Updated: Feb 5
Develop awareness and consistency in your body language and cues between your paid warm-up and showtime to ensure your performances go as smoothly as your practices.
Courtesy of the NRHA Reiner Magazine - August 2021
Article by Gilead Friedman, with Alexis Bennett
While your horse doesn’t know when the judges are watching, you do. You can translate that added pressure to your horse through your body language, wreaking havoc on your run, even when your practice goes perfectly.
It can happen to anyone. You walk out of the arena after a paid practice run feeling ready and confident to show. Your hard work at home seems to have paid off, and your horse nailed the practice pattern.
You expect the next day’s performance to go well, and then it doesn’t. Your horse is anxious and sensitive, and your whole pattern is off. You’re frustrated and wonder how your ride could go so differently from one day to the next.
The short answer is that it’s probably not your horse — it’s you! Fortunately, that means you can do something to change it.
Here, I’ll explain how your thoughts and feelings about your performance — regardless of who’s watching — impacts your actions and your horse’s reaction. With this knowledge, plus some awareness drills and practice, you’ll be able to keep your performance consistent regardless of the environment.
It can seem like your horse “just knows” when it’s showtime. But showtime doesn’t just occur in the show pen. You can be performing in front of the judges, or perhaps a client or your horse’s potential buyer, and things fall apart.
It’s even more frustrating when your horse was on its best game the day before. This difference between practice time and the real deal is not likely caused by your horse “knowing” it’s showtime, but rather, its reaction to your actions.
For your horse, there are no stakes. It might be aware that something is different, but you’re the one who is definitely aware of the circumstances around you — the show, the client, the buyer — and you’re the one who knows about the added pressure to perform well.
How you think about a situation influences your feelings about it and, in turn, your subsequent actions. This cause-effect progression is the foundation of cognitive behavior therapy. Human thoughts impact feelings and emotions, progressing from thoughts to feelings to actions.
For example, if you’re on deck at a show and hear a high score for your class, you may start to think negative thoughts as you prepare for your own performance. You may get nervous or anxious, and even if it doesn’t show on your face, your body reacts. You can tense up and begin to hyper-focus on your posture, your hand position and even where you’re looking.
Body language is the primary method you use to communicate with your horse. A shift in your thoughts will cause a change in your actions, which influences your body language. When you suddenly change your position after weeks, months or years of riding a particular way, your horse gets confused. All of a sudden, you’re “talking” to it differently, simply because you, for example, repositioned your seat.
Often, you aren’t even aware of the change. The shift in your mindset and those changes are a natural reaction. So, rather than trying to fix the issue by forcing yourself to relax, become more aware of the changes and practice navigating through the resulting challenges.
Map Your Body Language
The way you ride and communicate to your horse is unique to you. As a result, the changes in your body between practice and a performance will also be distinctive. To determine the communication differences between these settings, do a simple body-mapping exercise.
Start from the top down. As you ride, think about your eyes, shoulders, hands, seat and legs. Ask yourself the following questions.
Where do I look during practice versus the actual performance? If you look at your horse and rely on peripheral vision at home or paid practice, yet force yourself to look up under pressure, this will feel different to you and your horse.
Are my shoulders relaxed, or am I tight and leaned forward? How about my hands, seat and legs? Are my legs relaxed or tense? You should note any small changes in how you ride or position yourself while practicing in comparison to when you’re trying to make a good impression, such as in the show pen.
Gilead “Gil” Friedman of Mental Athletics specializes in the mental game that accompanies competition. The NRHA Professional, who grew up riding performance horses, worked with NRHA Professionals Dan Huss and Bob LaPorta in the United States. Now based out of the KPH Performance Horses facility in Kfar Netter, Israel, he works in person and virtually with trainers, non pros and amateurs worldwide, sharing his firsthand knowledge of performance psychology to help riders step up their mental strength in a competitive environment. Learn more at mental-athletics.com