show riding

Have show nerves taken the fun out of competitive riding? These tips can help you return to the ring with a smile.

Megan hasn’t been to a horse show in a very long time. She never regretted her decision to stop competing when the stress started to drastically outweigh the fun. She always loved working with her horse, training, taking lessons, and paying careful attention to all the details that went into preparing for a show. Over time, though, it began to feel like she and her horse were going straight from the trailer into a pressure cooker whenever they got to the show grounds.

Not only was success fleeting, but the more success Megan and her horse had, the more pressure she felt. Ribbons, points and “the next show” always seemed to take precedence over having fun and being happy with her and her horse’s development and progress together. Although Megan couldn’t quite put her finger on when and where things changed, or why, the only solution that felt right was quitting altogether.

Getting Back Into It

Now it’s ten years later, and Megan is in the barn talking to some friends about an upcoming horse show they’re attending. Smiling, she is almost startled by the feeling flooding through her: she wants to start showing again! She feels inspired to take her new, athletic, super-fabulous horse Leo to a local show and have some fun. How exciting, she thinks. We could work towards some new goals, go ‘off campus’ with everyone to a new place we’ve never been, and show off all the terrific progress Leo and I have made recently – it sounds so great, I want to go! As Megan starts to reel with all the happy possibilities, her thoughts suddenly come to screeching halt as a key question occurs to her: Is it possible for a horse show to be fun?

The answer is yes. For someone like Megan, or even someone relatively new to showing, specific attitudes, strategies and mental skills can help make the experience an enjoyable one. The following are some of the very best ideas that you (and Megan!) can use to get back to showing while taking pleasure in the process.

Revisit Your Best Memories

In order to reawaken your belief that horse shows can be fun, think back to the times when you enjoyed yourself most while competing. Where were you? What were you focused on? What did you enjoy the most? What goals did you and your horse accomplish?

Rest assured that no matter how long ago or how big or small the memories feel, taking the time to remember these experiences will be helpful. Think through them in detail and jot down the times, places, people, horses and circumstances highlighted by your memory. This is a fantastic exercise to get yourself centred on the idea that showing can be a tremendously good time. The other benefit of this exercise is that you’ll be reminded of details you can plan for and add into your new horse show routine.

Let’s say you remember playing cards with barn mates while waiting for your classes, going on trail rides around the show grounds when your classes were over, or giving your horse a hug and a sugar cube as you came out of the ring – all are examples of fun and relaxing things you can integrate into your routine at your next show.

Focus on Performance

goals Horse shows can often get you obsessing about the blues – as in blue ribbons! Ribbons, championships and year-end awards are all examples of outcome goals, things that result from competition, evaluation and comparison with other riders and horses. Setting performance goals for each show can be an excellent way to ease the potential stress of focusing on the “outcome” (always remember that results are ultimately out of your control).

A performance goal focuses on you or your horse’s progress with a particular mental or physical skill. For example, let’s say you set a performance goal for your next show to keep your eyes up and ahead of you during each ride. You can come out of the ring and acknowledge the fact that your eyes were up for much of the class, and notice how it helped you and your horse’s overall performance. This goal gave you something to plan for, reflect on, and feel good about after each ride, no matter if you won the class or not, got eighth, or received no ribbon at all. Performance goals will keep you in the driver’s seat regarding your effort and progress, and allow you to see moments of success in the midst of many potential distractions.

Appreciate the Journey

Brainstorming all the reasons you want to go to a show can help you uncover your core motivation and help you trust that enjoyment will be part of the experience. Someone like Megan may not have taken the time to appreciate the little things she loves about showing, and this process can both refresh and remind her of what she truly enjoys about competing. As you create a motivation statement specifically for competing, include all the things you do in the days and weeks leading up to the show in order to prepare yourself and your horse.

To create a motivation statement, follow these steps:

1. Ask yourself the following questions:

• What specific things do you love about showing?
• At your best, what type of competitor are you?
• What positive things happen when you prepare for a show?
• What skills, qualities and abilities does showing bring out in you?

2. Give yourself about 30 minutes to write down any answers that occur to you, being careful not to censor yourself. No matter how big or how small, everything is important.

3. Step away from your brainstorming notes for one or two days.

4. When you come back to what you’ve written, choose the top two or three items that are so important they seem to jump off of the page at you.

5. Using these specific items, write a short and dynamic statement or motto that encapsulates why you compete. Remember that it needs to make sense to you alone, so use powerful language that makes you smile. An acronym is also a good idea – be creative and have fun! Examples include: “Facing new goals = fabulous, fun focus!” or “Our teamwork brings me joy; it is thrilling to come through when it counts.”

6. Place your motivation statement in strategic places where you will see it often during your training and competition routine and be reminded of your passion to show. Write it on an index card and place it inside your tack trunk or in your coat or boot bag. Jot it in your training log or on your calendar – the ideas are endless!

Remembering your best horse show memories, setting performance goals and uncovering your core motivation to show are all ways to ensure your return to the competition ring is fun as well as successful. Enjoy!

Tonya Johnston, MA, is an equestrian mental skill s coach with a master’s degree in sport psychology. A hunter/jumper horseshow competitor herself, her clients have attained success at every level, from local to international competitions. Tonya’s new book Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills to Be Happy and Successful with Your Horse is available through and as an e-book. She conducts “Mental Skill s for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Contact Tonya at 510-418-3664,, find her on Facebook or Twitter