog training. Say we have a puppy who we are teaching to retrieve a ball to our hand. One day they charge into the kitchen with your newest pair of riding boots proudly bringing it half chewed. You understandably act shocked and quickly take the boot away but the puppy has already learnt a very important lesson: bringing stuff to you doesn't always equal a reward. Another example is when we, by accident, step on a puppy's paw when he/she is playing around us. The act creates a zone of uncertainty around us and some puppies will drop a ball a few steps away rather than bring it to us. We often don't even notice these details but I think it's similar with horses: our riding, our choices during one round of jumps, an atmosphere that "hurts" the horse mentally, they can all create "small punishments" that unnoticed and not acted upon can build up to big, seemingly "out of nowhere" effects ...) Most of the time we "know" we have no canter or have ridden a bad turn but we think we can or have to "wing it" because we are riding at a show. There is always a 50/50 chance here of jumping or stopping but most horses have a finite number of "wing it" situations before they lose confidence.  Since we know we are learning and so is the horse we could take a moment to repair the canter or re-ride the turn. Yes, we are likely to be eliminated from any rosette run or penalised for circling but we are winning a huge confidence boost for ourselves and our horse for the next show where maybe we can maintain a better canter and ride a better turn.   Attitude  I really do believe that if we can change our attitude to competitive riding it will become a much healthier testing environment for both us and the horses. There will always be some stress as at the end of the day it's a test of how well our training is going at home. Some pressure, pride, expectations will always be present and I suppose so they should since it's a competition after all.  However, if we adopt an attitude of supporting our horse in pursuit of our goals instead of fostering an attitude of blame, anger and frustration, we can significantly reduce or even eliminate a competition anxiety, nervous stress or feeling of inadequacy that many riders feel when taking their horses out and about.  Riders who have their horses or ponies' backs stand out from any crowd and are a pleasure to watch no matter the level. 

Young mare stretching in the warm up with the author

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