Dealing with Dressage Test Anxiety

A judge and rider's perspective
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A judge and rider's perspective
Dealing with dressage test anxiety

It’s easier to be relaxed in the warmup ring than the show ring.

I was gratified recently to hear a former U.S. team rider tell of an experience early in her career. She was just riding in a field, practicing some movements, with all going well. Ok, she decided, I’ll run through the test. Suddenly her horse seemed to change, from loose and relaxed to stiff and tense.

I often hear myself saying, “I always win the warm-up and then something changes over in the competition ring.” What I am really saying is that I am much more relaxed in the warm-up ring. When I change my focus for the show ring, I cause my horse to change as well. Sometimes, when I’m revving the engine in the show ring it motivates my horse, but also sometimes the changes there are not for the better.

I recall a similar experience to the one above. I was riding in a lesson instructed by a friend who is also a judge, working toward a show where I was planning to ride Intermediaire 1. Everything was really perking along, and she suddenly said, “This is good. Why don’t you run through the test?” All the good stuff from the previous half hour turned to dust. We both called a halt midway through the test and started to laugh. We knew what had happened – I KNEW better. But it still happened.

Sometimes, the instant you hear the word “test,” you tense up.

Even people with extensive show miles forget that their horse doesn’t understand when they change their demeanor. The horse goes on alert, up periscope instead of soft and round. Of course he does. Your muscle tension is telling him something very different from what it was telling him while you were warming up.

Is this simple “test-taking anxiety,” something many people never get over from grade school? Is it performance anxiety or fear of being out in front of people, like speaker anxiety?

Is the problem with the word “test” itself? What would happen if we no longer used the word “test” to describe what we do in the arena? What else could we call it? What do other athletes call what they do in competition?

Ice skaters do a “skate” when they glide out on the ice alone. Gymnasts do an “exercise” or a “beam” or a “vault.” Divers do, well, a “dive.” Field athletes do a “put” or a “throw” or a “jump.”

How about we erase the word “test” from our vocabulary and replace it with “ride.” Would that work? I can visualize the top of a U.S. Equestrian sheet saying First Level Ride 1, instead of First Level Test 1. (Note that the U.S. Equestrian Federation changed its name last month to U.S. Equestrian, in case you thought that last sentence looked a little wonky -- will the abbreviation now be USEq or USE instead of USEF?)

Whatever works for you. If you’ve noticed that you’re sitting on a different horse going around the show ring before the bell than you were 5 minutes earlier in the warm-up ring well, you’re probably also a different rider. Smile. Take a deep breath. Look up. Relax. And enjoy your nice horse.