I Took Action to Improve My Show Ring Anxiety, And You Can Too.

I Took Action to Improve My Show Ring Anxiety, And You Can Too.

I know I’m not the only rider who struggles with confidence. We all struggle - some of us struggle every day, and some of us struggle occasionally, but confidence issues are real.

Here’s the thing: at home, I consider myself a pretty confident rider. I feel comfortable on a horse, love to jump, and don’t mind when my Thoroughbred gelding, Da Vinci, gets a little frisky. But something weird that happens to me at shows: my mind goes blank, my hands get shaky, and I feel that sense of anxiety in my gut.

Unfortunately for me, this feeling – pretty typical ‘show nerves’ – manifested in the show ring as petering down to a walk in front of the first jump in a lot of my hunter classes. My horse and I would have a refusal at the first jump in a course every time - you could set your clock by it. Sure, the jumps can be pretty spooky, and ‘Leo’ can get a little nervous, but for some reason, instead of riding harder when I was presented with an uneasy situation, I’d just freeze. I would sit there and do nothing. All of a sudden we were at a polite halt, and the round was wasted.

'I Felt Like I Was Disappointing Everyone'

It started to get worse and worse. In a domino effect, I would become more nervous, so I’d freeze up more, so we’d have a stop at the first jump more often, so I’d lose more confidence. Honestly, I started to doubt my ability to ride a complete round at all. I felt like I was disappointing everyone around me, but most of all, myself and my horse.

Jasmin and I making a plan at home.

I work with an amazing trainer, Jasmin Stair, who fortunately is exceptionally skilled at dealing with nervous riders. Truly, I think she might have missed her calling as a therapist – she’s that good at talking her band of amateurs off the ledge before and after every class. She’s always on the lookout for signs of confidence issues in her clients because she believes that the mental side of riding is just as important, if not more important, than the practical skills.

Jasmin immediately identified my stopping problem as a mental block, not a lack of skill. We started working on my confidence at home, chipping away bit by bit at my blocks and reactions while bolstering my belief in myself. We have a small, hands-on program with a lot of one-on-one time, so she saw what I couldn’t: my horse needed me to be sure of what I was asking of him, and I needed to believe that I had all of the skills I needed to jump every single jump on course. She knew that the problem wasn’t with my riding, or with my horse. It was inside my head.

Regaining My Mental Composure

Around the time I was going back to basics with Jasmin at home, I discovered the NOËLLE FLOYD Equestrian Masterclass membership through a riding friend. When I saw that the second course released was all about becoming a confident rider, I immediately signed up and binge-watched Annette Paterakis’ course, Netflix style.

It really felt like it was made for me. I immediately felt a weight lift off my shoulders, partly just because I knew for sure that I couldn’t possibly be the only rider dealing with big-time mental blocks if this course had been created. I work really closely with my trainer on my goals, program, training, and everything else riding related and have an open line of communication with her. I wanted to make sure before I went any further that she would be on board with me learning online and putting those techniques into practice in my lessons and at horse shows.

She looked through the program and was excited for me to be able to access what she saw as online clinics with some of the best in the business. She suggested that I start with methodically working through the confidence course, then move on to Archie Cox’s course on winning in the hunter ring since those would work most seamlessly with what she had in mind for me during the show season.

Want to become a more calm, confident rider? Become a Masterclass member today

I went back to Annette’s course and started going through the lessons one by one, really working through the physical exercises and journaling exercises in the workbook until each one sank in fully. My schedule as a professional equestrian photographer, college student, and rider is a little crazy, but it’s funny what you can make time for when it’s meaningful enough. Since the show season was halfway over, I was determined to get to a point where I could feel capable at shows.

Before lessons, I’d rewatch a segment from the Masterclass course and do the exercises at home and then the guided visualization in the tack room before riding. Jasmin planned to put me in the jumper ring at my next show to take the pressure of judging and good distances off the table, so we started practicing at home like a jumper. This was the magic combination: I started riding better, having an opinion in the saddle, and telling Leo exactly what I wanted. Even when I found a wonky distance, I was able to center myself and listen to my trainer and keep thinking forward instead of overthinking my mistake. Leo felt my newfound confidence and braver to the jumps than he had ever been in our home ring.

Taking My New Confidence for a Spin

Our first show as jumpers we started in the .80s to get a feel for going a little faster. We marched into the ring ready to win the class. Jasmin is smart like that… she knew that if I could feel good at a lower height, I’d be able to move up with confidence and get a little better each round. I went through the Masterclass course again before the show and listened to the guided visualization track on my phone before each round. We absolutely crushed the .80s, moved up to the .90s, and had great rounds. They weren’t perfect rounds, but they were fun. I started feeling like I knew how to ride. At that first show and a few shows following, Leo tried to slow to a few extra-spooky jumper jumps, but I was determined to jump every single jump one way or another, and that’s what we did (my trainer would want me to tell you that I also did this safely and smartly).

Leo, observing his winnings.

I actually thought we’d be in the jumper ring for the rest of the season and had given up on the hunters, but Jasmin saw how much mental progress I had made over those few months and knew that where Leo and I really wanted to be was the hunter ring. A few shows later, she told me she had entered me in two hunter divisions: one at 3 foot, which I normally jumped, and one at 3’3, which I had jumped a million times at home but had never shown at – in any division. Normally this would have freaked me out. Instead, I channeled the natural nerves I was feeling into excitement and a determination to put in my best rounds, regardless of the ribbons I went home with. I knew that my trainer believed I could do it, and my horse would do the job he was trained for as long as I rode with confidence and purpose. I sat down with Jasmin to talk over my plans and goals for the show, went home and journaled through one of Annette’s exercises, and got ready to re-enter the hunter ring.

Not only did we have zero refusals, I took home the blue ribbon in my first 3’3 hunter round and ribboned again in the second round! The jumps were bigger and spookier than any jumps I’d ever pointed Leo at in a show, but I rode them and Leo jumped every single one. He actually jumped enormous over all of them, but my confidence in my own ability gave him the confidence to get over the fences and do it in style.

At that horse show, we got enough points to qualify us for year end championships in the hunter divisions. We got to compete at year-ends back in the hunters, something that used to feel so daunting and difficult. We even got to the second round in our first ever hunter derby and ribboned in the 3’3 division, despite the fact that the jumps were set so large that a course designer actually had to come measure them to make sure they weren’t secretly 3’6 (something that would have previously terrified me). I continued to go back to Annette’s lessons throughout that show. I had also begun working through Archie’s course, which helped me understand judging in a new way and seriously upped my skills for the under saddle.

This Isn't the End, But It's a Great Start

This show season has been the biggest learning experience of my riding career. I’ve grown so much as a rider and bonded so much more closely with my horse. I now feel like Leo and I are a true team, and while we will still have plenty of difficulties and challenges ahead, I know that we can brave anything and continue to move up towards our goals. I’m so thankful that I have such a supportive trainer who believes in me and my horse, who never got frustrated or angry when things went wrong. She always knew I could do it, I just had to believe it too. Being able to learn from experts like Annette and Archie through their Masterclass courses is an invaluable resource: it’s the perfect complement to my training program. I feel like I have a personal mental skills coach and a hunter judge giving me top secret info before I enter the show ring.

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Written by Anasofia Vazquez 

Anasofia Vazquez is a professional equestrian photographer and college student in Southern California. Find her at anasofiavazquezphotography.com