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or How I Get My Head Out of My Rear Long Enough to Make a Good Show

Believe it or not, I used to be crippled by fear. Riding a thousand pound animal and convincing it to do what you want with a few fingers, your voice and some leg pressure can be as intimidating as it sounds. Heaven knows I have blown classes because my body was strung tighter than an electric guitar, lining up like "WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO ME" and then feeling the sadness when I realize that no one was to blame but me and my lack of faith in my ability.

It's easier to stay calm when you just focus on your horse's ears.It's easier to stay calm when you just focus on your horse's ears. Sometimes you only get one shot, and it really sucks to blow it. In order to help other people like me, whether you’re in academy or campaigning on a world title level, here are a few tips that have really made showing more enjoyable and less terrifying.

Focus on your horse's ears.

There are few moments more thrilling to a Saddlebred lover than trotting downhill into Freedom Hall. Your senses go into overdrive - the wall of cold air, the boom of the announcer’s voice over the speakers, the crowd, the music and the long stretch of "don’t eff this up" in front of you. I can’t tell you how many times this has caused me to seize up, my horse starts cantering, I get frazzled and I can’t seem to relax until the reverse. My whole first direction turns into this jaunty, awkward spectacle of a little girl afraid. However, I have taught myself a little trick to keep my cool, regardless of what ring I’m showing in. The first two complete laps of the ring, just look at your horse’s ears. Obviously, look around and make sure you’re not running into anything, but those ears are like a nerve's oasis. I just look at their ears and pretend this is another stellar ride at home, in the barn, with no one watching. Roll your shoulders back, take a deep breath, and for a moment, it’s just the two of you, doing the same thing you’ve done one hundred times. It really helps me. But if that doesn’t work…

Count to three.

Every time the announcer calls out "calling for the canter, please" or any other gait, you definitely do not have to be the first amigo picking it up and flying down the middle of the ring. Count to three and take that time to take a deep breath, get contact in your bridle, and look around. Wait for the people in front of you to solidly pick up the correct lead, or a solid trot, assuring you don’t have to stop your horse or cut them off right off the bat. Taking an intentional moment to hesitate will boost your confidence and give you a moment to breathe and reconnect with your horse.

Bond with your horse.

Horses are wildly intelligent and emotional animals, capable of picking up on your energy, your body language and your tone of voice. If you’re nervous, they’re probably going to get nervous, too. Take the time to get to know them, to know what they like and what they’re afraid of. When they learn to trust you, when they learn the soothing tone of your voice, you become a strong, communicative team of two. I have a horse that I love very much, and have ridden for years, but good heavens, he can be chicken hearted. We had a workout at Louisville, and I could feel his nerves getting shot. He had had enough of the noise, his muscles were tightening, his eyes were going white, and he wouldn’t stand while we waited for the numbers to be called. I knew I had to reconnect with him and assure him that not only could he do it, but I 100% believed in him. The entire time, I looked like a crazy woman riding around that ring, talking to him, petting him, but he performed like a dream and finished reserve. So sometimes it pays to look crazy.

Don't ride tight.

When you ride tight, you get tired. It’s oftentimes that easy. If you know your mount is a handful, and that you only have a certain amount of strength before your arms get tired, don’t sabotage yourself. Whether or not you realize it, the tension in your body causes your muscles to flex and remain flexed, and you’re wasting twice the amount of energy that you should. If I get into the bike with a road horse or harness horse I know will pull my arms out, I try to remind myself of two things: 1. They weigh 1,000 pounds. If we get into a pulling match, I am definitely not winning. 2. By dropping my shoulders and reminding myself to breathe, I’m smarter in the bridle and I’m allowing my muscles breaks to relax and have some oxygen. Furthermore, sitting back and relaxing, whether you’re riding or driving, also generally tricks the judges and the audience into thinking that you’re actually feeling quite leisurely about this savage you’ve been paired with. No one likes a picture of a woman grimacing, leaning forward, about to tear out of her gown or suit like a terrified Incredible Hulk. Or maybe they do, but that’s none of my business.

Remember why you’re here.

You didn’t spend all of this time, money, stress, practice, planning, missing important events and explaining to strangers over and over again that "you don’t jump" just to blow it because you’re nervous. Remind yourself why you started riding in the first place - because you love it and it makes you happy. You worked your ass off to make it into this ring; show the world that you appreciate it and that you deserve to be here.

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