"Psycho" Horse Show Preparation

Try a "psycho clinic" to boost your competition confidence this horse-showing season.

One of my riders was on course at an important competition. She was in the air, over a jump, when - boom - out of nowhere, she gets hit in the chest by this massive Mallard duck! It hits her, falls on the ground, freaked her out and made her forget the rest of the course.

That young rider had worked her whole life to get to that day, and what took it away from her? A distraction. A frustration. A duck.

Have you ever felt distracted, frustrated, confused or disappointed while riding, especially in a competition? Ducks are not always feathery. Your horse can be a duck or your own confidence (or lack thereof) under pressure.

A duck is anything that takes your greatness away. If you can learn how to focus, keep your head clear and develop good self-confidence, it is possible for you to “duck” the things that can affect your performance.

How many of you have ridden really well at home, and then gone to a competition and didn’t do as well? When pressure goes up, our ability goes down.

But if we get good at handling pressure, our performance will go up. It’s amazing how much we work on our position or our horse’s ability, but we ignore the mental aspects of our riding. When good physical ability comes together with good mental focus, that’s when greatness happens.

What to Do
You have to train your mind. To do that with my riders, I use what I call “psycho clinics.”

Can you ride with clarity through clutter? That’s what I’m looking to work on with a psycho-clinic exercise. This exercise has been designed to create increasing clutter in your mind in order to teach you how to block out what’s irrelevant as you ride.

The exercise works on the overload principle you find in sports cross-training - making the practices harder than the competition, so that when the competition comes, it feels easy. It’s a trick to increasing your self-confidence.

As a coach, I use this exercise in individual and group lessons. But it is more fun in a group, and being watched by other riders certainly increases the pressure - or clutter - which is what I want.

Perfect your position for hunt seat equitation and give yourself a leg up on the competition. AQHA judge Don Burt tells what he looks for in the show ring in AQHA’s “Hunt Seat Equitation” DVD.

If you don’t have a trainer, you can try this exercise at home with one person on the ground calling out directions. Get a group together and take turns being the “coach.”

If you are an instructor and want to try it on your riders, don’t tell them the steps in advance. The element of surprise will add pressure and increase the impact of the lesson.

In these lessons, I don’t worry about anything but the rider’s mind, nothing physical at all, not position, leads, nothing else.

The “Steps” of a Psycho Clinic
In the center of your arena, arrange eight poles on the ground in a zigzag at 90-degree angles to one another. Have each pole clearly numbered with standards or cones on one side only, so half the time the riders can’t see the numbers. That’s part of the difficulty.

The basic challenge at each step is to call out a random “course” over the poles so the rider must create her own last-minute plan to ride it.

For advanced riders, you can use jumps in place of ground poles. In groups, I take all my riders through the steps as a group, but I don’t necessarily wait for everyone to successfully perform each step before going on.

Step 1 - Warm-up. As your rider trots or jogs, call out random pole numbers in sets of three, such as “6, 5, 2.” The rider must go over them in order.

Step 2 - Surprise. Depending on your riders, stay at the trot or jog or ask for the canter or lope in these higher steps.

As the rider approaches the poles call out instead something like “odd, odd, even, odd.” Be sure that you ask for more than three poles. The rider now must remember the pattern and find a pole to fit the course.

This is the first “duck.” The rider was comfortable after Step 1, thinking, “I got it; this is easy,” and you take that comfort away and add a little pressure. It’s a tiny bit of show jitters.

As a coach, I expect my riders to forget the course at any step. This exercise is not hard because the jumps are high or you have to count strides: It’s hard because you have to concentrate.

Before you head into the hunt seat equitation show ring, make sure you know how to perform maneuvers that may be asked of you. AQHA’s “Hunt Seat Equitation” DVD shows you techniques for success in the show ring.

Step 3 - Challenge. Now call out two numbers, such as “4, 24”; the first is the number of poles they have to go over, the second is the total those numbers must add up to.

Now the rider has to think in a pinch and come up with a last-minute plan. If I call out a high second number, she better stay toward the upper end of the zigzag, and vice-versa.

We’re creating performance anxiety in a lesson, so we can face it better in a competition.

Step 4 - Challenge again. Next, I add a new number, like: “3, 4, 24.” In this, No. 3 is the first pole to go over, four is the number of poles to go over after that, and 24 is what they all add up to.

And here I add a new rule: You are not allowed to go outside the zigzag. At this point, some riders will tend to circle the zigzag, buying time to think. I take that away - you can’t go around the ends, you have to go back and forth over the zigzag. I want to point the rider toward becoming automatic and self-confident.

Step 5 - Final challenge. The last course I throw at them is something like: “2, 3, 22, even, odd, odd.” They start with pole No. 2, then go over three more, and they all add up to 22; but the last three poles must follow the even, odd, odd pattern.

The difficulty is that now the options are taken away, and the rider is forced to take specific fences to make it work. It’s even more pressure.

Have Fun
One point of this exercise is for me to call courses riders cannot do. In a sense, I want to create failure. Failure teaches pressure, distraction and confidence and helps us understand what challenges are. We learn the most when things don’t always go our way, and psycho clinics are developed so they do not go your way.

This exercise is hard. We work on our physical riding, but the only route to greatness is to develop good mental skills, too.

Set the steps up and have fun, challenge yourself. Become that rider who, when the pressure goes up, says, “Bring it on. I eat pressure for breakfast.”

Daniel Stewart is a coach and author of books such as “Pressure Proof Your Riding.”