en-time Olympian Ian Millar is well-known for anchoring the Canadian team in countless FEI Nations Cups™ and World Championships, where he knows exactly how to “turn it on” when his team is counting on him. “Captain Canada” has found the secrets to peak performance and his unprecedented show record speaks for itself. We teamed up with Ian Millar to create his first ever digital masterclass for Insider about the fundamentals of jumping for competition, and he believes everyone can develop what it takes to be successful under pressure.
An anchor rider — the final rider to compete in the team order — is typically chosen to fill that role because of a combination of their skills, reliability, and ability to put in solid, consistent rounds even when the stakes are high. Anchoring a team often means riding under tremendous pressure, especially if another member of the team has had a less than ideal round.
Though not always the case, the anchor rider is often the most experienced rider on the team, and always a rider who the team believes can be relied upon to bring home the win. Anchor riders have developed a set of skills, both in and out of the saddle, that help them stay calm, collected, and high-performing, regardless of the situation. These skills apply to every competitive rider at every level, which is why Ian teaches how to ride like an anchor rider, even if you aren’t one. And when he dons that famous cowboy hat and takes us to school, we’re inclined to listen.
Here are five lessons that he’s learned from his career in team competition that will seriously up your game at any level, in any discipline.
1. Find that perfect level of pressure where you perform your best.
Some riders, like Ian, come to life when the pressure is on. Take a situation where the fate of the team sits solely on their shoulders, throw in a few hundred screaming fans, and you have a recipe for magic. For others, the pressure can feel overwhelming, and with the shaky legs and sweaty palms comes a brain-wide short-circuit. Anchor riders know exactly what environment they need to perform, and they manage it like pressure-ninjas.
What Ian has learned over a lifetime of competing is that it takes a little bit of trial and error to find what he calls the “optimum pressure level.” How can you find yours? Take a journal to your lessons and competitions for the next month and, after each ride, quickly jot down what the situation was like, how the pressure felt, what your physical response was, and how it made you feel. Eventually, you’ll be able to find that perfect level of pressure where you can embody your inner Captain Canada and perform at your peak potential. Once you know what that is, tinker with your environment to help produce that same feeling every single time.2. Don’t get distracted.
Anchor riders have plenty of time to get distracted, nervous, or tired — they have the longest time to wait around and to let the tension build. Sometimes it’s easier to just warm up and march right into the ring before any nervousness sets in, but when you’re anchoring, you walk the course with everyone else, then spend a good amount of time watching and waiting.
The best anchors spend this time wisely, and they view it as an opportunity to strategize, have a thorough warmup, and get mentally in the zone before stepping in the ring. They’ve eaten well, hydrated, rested, warmed up and stretched their own body. They’ve learned the course, planned their strategy, and done visualization exercises. They’re confident in their skills because they’ve practiced at home, and they’re excited to get on course and put in the best round they can.3. Act like an athlete — because you are one.
Horse shows are usually long, physically demanding days. The conditions can be challenging, too; sometimes the weather is extremely hot, sometimes it’s very cold, and often we’re out in the elements for many hours. Competition requires physical and mental stamina, no matter what level you’re competing.
We often forget to treat ourselves as athletes, which is what we really are. No matter what level you ride, what you see in the mirror, or what your goals are, just like an athlete in any other sport, we must learn to manage our physical bodies right (preach). That means getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and making sure we’re as fit as we can be. Sure, have a glass of wine and socialize, you deserve it — but don’t let it get you off track from why you’re really there.
If you manage the physical, the mental gets a whole lot easier. Goodness knows it’s hard to stay focused when you’ve had three hours of sleep.
4. While you’re at it, eat like an athlete, too.
How often do you see riders at a show throwing back a black coffee and downing a few bites of a muffin before a morning class? Probably a lot more often than you see a professional swimmer or tennis player doing the same. Since equestrian competitions come with more distractions and prep time than most other sports, we’re often rushed or busy, which can lead to, well, questionable diet choices. But those choices matter, and a lack of energy or low blood sugar due to eating the wrong thing, or not eating enough, can affect our physical stamina, mental concentration, and nerves. That is a terrible reason to lose a class, and the voice of Ian Millar will haunt you forever if you go off course because you didn’t eat breakfast.
Small, frequent meals on competition days keep blood sugar steady while avoiding feeling too full or heavy to ride. Focusing on fresh, natural foods like fruit, vegetables, and healthy protein and avoiding sugar and caffeine is usually a safe bet to keep you fueled like a true athlete. And always make sure to drink plenty of water, or healthy electrolyte replacements like coconut water, throughout the day. A lot of riders forget to stay adequately hydrated, and this has a big impact on performance.5. Walk the course like a boss.
Walking the course is something we all do, regardless of level or what type of class we’re riding in. But have you thought much about how you walk your course, and why? It’s time to change up your walking routine and walk like an anchor rider.
Plan enough time to walk your course three full times, focusing on a different element each time. You should know your course backward and forward before you ever go into the course walk, so check the posted official maps first. Walking the course is not a time to memorize where to go; it’s a time for strategic thinking.
WALK #1: First, walk the entire course, focusing on counting strides between jumps so that you know how the course is set and how each line and turn will ride. Walk from the back of each jump to the base of the next, making sure to account one total stride for landing and takeoff. If you’re not used to walking a course, ask your trainer or an experienced riding buddy to walk each course with you for your next few shows, or practice walking courses with them at home so you can really get the hang of what it feels like to walk strides.
Now, think about how the course is designed: is the course set for an average strided horse, or is it set short or more forward? Are some lines tight while some lines will require more of a gallop? Understand how the course was designed and the pace that your particular horse will need through each line, turn, and approach.
WALK #2: Next, walk the entire course again, this time focusing on the exact track you would like to take. Now that you understand how the course has been set, you can plan out your specific strategy and walk the exact turns and approaches you’ll take when riding. Plan where you’ll turn, where you’ll cut in or bend out, and where you’ll take a straight approach or slice jumps on an angle to save time. It’s important to walk the exact track you’ll be riding so that you leave little to chance once you’re in the saddle.
WALK #3: Finally, walk the course one last time with an awareness of your surroundings. Look for areas that may be spooky and might require a stronger ride, like a jump facing directly into the video screen or a particularly shadowy area of the ring. Predict what your horse will notice in the ring so you can already have a plan in place if they get distracted or spooky on course.
Now you’re ready to ride like an anchor rider. Go ahead, put the pressure on, you can take it!
Feature image by Meghan Bacso.