Nervous at Horse Shows

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Q: My horse gets nervous at competitions. As soon as I go into the show ring to jump, he gets wound up and anxious. He speeds through the lines and runs out of them. He isn’t like this at home, just in the show ring. It doesn’t help that I get very nervous. When I compete on the flat, he’s perfect. I’ve worked on control and speed at home, but at the show, all bets are off. What can I do to help both of us calm down?

A: Horses don’t get nervous-they simply focus on other things. “Nervousness” in horses is actually fear, but not the fear you’re most likely feeling. A horse doesn’t care if he jumps all the jumps or forgets the course, but he is fearful if he thinks something around those jumps is going to eat him; after all, he’s a prey animal. Therefore, it’s very important to try to expose your horse to as many things as possible that he might encounter at a show, including flower boxes, rolltops and brush.

Hunter Show Horse

When you get to a show, you need to prepare him to jump the exact same way you do at home. If you know how he acts at home with a specific warm-up program, it’s important that you replicate that warm-up as closely as possible at the show, with the possibility of it being slightly abbreviated. It’s very easy to lose your horse’s attention at shows, so you want to make the most of every minute and fence you have in the warm-up.

Some horses need to go in, jump a fence or two, and go in and show. Others need to get out of their stalls and chill out ringside for a bit before they are ready to get down to business.

In addition, it’s imperative that you are schooling at home one level or height up from where you are competing. This will allow you to be confident and comfortable in the show-ring, knowing that you are not overfacing yourself or your horse-and that confidence will come through in your jumping round.

Many riders have heard over and over again about the power of visualization, and it should not be underestimated. Picturing exactly how you will ride each fence, each corner and every lead change will reinforce the course in your mind and boost your confidence.

The way a rider breathes (or doesn’t) affects a horse more than many people realize. Holding your breath because you’re anxious leads to tight muscles; this tension is then channeled to the horse. I teach my students to specifically plan where they will take a big, calming breath. For example, taking a deep breath on the long ride down to a single oxer will encourage them not to rush. Figuring out where you will take these calming breaths in your course creates time to steady and slow your horse as he jumps around.

Another thing I encourage a lot of adult amateurs to do is to take their horses off the farm more. On these field trips, you can try to re-create the show-ring atmosphere, even if it’s just at a friend’s farm. Horses learn by repetition, so the more you can take him off the property and simulate a show while working on your own visualization and breathing, the better.

Finally, you need to find what works for you before you enter the ring. For some riders, watching the last few rounds before their trip is the key to making them feel comfortable. For other riders, simply going to a quiet area, away from family, friends and other distractions, is the key to perfecting their visualization.

As you walk into the ring, focus and remember that you and your horse are a team. Being aware of what your horse needs and where you are on course will help create time and give your horse the calming, confident ride he needs.

NORI SCHEFFEL grew up riding with Pony Club before moving to A-circuit hunters. She moved to California in 1988, where she competed in both the hunter and equitation rings. She has a BHSI instructor certification from Yorkshire Riding Centre in England and has owned and trained out of Scheffelridge Farm in Paris, Ky., for the last 17 years.


This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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