Picture this scenario: You are at a dressage show and at some point, whether it is during your warm-up or test, you feel as though things just aren't working. Either you can't get your body to respond as it does at home or your dressage horse doesn't respond as he usually does. If you feel like the last two or three years of intensive development in your riding, focus on dressage training and the relationship with your horse have disappeared, then you and your horse might have show nerves.
Excitement, pressure and dressage show anxiety are factors that change a dressage rider's relationship with her dressage horse. It's the same change you might also feel when riding on an extra-windy day or in a clinic with a famous trainer. You are trying to have a normal dressage ride, but it feels as if someone has secretly exchanged your horse for one who is more sensitive, reactive and inexplicably more difficult. Likewise, it is easy to imagine that your horse isn't quite sure if it is really you in the saddle.
These problems can be addressed so you can have a more relaxed, purposeful ride. Using proven methods for identifying your reaction to fear, thinking positively, relaxing the body, breathing properly, watching successful rides and using both sides of your brain, you are much more likely to perform in a way that reflects your horse's actual ability:
Identify Your Reaction to Fear
Step 1: Recognizing that you are feeling fear is an important key to dealing with it. When you feel fear, your bodies reacts in a flight/fight mode. The autonomic nervous system excretes hormones, such as adrenaline, which aids you in certain dangerous situations.
While some adrenaline can produce helpful bodily reactions in the context of dressage riding, it also can be unhelpful, creating rapid heart rate, nausea, diarrhea, dry mouth, shortness of breath and a decrease in mental acuity. Your individual reaction can involve any or all of these conditions.
The best way to assess how you react to adrenaline is to imagine how you feel going around the dressage ring when the whistle blows. Each person has a different reaction to fear, but what is important is identifying your own reactions.
What you think and imagine and how you have prepared for show nerves can help you turn that nervous excitement into positive results in your riding.
Create Positive Thoughts
Step 2: The body does not differentiate between what is real and what is imagined. Thus, what you are thinking and feeling is reflected through your body. It isn't helpful to go around the arena doing all the movements you planned before heading down centerline and yet thinking to yourself: This is horrible. I can't do this. My horse is going to run out of the arena. I can't sit the trot. I don't belong at this level, etc. Some people even take these negative thoughts into a more general experience of themselves: I can't do this. I am worthless, I'm horrible. While many people are thinking similar thoughts, this way of approaching the test is unhelpful and can even be damaging to one's sense of self.
Instead, it will help you to relax if you can change these thoughts to: What is the best way to make a straight line down centerline given the layout of this arena? I am on my way toward the Grand Prix, and this is just one of the many steps to get there. My horse and I are not perfect; this is about the relationship I have with this beautiful animal, etc.
These more positive thoughts will help decrease the adrenaline secreted in your body and will help you breath deeper, get more oxygen to your extremities and think and move with your horse with more clarity and harmony. It is important to explore what the most helpful thoughts are for you individually, before you ever get to the show.
Develop Positive Muscle Memory
Step 3: One powerful tool to help you relax involves developing a muscle memory that you can associate with active relaxation (see "Muscle Memory Facts" below). For example, it is important to remember a time when you were on your horse and felt the best you have ever felt. You can attach a word to that memory and bring yourself back to that feeling through the repetition of that pinnacle word. One student I work with uses the words "silly putty" because they remind her of the full body feeling of being in total relaxation and connection with her horse. That memory can be accessed whenever she feels tense or ineffective.
Another student I teach uses the words "source energy." She studies yoga, and this is a similar moment in that practice. Whenever you are feeling that the riding isn't going well, repeat your pinnacle word, and bring your body back into this muscle memory or centered place. This is a tool that many of the best athletes use in all sports.
Remember: Don't dwell on the imperfections of your ride. Imperfection is part of the art of dressage. Like most involved with performance arts, you are never finished with the process of training. The world's top riders might be coming close to perfection in their scores, but the paradox of dressage is that as most riders strive for perfection each movement involves the imperfect.
Negative thoughts will likely cause tension in your body and all your training will be hard to access. These thoughts are natural, but it is important to let them go. You might even imagine the thoughts actually leaving your body. Again, remind yourself what your body feels like when you are at complete balance and harmony with your horse. Repeat your body memory word so you can return to that feeling of centeredness, know that if you have done it before you can do it now, and rebalance your horse to the best of your ability given the complexities in that moment. Remember to breathe, drop your shoulders, let go of negative tension and call on your core muscles to recenter you and your horse.
Step 4: Another way to ride to the best of your ability is through making sure you are breathing normally or fully. In addition to thinking positively, you can change your breathing patterns and, as a result, can change the chemical process in your body. That is, when you breathe deeply, your body is less likely to be in fight/flight mode. Instead, tell your body to be in relaxation mode. Thus, more oxygen will reach your muscles, skin and brain; endorphins will be released, and you will be able to relax and focus better on the test and the needs of your horse.
One method of learning to breathe fully is to place your hands on your diaphragm and watch them rise as you breathe in (this is easiest to do lying down). When you are nervous about something, your breathing can be
shallow and the air seems to stop at your chest. Learning to breathe deeply allows the air to move all the way into your lungs so that your diaphragm rises.
Watch Great Rides
Step 5: If you repeatedly watch your favorite rider in person or on video, you will find that your body will attempt to mimic him or her.
Recently, neuroscientists have discovered "mirror" neurons in the brain that activate when you watch someone do something that you are actively learning about. Thus, if you watch your favorite rider, you are actually developing your own riding.
By combining images of your favorite rider with those of your riding associated with your pinnacle word, you will find yourself riding more successfully and, consequently, making those positive images a reality. When you are using this technique, you are employing mostly right-brain functions (this, of course, is a simplified explanation, but you get the idea).
Use Your Full Brain
Step 6: A major reason these tips help conquer anxiety during your ride is because they help you use both the left and right sides of your brain (a full-brained, approach).
Especially when nervous, most of us think only with one side of our brains. When we think too much about what we should be doing, we ride from a conscious set of rules (left brain), and it is difficult to achieve the movement we desire. However, if we use only right-brain thinking and imagine only what the best trot feels like, we will not prepare for the next movement. Using both sides of the brain allows us to prepare for the next movement without losing the quality of what we are doing in the moment.
So the next time you feel anxious or ineffective in the saddle, think of the six steps—imagine how your body feels when you are riding at your best, use your pinnacle word, breathe deeply, think positively, use your full brain—and you will be able to relax and show your horse to the best of his ability.
This article was originally printed in the April 2011 issue of Dressage Today magazine.
Jane Karol, Psy. D., is a dressage trainer and instructor to Grand Prix and a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. A child and adolescent psychotherapist, her Harvard post-doctoral fellowship was in Child Neuropsychology. In 2004, she founded The Bear Spot Foundation to benefit equine-assisted psychotherapy (bearspotfoundation.org) at her Bear Spot Farm in Concord, Massachusetts. She also hosts the Children of the Americas Dressage Invitational (CADI) and runs “freestyle” fundraisers to benefit this unique foundation.