Matt Mills’ Tips for Having the Right Mindset When Showing

NRHA Million Dollar Rider Matt Mills gives his advice for beating nerves and staying in the right mindset at a horse show.

Photo courtesy of Matt Mills Reining.

Showing your horse on any level means that you’re going to feel some anxiety and stress throughout the event–it’s inevitable. I compete on a high level in the reining events against the best riders and horses in the world. It’s easy for me to stress myself out and have the wrong mindset before a big event. I know what’s at stake and who I’m competing against. I can also feel the pressure that’s put on me as a professional.

But, let’s think about a show from the horse’s perspective. My horse doesn’t know the difference between The Run For A Million and a novice horse class at a weekend show. To him, we’re there to go out and give the best run we can and perform to the best of our ability. He doesn’t know what the stakes are or how important the event is–unless I tell him.

Horses are extremely sensitive to our emotions and can feel the smallest amount of stress in our bodies. One of the most important things you can do to keep him relaxed is to do the same for yourself. The best way to do this is by having the right mindset going into the show. Easier said than done, right?

Having the right mindset when you’re competing is the best way to set yourself and your horse up for success.

I’m going to go over some tips that I’ve learned over the years for keeping your mindset in the right place. Use these tips to keep you and your horse calm and relaxed so you can perform your best.

Practice at Home

Having a consistent mindset is one of the best things you can do to help your horse stay relaxed and confident. He relies on you to guide him. He’s going to be paying attention to how your body feels to know if there’s something to be stressed about. I try to practice scenarios at home that are similar to what we’ll be going through at the show.

You can practice the elements of a pattern all day long, and even have all of the maneuvers mastered. But, in the end, it all comes down to how you put those maneuvers together. This is why I don’t just focus on parts of the pattern at home. I like to run through the entire pattern, just like I would if I were showing. Putting yourself on the spot at home will take some stress out of the equation. You’ll feel like you’ve been there before. You’ll already know the spots where your horse might need a little extra help, or where you should stay out of his way. Now when the show rolls around it will feel like just another practice run.

I like to relate this to being prepared for a test at school. When you haven’t studied and you’re not prepared, that’s when you start getting nervous and anxious. But, if you’re prepared for the test, you’ll go into it with confidence because you know you’re going to ace it. The same thing applies to horse shows.

Read More: Matt Mills’ Tips for Keeping His Horses Healthy and Happy

What If My Horse Is Different at a Show Than at Home?

This is something I hear from a lot of riders from all different levels of competition. These are learned behaviors by the horse, not because they’re being judged or not judged. Now, of course, there are horses who get nervous from being in a new environment, photographers, large crowds, and other variables that you can’t prepare for at home. But to me, that’s just a horse who hasn’t been put in that situation enough. He hasn’t had a good experience in that environment–yet.

More often than not, I see a nervous rider warming up and watching the other competitors. Immediately they get in their own head. Before you know it, they’re asking their horse for more than they normally do. They want to spin faster and stop better. But, the reality is, that’s not what you’ve been practicing the months leading up to the show. Your horse is going to pick up on that energy and become nervous. He’s going to become overwhelmed when you start riding him differently than normal. He’s going to feel you become tense and wonder what he should be stressed out about.

Horses are creatures of habit. When you repeatedly become tense and nervous when competing, he’s going to learn that every time he goes to a show he should be nervous too. Have you ever made a mistake during a class and afterward have your trainer tell you to go work through that part again? I bet that when you practiced that exact same maneuver without the pressure of the judges, it was almost perfect.

When you become tense and anxious before you compete, your horse will learn that he should feel that way when showing too.

Find The Right Mindset

Something that I’ve learned from years of practice is that you can train yourself to have the right mindset when competing. What I want you to do the next time you show, is try and forget about the judges. Instead, think about the things you and your horse do well. Think about your skills realistically instead of comparing them to those around you. Instead of thinking about the areas you struggle with but your competitors are nailing, focus on the maneuvers you know you’re great at. Now, obviously, the judges aren’t going to completely disappear from your mind. But try thinking about how you’re excited to show them the areas of the pattern you excel at.

Going into the arena with confidence instead of worrying about the things that might need some work means your horse is going to pick up on your confidence. He’s going to believe that he should be confident too. That confidence is going to help you both through the maneuvers you aren’t as confident about. You won’t be second-guessing yourself and anticipating that part of the pattern. Instead, you’ll feel strong and start to enjoy the ride.

Listen to More: Winning Insights with Matt Mills

Judges Are People Too

It’s easy to be intimidated by the judges when you’re competing. One thing that is really important to remember is that they are people too. The judges aren’t watching you to purposely seek out the weaker part of your pattern. They’re there to watch all of the maneuvers you complete and score them based on how well you perform.

Most of the people who will be judging you have all ridden and gone through similar struggles. They know what it feels like to be an exhibitor and have probably felt just as nervous as you before. It’s important to go out there, take a deep breath, and focus on keeping your mindset where you need it to be.

Most judges have been a competitor and they understand the pressure you’re under.

Your Biggest Competitor Is Yourself

This is another one of those things that sound easier said than done, but it is possible. Try not to focus on the competitors around you, and just think of yourself as your only competitor. Your goal should be to have a better ride than your last, no matter how the placings turn out.

I have a necklace that has my highest score on the pendant, a 231.5, and I always wear it when I compete. In the back of my mind, my goal is to beat that high score. I have to be realistic about that goal, but it is also a nice reminder that I am capable of a score that high, I’ve done it before. This helps keep my confidence up when something goes wrong because I know that not every ride is going to be like this, there have been and will be better scores.

It’s also important to remember that every judge sees something different from your run, and they all have their own opinions. That’s something you’ll never be able to change and is nearly impossible to predict. You might have had one of your best rides yet, but the score and placings don’t turn out how you were expecting. That is a very common part of horse showing, no matter what level you’re competing on, or if you’re a non pro or professional.

So, instead of making your goal to win the class or to beat all of your competitors, make it to beat your last ride. When you go through your ride in your head, think about it compared to your last one. Did you accomplish what you’ve been practicing at home between shows? If you did, then you won. If you didn’t, keep working on it and try again at the next show.

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