ou have ‘em, I have ‘em, we all have ‘em. No, not elbows — I’m talking about nerves. Specifically, nerves while riding, thinking about riding, tacking up, trail riding, driving to the barn, thinking about your lesson tomorrow … you get the point.
There are few things more frustrating than extensively training and preparing for a lesson, clinic, or competition, only to feel those old familiar nerves creep into the corner of your conscience, threatening to take full control. Anxiety, fear, and nerves around any part of riding can get out of hand, and fast. It’s not just in the show ring and in fact, sometimes riding nerves have nothing to do with performance. Worried you’re going to get hurt and not be able to care for your kids? Worried your horse is going to put your heart in your throat at any given moment from spooking at a leaf? Worried that you’re just not good enough to be doing this? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Recently in the NF office, we were talking about how nerves manifest for each of us. We represent a wide array of past and current riders — eventers, show jumpers, riders who prefer to stay earth-bound, those who ride for fun and those who ride for results. The general consensus? That there’s no general consensus for when/where/how nerves show up, but we all have them.
Caroline Culbertson, Editor-in-Chief
I became pretty anxious and fearful after having my arm very badly kicked and shattered and adding two plates and 16 screws to my skeleton. I didn’t feel nervous immediately after that accident, interestingly enough. In fact, my first several times back in the saddle felt easy breezy. It was about eight rides in that I started having terrible nightmares about getting kicked in the chest — the kind of nightmares that jolt you awake in a cold sweat. (Ever seen “Blue Crush”? Those nightmares felt just like the ones in the movie.) That was a few years ago and I’m still working my way back.
Leslie Threlkeld, Managing Editor
Dry heaves pre-dressage test? Not this girl. A cold sweat before cross-country? Nope. Feeling like I'm going to barf mid-stride for the entirety of a show jumping course? Every. single. round.
Noëlle Floyd, CEO
As a young teenager, I would get such bad anxiety the morning of a show that sometimes my trainer would need to tack up my horse for the class because I would be riddled with excruciating stomach cramps. Not like “ouch, that hurts,” more like the “I can’t stand up” kind.
I was one of those riders that was uber confident, calm, and effective at home, then very nervous, anxious, and fundamentally ineffective at shows. A lot of frustration came from feeling like I was the only one who felt this way. I was convinced that everyone else must have mastered their nerves, and it wasn’t until my adult life that I learnt this was something riders of all levels struggled with.
I used to hate when my trainer would say, “Don’t forget, just have fun!” as I entered the ring for a big class. I used to think, “We never do anything to establish a fun mentality. I don’t have any tools I can draw on to actually feel like this is fun.” Looking back, if I’d had a breathing and meditation exercise when I was riding competitively, it would have made a WORLD of difference.
Lizzy Youngling, Daily Editor
Following my graduation from short-stirrup, I don’t think there was one round at a horse show that I didn’t butcher. I could have a flawless warmup and feel sharp as a tack mentally, but the second I opened my courtesy circle and cantered to the first jump, a haze would overcome my brain and I would black out (not literally). It felt as if I was simply sitting on my horse’s back with no plan or direction and was going along for the ride.
At the time, I had no idea that I had anxiety and debilitating nerves, and reflecting back I constantly think, I wonder how many more blue ribbons I could’ve hung on my wall if I'd had a mental coach?
Kristin Stine, Director of NF.edit
The morning of a show, I’d feel prepared and calm, but after the course walk my anxiety would skyrocket. I was always the last one in the ring during course walks, striding out that tricky line at least four more times. The confidence I’d have at the beginning of the day would wane, and I’d usually walk back to the barn feeling daunted. Then in the warmup, I’d play all of the worst-case scenarios in my head.
The more I ride different horses and talk to other riders about their experiences, the less critical I am about myself in the saddle as I’ve gotten older.
Erin Lane, Director of Masterclass
I overthink things. It’s my signature scent. Even though showing horses is something I’ve been doing since I was a tiny human clad in second-hand jods, only now have I realized how much anxiety and overthinking affects my relationship with riding, especially competing. I have to talk myself through things at shows, and I get irritable and snappy when I make mistakes. I notice the shaky hands and nausea and stress sweats a lot more. Horses bring me joy — so much of it — but they also bring loads of anxiety, worry, and pressure.
The silver lining is that through it all, I’m learning valuable lessons about riding, and about life in general: how much more could I enjoy the ride if I could just let go of things being perfect and let my horse’s opinion of me be the only one that matters?
Whitney Weeks, Director of NF.shop
When I did equitation, it wasn’t so much fear for my physical being (see second paragraph) as it was the incredible pressure to be effortlessly perfect. So much of showing in the hunters and equitation is subjective and therefore out of your control. As a result, the pressure to control the variables you can becomes immense. A mental health podcast would’ve been helpful. For sure.
As an amateur show jumper, my perfectionist anxiety was quickly replaced with: “Am I going to die doing this?” Very chill, I know. At 1.45m-1.50m I felt like I was constantly on the edge of my skill set, which was both thrilling (national championships) and not (picking off at a triple bar and returning to college with a cane). Over time this generally improved, but I was never not nervous competing.
To this day, when I’m overwhelmed, I think back on tracks I thought I couldn’t jump or classes I thought I would never win, and those memories inspire me to always push myself outside my comfort zone. Hopefully, there isn’t a cane involved.
Who's running your ride — you or your nerves? In this 10-part Masterclass, Annette Paterakis, “The Equestrian Mental Coach,” will systematically guide you through confidence development that transfers to the barn, saddle, and show ring. Get out of your head and into the moment.
Photography by Andrew Ryback.