Battling Nerves

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She has just entered the ring or show pen and it’s her moment to shine: or at least it should be. She has worked incredibly hard to get here and there’s no reason in the world that she shouldn’t take the top prize…no reason other than a bad case of nerves is about to intrude and sabotage her blue ribbon.

The good news is that almost everyone experiences “the jitters” and a student can learn to make them work for instead of against her.

Legendary barrel racer Martha Josey, who has qualified for the National Finals Rodeo for four consecutive decades, has a winning method for combatting her own nerves that she has passed on to hundreds of students.

“I always tell my students right before the event, if they’re getting nervous to get off the horse, walk around and maybe sing the national anthem. Do something entirely different. And sure, everybody may think you’re crazy, but after you win, they’ll be doing it, too!

“I also get off my horse and visualize the perfect pattern,” she adds. “Don’t think about things that could go wrong. Instead, think positively. Walk the pattern and imagine how right it can be.”

Josey also advises students to keep themselves occupied by cleaning their horse’s feet, grooming or taking out a notepad to write down exactly what they want to accomplish in their run.

“Riders need to know that everybody else is just as nervous as they are and to learn how to make the adrenaline work for them,” she says. “Let it help instead of hinder.”

It’s important for riders to remember the means to the end, counsels Josey. “Someone else isn’t paying their entry fee, they are. Whether they win or lose, it’s not the end of the world. Tell them to go back to the practice pen, work some more. The more confident they are, the less nervous they’ll be.

“After all, they don’t get nervous in their jobs. Have them think of the competition like a job. And remind them that everyone is going to lose some time.”

Milda Minter, 2000 Trainer of the Year for the Paso Fino Horse Association, uses a unique approach to divert beginner riders’ attention away from their nervousness. At her Heritage Farm in Lexington, N.C., Minter teaches varied levels of riders who choose this smaller breed with the lateral gaits.

“First, put them on a low-impact, or safe horse, and relate the riding to something else they do like bicycling,” she says. “I explain that if they sit unbalanced on a bike, they’ll fall over and I ask them to put a little pressure in the stirrups like they would on bike pedals, so they don’t lose them. With a beginner, moving the focus from the horse to something that’s totally unrelated, makes them think, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad after all.’ ”

Like many of her fellow trainers, Minter emphasizes ground work with all of her students, making them comfortable with the horses so when she starts a nervous beginner on the lunge line, she can say to that rider: “Make the horse listen to you.”

“The rider then takes responsibility and gains confidence,” explains Minter.

Al Dunning of Scottsdale. Ariz., coaches riders in reining, cutting and working cow horses. “I always tell them, ‘Ride exactly like you do at home. You’re doing it for you, not for the judge, not for anyone else. Focus on you and your horse and don’t do anything different for the show than you do when you practice. Remember, also, that you’re surrounded by friends; so don’t imagine that people will laugh at you.’

“That calms them down,” he says, “and takes the anticipatory anxiety from them. They can think, as they should: ‘I want to do this, I practiced for this. At this moment, I wouldn’t want to be any other place.’ ”

After a life as a cowboy, clinician Charles Wilhelm of Castro Valley, Calif., studied dressage for three years and now teaches horse and rider teams of all disciplines. He’s often referred to as a master of “Western dressage.” Wilhelm is convinced that nervousness comes from a feeling of not having control.

“Maybe they’ve had bad experiences,” he says, “like getting bucked off. Many of my clients are 35 to 50, and the ‘mortality’ thing kicks in.”

Wilhelm guides the owner and rider through his “natural and classic” ground exercises that enable the human to gain control even when the horse misbehaves. “When the student is riding, and the horse acts up, he grabs the reins and chokes,” says Wilhelm. “That agitates the horse and adds fuel to the fire.” One Wilhelm exercise involves a rider picking up a rein and then moving the horse’s hindquarters. “It’s tough for a horse to bolt when you do that, plus, it applies nervous energy to a useful exercise. The horse learns an aid even while it’s distracted.”

He finds that some hunters and jumpers who come to him “exhibit emotions that should have been taken care of in their foundation. These riders need to become accustomed to different distractions so they are not at the horse’s whim. That, too, builds confidence.”

Clinician Clinton Anderson of Sterling, Ill., teaches his brand of “Down Under Horsemanship,” and shares with Wilhelm the belief that control—or lack thereof—is at the root of nervousness.

“Nervousness and fear are the same thing to a certain extent, and occur when your brain says you can’t control the outcome of a situation.” Anderson affirms that just telling a rider “not to be scared” is ineffective. “I tell them to listen to the fear and respect it as something that’s trying to save their life. The circumstances that make them fearful, however, need to be changed.

“Give such riders an exercise that will teach them to gain control,” says Anderson. “Once they gain the horse’s respect, then they develop confidence…the opposite of fear. It’s one thing to just talk about losing fear, but once you give them tools and techniques to gain control, they master that fear.”

Veteran Grand Prix show jumping rider and trainer Susan Hutchison, of Sunland, Calif., has seen and helped her share of nervous riders and she has a different theory. “It makes no difference whether they’re a junior or amateur: nervous riders are nervous for different reasons. Amateur riders are usually more nervous about getting hurt, while kids are sometimes fearless. Juniors, I think, can be nervous due to lack of knowledge.

“Also, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll be nervous when you continue to try and do what you’re being asked to do. If you’ve had a fall or injury and you don’t know why it happened,” she says, “that will stay with you, but if you understand the reasons, you’re not apt to be as fearful.”

Hutchison is also convinced that someone applying too much pressure on a rider, such as a parent or trainer, can exacerbate nerves. “The rider is there to have fun and needs to remember why they’re showing in the first place. Pushing someone harder than they want, or should be, isn’t wise. So, it’s okay to back down.”

A rider who is overmounted can be filled with trepidation. Hutchison cites one client, a junior, who was “really afraid. I determined that she didn’t think she could stop her horse. So we worked on that, and once she had control and knew it, she’d do anything I asked her.

“Sometimes, the little ones (very young riders) won’t talk. It’s helpful to encourage them to express their emotions,” she says.

“The biggest thing is to make sure they’re prepared for what they’re doing,” says three-day eventer, Amy Tryon, who has just started coaching a few riders. “Make sure the level they choose to ride at is the level they should be riding at. Make sure they do the appropriate work before competing. I like to see them competently school a level above what they’re doing at an event.”

If uncontrolled nerves continue to impact performance regularly, and other causes appear to have been eliminated, many trainers either encourage their toughest cases to seek the professional guidance of a sport psychologist or discuss the possibility of finding another activity. When the sport ceases to be fun, a rider should figure out why.