In this new series, equestrians share their strategies to master the mental aspect of the sport.

Hillary Irwin is a professional event rider with her own business, Hillary Irwin Eventing, a full service eventing program based in the beautiful foothills of western North Carolina. Hillary has competed multiple horses through the two-star level, all homebreds or OTTB’s, all of which she started from the beginning. Bringing a horse up from the beginning is what she enjoys the most; she loves the process of working with a horse daily and being an integral part their growth and success. Hillary works almost entirely with Adult Amateurs guiding them from the lower levels thru preliminary/CCI*. Above all, she wants to help each rider and horse gain the knowledge as well as develop the skills that will allow them to truly enjoy and be successful at the sport to the utmost of their ability. Visit Hillary’s website at hillaryirwineventing.com.

Hillary’s Tips

Strategies to control show nerves?

For dealing with competition nerves, practice makes perfect. The more you can get yourself into a ring and those “pressure” situations, the better you will become at controlling your competition nerves in that environment. Put yourself in a competition ring as much as possible. This does not mean you must go three times per month to an A show, or the three day long event; it means going to your local schooling show for $15 jumper rounds, your unrecognized event for $100, and $30 dressage tests. It means going off the farm and jumping in new environments with new people surrounding you.

The majority of the time it isn’t the competition that creates the nerves, it is the pressure we put on ourselves to impress those around us (especially new people!!) with our ability to ride our horse well. So, take some of those sudden nerves away by trying to place yourself in those situations as frequently as possible!

Why do we get so nervous?

There are a few main reasons why people get nervous about competing.  First, as mentioned above, people want to impress other people. They want to show off their hard work and be safe, effective, and looking the part while on their horse.

Second, we spend a lot of money trying to do this. Especially for those on a budget, it may be the one show every four months which they can afford and they desperately want for everything to go well: this creates a massive amount of pressure on you.

Third, there are some people that are bound and determined for everyone to see how lovely and wonderful their horses are, they want their horses to shine. All of these things lead to an enormous amount of pressure from within people. There is a great saying that no one will notice because they’re staring at their phones anyway, we would all do ourselves a favor if we remembered that!

How do you deal with viewing competitions as “important” vs a regular one?

As an event rider, every competition for me is “regular” until I am at a CCI. (To be honest, I mentally try to also think of those as regular to keep myself from having deal with more nerves than necessary!) I think when you view competitions as “regular” you are using them for training. You are allowing yourself to ride your horse in a way that will benefit them the next time out. When you are riding at an important show that you are not just attending to complete, but to be competitive, you take the risk. You cut a corner, angle a single jump, or risk the break in an extension; you push yourself to brink of where you are capable. I think of every one as a regular competition, and when they important I remind myself that I have spent x amount of time preparing the horse to be able to take those risks and have them succeed.

Strategies to keep your mind from taking over mid-ride?

Your focus must always be forward. You must ride what is happening directly in front of you, there is nothing you can do about the rail that came down or the botched shoulder-in, you must ride what is happening in the moment. It also helps to be always focusing on your next preparation will be: where the next turn is, the next half-halt, the next lengthening, or the next line. If your focus is on what is directly in front of you, it is hard for it to wander.

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