Learn strategies to keep it together at the big show in Oklahoma City and other major venues.
Article by Alexis Bennett, with Gilead Friedman
Courtesy of NRHA Reiner Magazine reiner.nrha.com
You always want your rides to go well. However, when the stakes feel high, the pressure can cause you to feel as if your only chance at success is to execute a perfect performance. Your best doesn’t feel good enough; you think you must overachieve. In response to these perceived increased expectations, whether they are internal or come from other people in your life, you likely feel as though you must step up your game. You might think you need to overperform and end up overdoing it. This is known as “Oklahoma City Syndrome,” though it can happen anywhere. Many circumstances can induce this mindset — your first show, the biggest show of the season, a preview for a potential buyer or even just having a horse’s owner present. While it’s healthy and necessary to think about your performance, the kind of obsessive, anxious worry that comes with Oklahoma City Syndrome is neither helpful nor productive. It causes you to get caught up in the competition rather than focus on your horsemanship and performance. In doing so, you unnecessarily overcompensate. You know your horse and what the two of you are capable of, but with Oklahoma City Syndrome, you abandon this thought process. More than likely, you also turn your concern about not showing well into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mental Athletics founder and NRHA Professional Gilead “Gil” Friedman explained what can happen when you let the competition get the best of you and how to keep your head in the game to maximize your performance.
Showing up to an event with guns blazing, feeling like you must run your horse’s feet off to win the dang thing, isn’t the recipe for success. You know that. You’ve put in the work, in practice and potentially the show pen, and you have enjoyed the results before. You’ve seen the progress in your horsemanship, and if you’ve competed, you’ve likely received the marks to validate your level of preparedness. Then, it happens. You start thinking about the stakes of an upcoming performance. Somehow, they seem bigger and more important. Maybe it’s because there are more competitors. Maybe it’s a year-end championship or you’re competing against riders you’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s your first show. Maybe you’re worried an owner will pull the horse from your program if you don’t do well. Whatever the case may be, you’ve built it up in your mind. You’ve let the competition get to you, and Oklahoma City Syndrome starts creeping in. Usually when this happens, riders find it difficult to think of anything else. They fixate on success, and abandon their horse and their plan in the process. This is where the trouble comes. Once you’ve latched on to the importance of the competition, whether consciously or unconsciously, you will find it difficult to connect with your horse. Your horse doesn’t care about the competition; they care about their relationship with you and are tuned in to your communication. Your horse needs your leadership. If you check out, you leave them looking for the connection, consistency and guidance they’ve grown to expect from you.
Think about the areas in which you spend your time in a typical show year. It’s likely that 99% of your time will be spent working on your horsemanship. This is the day-today riding, care and maintenance that builds the relationship and connection with your horse. This is also where you work on skills and maneuvers, and develop patterns of communication. This is in comparison to the 1% of time spent performing at five or six shows per year. This might increase if you’re an NRHA Professional who is showing horses for their owners and to potential buyers on a regular basis; however, still only a fraction of your time is spent in the show pen. It’s in these performance settings where there is competition. Competition isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s a great way for you to share the progress of your horsemanship and your horse’s skills, and keep you motivated. Horse shows showcase the 99% of the time you’ve spent working with your horse. However, the expectations and the recognition of winning can be triggering. Of course you want to do well, but when you have the mentality that your best isn’t good enough, you fall into the Oklahoma City Syndrome trap. To avoid overdoing it in an attempt to be successful, you must understand how you are uniquely affected, and then develop habits and practices that allow you to process and move past the triggers.
If you regularly read the “Reiner Psych” articles in your NRHA Reiner, you’ve learned a few strategies to improve your mental game for performance. You can also access them online at reiner. nrha.com. For Oklahoma City Syndrome specifically, Friedman recommended three mental shifts to improve your big-show performance: prioritize the team; change your values; and be mindful. First, if you’re worried about the competitive aspect of the show and performing well rather than prioritizing your horsemanship, you are forgetting a key member of your team: your horse. Without your horse, you can’t be successful. Your horse doesn’t care about success; they care about the relationship. If you change your approach, they don’t know why, which can be jarring. So, focus on the team and aim to show up consistently for yourself and your horse. Second, to support the team, your values must be aligned. In individual sports, it’s all about you and your fortitude. Competitors focus on resilience, discipline, perseverance and pushing the limits. Team sports are more about cooperation. Values such as trust, communication, awareness and respect reign. When you focus on achievement, you adopt individual sports values. Riding isn’t a solo endeavor, so embrace team values. Finally, be present. You spend a great deal of time and energy working on your horsemanship skills. To ride mindfully and prepare for competition, you must also work on the skills that allow you to be present and focused so you can be the leader your horse needs to perform well. Practices such as meditation, visualization and journaling can help you do this. To learn more about these techniques, read “The Practice of Visualization” in the May 2023 issue of your Reiner. In the end, overcoming Oklahoma City Syndrome isn’t about saying you don’t care about competition. It’s about having a strong mental game so you can guide and show your horse to the very best of their ability, no matter the event.
Mental Athletics is an exclusive mindset training program designed for equestrian riders, led by mindset coach Gilead Friedman. It focuses on enhancing riders' mental resilience and performance in the competitive world of horse riding. The program offers personalized coaching, including one-on-one sessions and group clinics and workshops, both in-person and online. The ultimate goal of Mental Athletics is to empower riders worldwide to excel in their equestrian endeavors while fostering a strong partnership with their horses through a refined mindset.