Back in the day when I was a junior, I was fearless. There was no fence too big for me to gallop down to and fly over. When I was a junior, I also owned a very patient Thoroughbred gelding who could seamlessly enter in the hunter, equitation, or jumper ring. He was a saint, never stopped, and filled me with all the confidence I needed to take the world by storm. Unfortunately, an injury stopped our progress, teenager angst prompted me to take a hiatus from riding, and getting older has filled me with more trepidation about sizable fences.
Though I no longer am a part of the A-circuit world, I get my thrills in new ways, mainly as an avid adult amateur eventer who dreams of being able to become a professional one day. Over the years, my mental game has fluctuated and had different ways it has caused problems in the ring or on course. Some days it’s dressage and I ride like a limp noodle, stiff enough to cause problems but slouched and floppy enough to look like a hunchback. Other days it’s cross country, where the fact that the fences are huge and don’t fall down is enough to bring me to tears. Most often it’s stadium, which is ironic since that’s my background, but none-the-less, I pick apart every distance until I’m left with the most painful chip to the largest oxer on course. Improving your mental game is a constant battle, one that has taken me years to be able to combat. Fence anxiety had been one of my greatest battles; be it in stadium or cross country, I would crack under pressure and second guess my distances to sizable fences.
Recently, I have found ways to combat my fence anxiety. These ways may not work for everyone, but they have made a world of difference to me. I have even found some of these methods have worked for creating relaxation and decreasing my nerves during dressage.
Building my mental strength
Working on my mind and creating mental strength within myself has been extremely helpful in combating my riding anxiety. Over the years, I have found various ways to ease my anxiety and improve my mental strength for future situations that may spark my riding anxiety. One way I have done this have been by reading books on mental toughness. Each book has their own exercises, methods, and prompts for self-reflection to help improve your mental strength. My favorites include “Open” by Andre Agassi, “Mental Tennis” by Vic Braden and Robert Wool, “With Winning in Mind” by Lanny Bassham, “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey, and “In Pursuit of Excellence” by Terry Orlick. Like any skill, I work hard to build my knowledge on mental strength and practice the exercises to become stronger and more focused, even when it feels overwhelming.
Believing in the rhythm
Another way that has helped my riding anxiety is by diligently focusing on the basics. Every day I work harder than the last to develop a strong horse, rhythmical gaits, and to develop my eye. I use various riding exercises to improve my horse’s straightness and flexibility so that it is easier for me to have control over the line I set him on. I do pole work to improve my eye and the feel for a strong, powerful canter so that I am able to believe in my horse’s ability to leave the ground from the spot I put him in. I focus on creating a foundation that is so strong all I have to do is trust in the work I have put in and I am able to rest easy in the confidence and partnership I have built.
Becoming a diamond under the pressure
As said by the talented Laine Ashker, you need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I have taken these words to heart and make a point to ask my trainer to put things that may make me uncomfortable in my lessons on a regular basis. Be is a new dressage movement that I am not comfortable with, jumping well above the height I compete at, an ultra skinny fence, or a difficult bending line. There are many ways to safely make yourself uncomfortable and I seek those opportunities out. I find ways to add pressure to my riding at home so that when I arrive at a show I feel prepared and relaxed. Seeking out uncomfortable situations has made me braver in my riding and more relaxed during situations that normally would make me anxious or nervous.
Above all, when it comes to dealing with your personal anxiety in riding, the best place to start is by talking to your coach. From there, you can work to develop a plan that helps you navigate through your individual issues and come up with a safe way to work through the problem. Learning to improve your confidence and decrease your anxiety is made significantly easier when you’re with someone who knows you and your horse well and are able to openly communicate with.