It’s show season! Conquer your “lizard brain” with these surprisingly effective sport-psychology strategies.
By Andrea Monsarrat Waldo
Reprinted from the May 2017 USDF Connection magazine
In her new book Brain Training for Riders, professional counselor, psychotherapist, and riding instructor Andrea Monsarrat Waldo helps readers get past the survival-focused “lizard brain” to overcome fear and improve their performance in the saddle. In this exclusive excerpt, Waldo shares some of her show-preparation strategies.
Luck Favors the Prepared
Before you go to a show, know the drill. Make sure you are familiar with the rules and etiquette of your chosen discipline. Read the Rule Book. (Yes, it’s tedious. Read it anyway.) If possible, go to some shows as a spectator or groom to get a feel for the rhythm of the typical show day.
Being a spectator allows you to become familiar with the atmosphere without the stress of your own competition nerves. It also gives you the opportunity to observe successful riders and watch how they handle challenges, such as bad weather or an uncooperative horse. I especially like watching riders in the warm-up area, as this is usually the place where people either step successfully into Performance Self or escalate tension in themselves and their horses. When I see a rider who is completely in her Performance Self, I try to identify what she is doing to stay there in the midst of all the distractions around her.
Another benefit of watching is noticing that even the best riders aren’t perfect all the time. I’ve seen every rider I admire make mistakes: they have refusals at jumps, they go off course in their dressage tests, their horses have meltdowns, they fall off. While I’m not hoping someone will make a mistake, when they do have a bobble, it reminds me that they’re human too. As a result, when my turn comes, I can be less self-conscious about my own errors and stay better focused on the next task at hand.
Get Your Stuff Together
Riding is an equipment-heavy sport, to put it mildly. Your stuff can be a source of stress or a source of confidence, depending on how you handle it.
Organization Is in the Eye of the One Who Has to Find Her Stuff
Organization is a very individual concept. One person’s jumble is another person’s system. I won’t tell you how you should arrange your stuff; however, I strongly recommend that you have a system. Systems, like routines, are excellent stress relievers, because they reduce the need to think. When I need my gloves, I don’t have to think about where I put them; I just reach into the front pocket of my garment bag, because that’s where they always are. My system frees up mental space for more important things, and it’s one less thing to stress about as I’m preparing to ride.
How do you know whether you have an effective system for your stuff? If you look at your arrangement and you feel calm, it’s a good system. If you feel stressed or anxious when you look at it, you need to make some changes. My personal rule of thumb is that if I can’t put my hands on something I need within 10 seconds, I need to adjust my system. In my house and in my office, I can handle
a fair amount of chaos, but at a horse show, I need to start with everything in place, or I feel frazzled.
A note to parents and coaches: it is extremely tempting to impose a particular system on your child or student because it makes sense to you. However, it will only work if it makes sense to them. If they throw everything into their trunk in one big jumble, but they can find what they need when they need it, leave it alone. Walk away if you have to, but don’t meddle with their stuff just because it’s driving you crazy. If they can’t find what they need, are chronically late, or are constantly asking you to go back for something they forgot, then you can intervene. Even then, however, don’t just impose a system upon them; help them develop one that both of you can be comfortable with.
The Day Before
It’s critical to make the shift from training to performing in the days before a show. At this point, you are as prepared as you can possibly be, and you aren’t going to teach your horse anything new in those last few days. We aim for constant improvement in our day-to-day training program, but competition is all about showing off your strengths and camouflaging your weak spots. Just as runners taper their workouts in the week before a marathon, plan to use your last week to polish what you’ve got. Do things that you can praise your horse for, so that he goes to the show feeling like the next Olympic candidate. Avoid confrontations or stressful situations with him. Giving him a positive week will leave him fresh and ready to give you his best when you arrive at the competition.
As always, the specifics of those last few days are unique to each individual horse and rider. Your horse may do well with very little work, while someone else’s needs a full week of exercise to keep the edge off at the show. Notice what seems to work for you and your horse, and come up with your own routine for handling the countdown to show day.
While coaching at an event recently, I had numerous people ask me for help in coping with their nerves. All of them were struggling with the “inbetween time,” when they had nothing to do and plenty to think about and obsess over. All of them also had fallen for two mistaken beliefs: One, they believed that if they just talked enough about their feelings, the bad feelings would go away. Two, they believed that those bad feelings had to go away in order for them to be okay. “Distress Tolerance” is a phrase psychologists use for being able to stand it when we feel bad. The military has an even better phrase: “Embrace the suck.” Sometimes you can’t feel better right away, no matter what you do, so you need to get used to embracing the suck.
“But this is supposed to be fun,” I heard repeatedly when I suggested
this. Well, yes, showing is fun, but not in a pleasurable, go-to-the-beach kind of way. Competition is “fun” in an adrenaline-charged, feel-fulfilledby- meeting-a-challenge kind of way. Tension, doubt, and uncertainty are all built into the experience. You can fight those emotions, which will make you feel worse, or you can embrace the suck and simply accept them. You don’t have to feel okay to be okay.
Acceptance allows you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and it makes you tougher, more resilient, and more flexible mentally. You’ll still feel whatever you feel—jittery, edgy, anxious—but it will bother you a whole lot less.
Leave the Escape Door Open
One last piece of advice before you go out there, and it may shock you: Give yourself permission to quit.
People freak out when I say this; apparently it’s the most controversial idea I’ve come up with so far, because the pushback I get from it is intense. “If I give myself permission to quit, I’ll do it every time—I’ll go home and bake cookies and eat the whole batch. I’ll let myself down, I know it.”
I doubt it, actually. People give themselves far too little credit; riders completely underestimate their own toughness. If you leave an escape door open, I guarantee you will almost never need to take it.
Here’s the thing: flight animals hate to be trapped. A horse cast in a stall can kill himself flailing around, trying to escape. Your Lizard Brain is exactly the same way: it panics when it feels trapped. If you give it permission to quit, if it has an out, it doesn’t need to panic. If your Lizard Brain doesn’t need to panic, your Rational Brain can decide whether it’s really a good idea not to ride today or if your Lizard Brain is just stressing out about the competition.
By offering your Lizard Brain an escape route, you allow it to feel safe, so it calms down, and your Rational Brain can remind it of what it already knows: that you are ready, and you want to do this. If you force it, your Lizard Brain will continue to panic and interfere with what you need to do to get through the challenge. And, on the off chance that your Lizard Brain is right and you aren’t truly prepared, you give it a chance to have its say and consider your options. Leave the escape door open, and you’ll only use it when you really do need it.
Riding Exercise: Practice for Show Situations
While it is impossible to recreate the exact energy and intensity of a show when you are at home, here are some exercises to help you practice coping with the competition environment.
- Who Moved the Furniture?
Teach your horse to expect the un-expected. Place some objects around your riding area, such as lawn chairs, cones, or an old backpack, and move them around every couple of days. Practice keeping your horse’s attention when she says, “Hey! That wasn’t there yesterday!” Once you’ve mastered static objects, move on to noisy or flapping things. Empty grain bags, tarps, and plastic whirligigs are great for this.
- Busy Warm-up Arena
Get together with a few friends and ride as a group in a ring or small paddock— the smaller the area, the better. Practice staying focused on your ride as you work around each other. Work on claiming your space by keeping your eyes focused on where you are going, rather than trying to guess where the other person is going to go.
- Crazy Warm-up Rider
As above, but have one person designated to be “that rider” in the warmup. That person can talk incessantly to her horse, cut people off, stop abruptly on the rail and talk on her cell phone, or any other frustrating behavior you can think of. Everyone else practices regaining focus after she disrupts their ride.
- Practice Deleting Mistakes
Ride a test, pattern, or course, and say “delete” out loud whenever you make a mistake in the pattern or if your riding isn’t what you’d like it to be.
- Lose Your Way
Ride a pattern as above, and have a friend blow a whistle at some random moment, as if you’d gone off course. Practice pausing, deleting any negative thoughts, taking a breath, identifying your next movement, and resuming your ride. Even if going off course means elimination in your particular discipline, practice resuming the ride anyway—it will improve your pattern-memorization skills.
- Made You Look!
Ride in an imaginary class, and have people cause various distractions: shout your name, let a dog into the ring, open an umbrella, make catty comments about your riding as you go by. Practice staying in Performance Self and keeping your horse focused on his work. Notice which distractions you are most vulnerable to, and practice these a lot.
- Quick Reflexes
Ride a course, a pattern, or a test, but you don’t get to learn it beforehand— have a friend call it out to you, one jump or one movement at a time. If you make a mistake, stop, breathe, and pick up where you went off course.