angle-left Control Your Fears to Succeed

Control Your Fears to Succeed

Three top non-pro riders advise other competitors to 'just breathe' to face the arena with more confidence.

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(This article originally appeared in the Journal in 2018. To read more about controlling nerves, see the January 2019 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal. Subscribe now at


By Julie J. Bryant

No matter how well prepared you are, no matter how well-trained your horse, there will come a time when your performance will go south in the arena. A distraction from the rail. A tack failure. A bad step. They’re all potential factors causing a good performance to go bad – and fast. You can count on it.

Unexpected and certainly unwelcome, these hiccups require recovery techniques determined long before competitors arrive on the show grounds. For contestants in any competition, the most important weapon in their recovery arsenal rests right between their ears – their minds.

"Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude,” said Thomas Jefferson.

Consider these non-professionals. Paula Wood, a former school teacher, is an earner of more than $2.4 million in cutting horse competition and was the 2012 National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity non-pro champion. Kevin Ball, an electrical engineer for Chevron Co., was the winner of the 2017 National Reining Horse Association Futurity Level 1, 2 and 3 non-pro championships. Amy Bailey, a business manager, has notched several AQHA and National Reined Cow Horse Association working cow horse world championships.

With credentials like these, it’s easy to believe these non-professionals have it all together.

Read on, they would say, and find out just how wrong that perception would be were it not for preparation and remembering one thing: Just breathe.

Every Day is a New Day

Regardless of their accolades, these non-pros have learned that no matter how good you are, or how good other people might think you are, each competition has its own challenges and every day is an opportunity to make the most of the circumstances surrounding you.

“I can tell you that after several years of showing, the nerves are containable now,” says Amy of Sparta, Tennessee. “I’ve been showing since 1982, and my dad is the one who really put a lot of pressure on me when I was competing. I’d get so nervous that I’d have to throw up. It wasn’t until I won the heading and the heeling at the (All American Quarter Horse) Congress when I was a teenager that I stopped throwing up, because after that, I felt like I was good enough.”

Amy says that being good enough is a mental barrier she thinks many people face.

“There are people who have a hard time separating whether they’re a good or bad person from whether they win or lose,” she explains. “ ‘When you win, you’re good. When you lose, you’re bad.’ That’s just not true. You can lose and still be a good person.”

Mental preparation and focusing on the positive is the first step toward preparing for competition: a step that begins in the practice arena.

“Nothing starts or ends at the show,” says Kevin of Pilot Point, Texas. “The first part is working at home and having a game plan. The more you can ride and be a part of the process, the more in tune you’re going to be with your horse. When I ride, I am developing my game plan and working on maneuvers that help me know what my horse is capable of, and I keep pushing them to be solid at the top level. I am mostly trying to build confidence so that when I get to the show, I have a clear game plan.”

Paula, wife to professional trainer Kobie Wood, credits her husband, a five-time NCHA open world champion, for guiding her pre-show thought process.

“Kobie always told me to visualize how I am working at home when I am at a show,” says the Dublin, Texas, rider. “I visualize what I’ve practiced over and over: the control and the calm. You have to control your nerves so your horse doesn’t feel that. If you get all stirred up on a 3-year-old, they get stirred up. It’s a tricky game. I get just as nervous as anybody, but I’ve learned to separate it.”

Amy dives even deeper by reading books that focus on constructive thinking techniques, such as “The Power of Positive Thinking,” and through reading blogs from accomplished professionals, like cutting horse trainer and personal coach Barbra Schulte.

“Plus, I believe in God, so I pray,” she continues. “There are scriptures in the Bible that can help you be positive.”

Creating the Tangible

While warming up for the non-pro finals of the 2017 National Reining Horse Association Futurity, Kevin Ball's This Chic Guns It bobbled a turn. While the mistake rattled Kevin, he remembered to have confidence so his 3-year-old would, too. That calm paid off in the Levels 1-3 titles. (Waltenberry photo courtesy of NRHA)

Both Kevin and Amy capture their plan in writing, making notes about their horses, the progress that has been made and putting their goals on paper to make it “real.”

“I literally write it out, each day, what my expectations are,” Kevin says. “I’m a perfectionist to a fault, so the biggest thing I have to work on is to look for progress, not perfection. That is something I am still trying to adapt to. Always remember, you’re trying to build confidence and there are times and places to address an issue with your horse. I want him to know that we built confidence together and came out stronger than when we started.”

Unlike Kevin and Paula, Amy does not have her competition horses close to home, but she does have practice horses. She visits her trainer in Texas as often as possible, but continues to work on her physical and riding abilities while at home. When in Texas, she makes notes about each training session, what advice she was given and how her horse responded during those training sessions.

“I get those notes out before each of these training sessions and go over what we went through each time,” she says. “It helps me remember what we had worked on and where my horse should be when I’m there.”

Cutting is somewhat different in that while there is only one competing horse, there are four other horses and riders surrounding the playing field. Paula says that is an opportunity to engage others in providing support and again, remember to breathe.

“When you get into the herd, sometimes you find yourself holding your breath because that is a natural part of being nervous,” she says. “Remember to breathe, and keep talking to your help, too, because sometimes when you quit talking, you lose your focus.”

These non-pros also heed the warning in the axiom “poor planning means poor results,” so they make sure everything they need to show is well prepared. This comes in the form of creating a checklist of the equipment needed for the show, including tack and clothing required for multiple days. Then the next step is to focus on the competition.

“First of all, I get real nervous. I mean, everybody gets nervous,” Kevin says. “There’s no way someone is not going to get nervous when it comes time to compete, so I focus on what I can control ahead of time. I set out all of my show attire, make sure all my equipment is cleaned and I’ll have it set up before I even get close to show, either several hours ahead and maybe the night before.”

“I get dressed about an hour before my class and then make sure I have the pattern in my head,” Amy says. “I walk it out on the ground and move my hands the way I would if I were on my horse; when I should lift them, lower them, pull . . . everything. People who know me know I need to be alone about two hours before my class because I’m getting ready. It doesn’t always turn out the way you visualize it, but you have to start somewhere.”

Paula can certainly attest to that. Riding her homebred stallion, Cool N Hot (Hottish-Donas Cool Cat by High Brow Cat) during the 2018 NCHA Super Stakes, the run was looking like a winner . . . until the last cow – a cow she and Kobie had selected based on their years of reading cattle.

“I thought that cow would be the cow to finish the run because she told us she was good,” Paula sats. “She was respecting my horse and stepping back when I was driving her up, and when I got her to the point where she was supposed to go away from me, she came back to me. I was like ‘Oh, my gosh, that cow was not supposed to do that.’ ”

While Paula did not lose the cow, the pressure applied resulted in an atypical sub-par performance for the stallion. He returned 45 minutes later in the open under Kobie to win.

How you respond when something goes wrong will often leech into your next performance.

“I never watch a video of a bad run more than once,” Amy says. “We only buy the videos of the good runs because watching that will show us what we are doing right and we can dwell on the right and not focus on what went wrong.”

Kevin uses an example from his NRHA Futurity final warm-up when his mare, This Chic Guns It (Colonels Smoking Gun-This Chic Dun It by Hollywood Dun It), had a bobble in a turn and got rattled.

“I was scared out of my mind,” Kevin says, “but I think it was having some maturity and confidence in the process that helped me through that. I had to remember that she was a 3-year-old and was depending on me. I had an issue, and I had to work the issue.

“I think if you believe in what you’re doing and you have a solid reasoning and understanding for the mechanics, the training and the process, you should be able to stand at the end and believe you have a solid product.”

It’s About You, Not Them

Riders should only worry about the things they can control, says non-pro cutter Paula
Wood. Let everything else go. (Julie Bryant photo)

It’s easy to look at a draw sheet and see the big-name non-pros swimming before your eyes. Letting the competition psych you out is an absolute no-no, as is becoming obsessed with where you are in the draw.          

“You can only worry about the things you can control,” Paula says. “If it’s something you can’t control, then it’s not worth spending time worrying about. I’m not competing against other people. I am competing with myself. It’s me, my horse and those cows, and it’s up to the judge to separate it.”

Knowing someone else has a great horse is fine, but don’t fixate on it, Kevin says.

“I have to tell myself that it’s a partnership between me and my horse,” he says. “They may have a great horse, but they still have to show up and ride that day as well.”

Amy says she sees success because she has put in the mental preparation.

“It’s not because I am better physically than they are or more skilled than they are,” she says. “It’s just that I have learned how to hold it together under pressure at that moment.”

Julie J. Bryant is a special contributor to AQHA Media and the owner of Latigo & Associates in Fort Worth, Texas. To comment, write to This article originally appeared in the Journal in 2018. To read more about controlling nerves, see the January 2019 issue of the Journal. Subscribe now at