Practice Like You Mean It

Simulate a horse-showing competition at home to improve your nerves and your horse's reactions.

Think about the way you practice with your horse. You probably ride with less intensity and face fewer negative consequences if you make a mistake. Use these tips when you practice, and they'll translate better to your show-ring experience.

    • If you ride with other competitors or if your trainer has other clients you compete against, set up competitive situations at home. If you ride alone, invite some friends for a mock show.
    • Outside distractions can change how your horse responds to you and, in turn, how you handle problems during competition. If he's not used to banners flapping from the fence, hang some in your practice pen. Playing a radio helps him get used to loud noises while he performs.
    • If your horse spooks at cattle or other horses, take him somewhere he can get comfortable around the other animals. Knowing your horse is "bomb proof" helps you keep your nerves in check.

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    • Intra-barn rivalries will make everyone step up a notch. Develop a situation similar to vying for positions on a varsity sports team. Coaches often choose their team based on who practices the hardest and best. Even though players are on the same team, rivalries develop for the top spots.
    • A mock show at your barn can help you pinpoint your mental shortcomings. Have your trainer or someone else from the barn judge. Similar to a football scrimmage, it allows you to become more familiar with the areas that need work.

If the pressure of being critiqued causes your nerves to surface, you can find the best way to deal with it. Pay close attention to your hot buttons - those things that set you off and blow your concentration, like what people say before you compete or how you react to things around you. Finding a way to deal with these feelings at home and practicing those techniques makes handling them at the competition easier.

Mental and physical fatigue can compromise athletes' skill levels at the end of a game. To counter that, many people practice hardest at the end of a workout to build stamina. If you aren't a strong finisher, practice being at your best for longer periods of time. If you can extend your peak performance, you'll have an advantage over competitors who use all their energy right at the beginning of the competition.

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At home, concentrate on all the right things - feeling your horse, using your body. Once you enter the arena, your focus might drift to things you can't control - whether the judge will look at you at the right time, what the horse in front of you will do.

Teach yourself to focus on the same things in the competition as in practice. For example, a basketball coach hired referees for a scrimmage and asked them to pellet the players with bad calls. That forced the athletes to move on and focus on the things that they could control, rather than letting the bad calls distract them.

Your horse might not need as much practice as you do. Pull an older horse out of the pasture or borrow one that's used to something else to keep from souring your own horse. Granted, the substitute won't perform as well, but that, too, will be a good test for your nerves.