Recently I have been thinking about myself as not only a horseperson, but also as a competitor. That is, assessing how I stack up and whether or not I am prepared at competitions so that those shows set myself and my horse up for success. I’ve determined that there are three ways to think about the requirements of a good competitor, and these are the Mental Mindset or Psyche of the rider, Equipment, and Preparation of the Horse.
The first then that I want to assess is the mental game. I think a lot of this is knowing your strengths and weakness, and staying mentally focused so that you remain in the moment enough to use your strengths to your advantage, and make corrections (for your weaknesses) as you go along.
For instance, while it’s taken me many years to get there, I think I have a good Dressage ‘game face’. Intercollegiate Dressage in particular taught me to ride every step of every test, and have confidence in my abilities. I’ve practiced and perfected visualizing exactly how I plan to ride each movement in my mind, and now find this process relaxes me whenever nerves try to come up. Visualization comes up again in my day-to-day riding, as when I feel the horse getting heavy or sloppy I picture myself as a Grand Prix rider, tall and elegant and soft but clear with my aids. This in turn tends to correct my equitation and helps my horse respond to me more efficiently.
My weakness, then, is jumping. Because I have been a formal student of jumping for less time, I lack the ability to visualize exactly what I want to achieve, and therefore have less confidence going on course. Looking for riders at the top level as visual examples is, in my opinion, less clear, as I see a bevy of different releases, leg positions, and styles among professional jumpers and eventers. Additionally, not knowing the course until the day of (or sometimes the hour of) the competition makes my mental run-throughs rushed and not nearly as effective. In short, the techniques that work so well for me as a dressage competitor fall short for the other phases.
Instead for jumping, I have started using other techniques to get my psyche in order. The bullet lists you see in each lesson post become mantras that I repeat as I prepare for the competition. I try to find songs that get me pumped. J played this one for me getting ready for the clinic, and I really found it helped me find a groove, even if the only lyrics I really know are ‘like a great white shark on shark week!’ (enthusiastically yelled by myself, of course).
Besides knowing your mental strengths and weaknesses, there are the other responsibilities of the rider to know- speeds required for the level and what that feels like, penalty rules, technicalities (such as what to do if your horse refuses the second fence in a related combination, whoops), and so on and so forth. Any detail of this could be the difference between success and failure (although we never fail, we just gain a learning opportunity!), or a blue ribbon and a red ribbon. Growing our knowledge and becoming a student of the sport is what being an amateur is about, and the more we know, the more we set ourselves up for success.
What mental techniques do you use to prepare for or at competition? How do you handle the stresses of competing? Are there mental aspects that you would like to improve yourself?