All equine competition requires team work. Even in halter classes, you must have a connection to your horse. Mental prep is part of that team work.
When you or your horse aren’t mentally prepared, things can go awry. If your horse isn’t mentally focused, you must take over and do a whole lot more to help your horse get through the task. If you’re tired, feeling weak or distracted, and the horse isn’t focused either, then you’ve got a really big problem on your hands.
Both you and your horse must be very focused when you show. Here are my 12 tips to prepare both of you to focus in the pen.
Focus Factor #1: Take care of your mind
As the rider, you must be a bit more focused and alert when you show. When you’re extremely fatigued, it’s challenging to do your best in competition, particularly if your horse has lost focus and needs you to compensate. It’s tough to calm your body down when you’re tired.
It can be difficult to get enough sleep at some events, where the only time you can really school and practice is the middle of the night. In those cases, do your prep work of finding the lines for the pattern and practicing maneuvers during the day, and concentrate on getting to bed on time so you can be as rested and as strong as you can when you show.
Focus Factor #2: Stick to your routines
Just like a football player or a runner, you’re an athlete and so is your horse. Routine is extremely important for athletes. Breaking out of a routine will rattle your ability to focus, especially for your horse. Maintaining your routines and those of your horse as much as possible will help. For example, sticking to your diet—for both horse and rider—will help keep you both healthy and strong. If you or your horse are under the weather, which can be caused by breaking out of your routine, that can contribute to poor focus. →
Focus Factor #3: Know your horse
When you’re dealing with higher-level competition, you may be dealing with a fairly trained horse. But even a highly trained horse will react differently when he goes into competition. Some horses get better when they go into the show pen; others are so familiar that they find ways to cheat you. Know which kind of horse you have so you’re prepared to handle him. This familiarity comes with continued showing and time. Listen to your horse, and learn each time you go into the show pen. Over time, you’ll know exactly what to expect from your horse.
Focus Factor #4: Find the balance
It’s easy to think that if you get your horse tired before you show, he’ll do better in the pen—he’ll be focused and quiet with intense schooling. But that’s not necessarily true. If your horse is too tired, that can create a lot of problems. If he’s too fatigued to do his job, he won’t be as athletic or dynamic during your performance.
On the other hand, if you try to show your horse when he’s a little bit too fresh, his mind might be elsewhere, and you’ll have to constantly help them get through the competition.
Spend time with your horse to identify the peak level of prep he needs.
Focus Factor #5: Prioritize your time
Being able to ride and practice before you show will help you be more prepared and focused. Some riders need a bit more time in the saddle to prep; some are fine with less. You’ll learn which type of rider you are and what you need to feel prepared with practice and time. Sometimes that preparation will include working together with your trainer to get your horse tuned before you ride. You’ll learn which combination of riding works as you grow as a team. In my experience, knowing what each horse-and-rider team requires is challenging. It takes time to learn. I’ve seen it take a year to perfect that routine.
Focus Factor #6: Slow it down
If your horse knows his job, you don’t ride him multiple times a day at home. But when you get to a show and suddenly you ride for a few hours straight, it rattles your horse. You might need to school at a show to get your horse more focused, but don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If you run into a problem, handle it as quietly and low-key as possible and return to the basics of training. Try not to panic. Take it slow and build your horse’s confidence.
Focus Factor #7: Capture your horse’s attention
Most riders strive to capture a horse’s attention before they go into the show pen. In many all-around events, such as Western riding, trail, and horsemanship, you’re in the arena alone. It’s very easy for your horse to get distracted in this situation. If you don’t have his undivided attention, he’s going to get ahead of you in a hurry, which is not good. Or he might constantly require your help, depending on you to “hold his hand” through the maneuver. This will affect your overall score because top performances are done with subtle, quiet cues, which requires focus.
To capture his attention, go over maneuvers that your horse knows to maintain his confidence. When your horse gets discouraged, don’t reprimand him. Instead, remind or show him exactly what you’re looking for.
Focus Factor #8: Block out distractions
Outside forces pull your focus when you’re showing. Family issues, children having problems, conflict with your spouse, and worrying about others’ reactions to your performance are all issues that can pull your focus and affect your ride.
If you can pinpoint what kinds of things are distracting, you can enlist help from your trainer or a friend to provide a buffer as you prepare to compete so you can put those issues aside for that window of time.
It’s also helpful to determine if you benefit from watching other competitors or if you do better by focusing solely on your own horse. You may think these things won’t affect you, but some riders like to watch other competitors so they can see what they need to do to move up. Others beat themselves up in comparison before they ever get to the show pen. Knowing how it affects you will help you know if you need to avoid watching or make time for it in your preparation.
Focus Factor #9: Reassure in the countdown
I recommend doing any serious preparatory training well before the competition, but you do need a pre-class ritual to school your horse that won’t rattle him. When you’re riding right before you go, check your maneuvers to ensure that all your pieces are there. If there’s a problem, right before you compete isn’t the appropriate time for any major fixes. Sometimes your trainer can help in that moment, but avoid digging yourself into a hole where you and your horse get upset. Slow down and focus on body control. Don’t reprimand your horse right before you go in the pen; instead, work on reassuring him. Let your energy create his energy. If you have nervous energy, so will he.
Focus Factor #10: Keep it simple
With too many things to focus on, you can get overwhelmed. When you’re competing, it’s better to try to keep things basic and simple. You want your basic body position and cues to be second nature and your horse should fall in line—neither of you should have to think twice about the basics. There’s so much going on in the show pen in a short time period, which is why it’s so important to understand each other’s basic cues.
I work on this every time I get into the saddle. The more complicated you make things, the harder they are for both you and your horse to understand.
Focus Factor #11: Use your time wisely
Once you’ve made sure all your basic maneuvers are ready, you’ll probably enter a holding pattern before your class. If you have 30 minutes before your class, do some walking, jogging, and loping, but if you have a rider or two before your turn, just move slowly so you can mentally prepare. Go over your plan for your performance a few more times, think quietly about your class.
Focus Factor #12: Plan your pattern
Concentrate on your destination in the pattern. Where are you going, and how will you get there? Walk through your pattern and identify what you need to think about at each point. Prioritize which maneuvers are important. Remember to think about riding your horse throughout the entire pattern so you don’t mentally check out.
Also remember that horses tend to pick up speed as they go through the pattern. Your horse moves at the speed your body moves. When you get nervous, your body gets tight and you move fast—so will your horse. Remember to keep all your moves slow and subtle. Slow your brain down and your body down, and it’ll slow your horse down.