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How to Manage Your Dressage Competition Nerves and Anxiety

dressage competition nerves and anxiety

Every rider has experienced pre-competition nerves. 

The pressure of wanting to do well, combined with the worry of making a mistake, results in a cocktail of emotions that can ruin an otherwise promising test. 

So, in this article, we will look at why you get nervous, how this affects your dressage performance, and give you 16 tips to help you manage your competition nerves. 

Why do you get nervous? 

Nerves are part of your body’s natural fight-or-flight response, preparing you for a perceived or imaginary threat. 

The body will increase:

  • your production of adrenaline, 
  • your heart rate and blood pressure,
  • your breathing rate, 
  • and your mental alertness,

resulting in you feeling nervous. 

If you experience butterflies, this is caused by your body redirecting the blood out of your stomach for use in your muscles and cardiovascular system.  

How do nerves affect your dressage performance? 

When experiencing your fight-or-flight response, producing a relaxed and harmonious performance is very difficult. 

As a flight animal, your horse will quickly pick up on your worries and feelings of tension, causing him also to be nervous and unsettled. 

A vicious cycle can quickly start; you are making your horse nervous, and your horse is making you nervous. 

Your constant worry also turns your focus outwards, thinking about all the things that could go wrong as opposed to focusing on your horse. Unfortunately, all too often, this is reflected in your test performance, leading to disappointing scores.

Why do you compete?

Before you can conquer your nerves, it’s essential to understand why you’re competing at all.

Knowing your personal objective when it comes to competition can put the experience into perspective for you, helping you control your nerves.  

Here are four reasons why you may want to compete. (You don’t have to have just one of these reasons, you may have multiple.) 

Reason #1 – To have fun

For most of us, riding is a hobby. So, first and foremost, competing should be a fun experience that you enjoy and look forward to. 

It’s not necessarily about the competition or the winning, but the experience of the event and spending a day with your horse.  

Keeping this reason at the forefront of your mind will help remove all the other competition pressures, minimizing your nerves. 

Reason #2 – To get feedback and measure your progress

Dressage test riding is an opportunity for you to have your hard work assessed by a qualified and experienced dressage judge.

The feedback provided on your score sheets highlights areas of your work that are good, as well as points out aspects of your training that need more development.

Your score sheet can be used as a helpful training tool, forming the basis of your regular lessons and schooling sessions. And on the days when you feel as though you are not progressing, it’s helpful to look back at your old dressage score sheets to see how far you have come.

This reason allows you to focus only on your own training and development instead of trying to beat everyone else in the warm-up ring. Again, this removes some of the pressure, helping you to relax. 

Reason #3 – To provide a training structure

Dressage tests are written to create a systematic and logical training progression for the horse. 

For example, the British Dressage test sheets are numbered. The lower-numbered tests are easier for young and novice horses, and the higher-numbered tests are more challenging and designed for more advanced horses. 

During your training at home, you can follow the dressage test series to ensure that you are introducing school movements in a logical manner and in the correct order.  

This reason, again, allows you to focus only on your horse’s systematic training. 

Reason #4 – To win

Many people do have a competitive personality and enter dressage competitions for the sole purpose of winning rosettes, prizes, and qualifying for championships. Or they may want to accumulate grading points to increase the value of their horse. 

There is nothing wrong with this. Competition is about winning and losing, success and defeat, and everyone does like to win from time to time. 

If this is your reason for competing, bear in mind that winning should be viewed as the cherry on the cake. If you receive top scores for every class you enter, then this would eventually get boring and leave you with nothing to work towards and learn from. 

Tips for managing your competition nerves

We’ve broken the following sixteen tips down into the following sections. 

  • Before the competition
  • During the warm-up
  • During the test
  • After the competition 

Before the competition

Tip #1 – Manage your own expectations

You must have realistic expectations of your own abilities and your horse’s current level of training and experience. 

For example, if it’s you and your horse’s first time competing, don’t expect a 75% win. Also, if it’s your first time entering a class at a new level, again, don’t expect to win. Instead, expect to receive a slightly lower score because the test will be more challenging, and the judges have a higher standard of criteria.   

You can create nerves if you put too much pressure on yourself and your horse. Instead, if faced with such a challenge, just expect to try your best. 

Tip #2 – Enter a test one level below 

You should compete one level below what you are working on at home. 

For example, if you are working at British Dressage Novice level at home, you should compete at British Dressage Preliminary level.  

Trying to ride a test in an unfamiliar environment which includes movements that you and your horse are still working on, is going to make you both tense. But if you know that you and your horse can comfortably perform everything required by the test you’ve entered, you will feel more relaxed and less nervous on the day.

Tip #3 – Make sure your horse is prepared

Your horse needs to be ready not just for the test, but for the whole experience of traveling and working away from home. 

If you have the option available, it would be prudent to hire out an arena and travel your horse there for his regular schooling sessions, or you could attend some training clinics away from home. 

The more confident your horse is about traveling and working in unfamiliar environments, the more relaxed you’ll both be. 

Tip #4 – Make sure you are prepared

Worrying about being late, forgetting your test, getting lost on the way to the venue, or leaving behind a piece of tack, leads to sleepless nights and mental fatigue. You can remove this additional stress by preparing thoroughly. 

Firstly, allow plenty of time to learn your dressage test; don’t leave it until you’re en route to the venue to try to learn it! If you’re worried you might ‘go blank,’ ask a friend or fellow competitor to call the test for you as a backup plan.

Secondly, make a list of everything you’ll need on the day and gather it all together well in advance so that you won’t have to rush around at the last minute. Do as much preparation as you can the day before the competition, especially if you have an early start. 

And thirdly, make sure you leave in plenty of time to get to the venue and that you know how to get there! Getting lost on the way and arriving late and in a flap won’t help calm your nerves. If you’re unfamiliar with the venue, give yourself plenty of time to find your way around. 

Related Reads: How to Prepare for a Dressage Competition

Tip #5 – Dress rehearsal 

Put on your show attire and ride through your test, possibly under the eye of your trainer so you can ask for an honest critique. 

You will feel different in your jacket and boots, so getting used to them at home is a good idea. 

If it’s been a while, it also gives you a suitable opportunity to make sure everything fits and is in good working order. Again, this is one less thing to worry about and to deal with on the day. 

During the warm-up 

Tip #6 – Focus on yourself and your own horse

Looking around and checking out your competition can be tempting, but try to avoid this. 

During the warm-up, you may think everyone looks more experienced with better-trained horses, making your nerves worse. But in reality, they’re probably just as nervous as you are. 

Instead, concentrate on yourself and your own horse. Remember, you’re not competing against anyone else but yourself.  

Tip #7 – Breathe and relax

During the warm-up, if you feel yourself tensing up, then stop, breathe, loosen your muscles, relax and refocus, and begin again. 

Breathing prevents tension. Taking slow, steady breaths can help to slow your heart rate and relax your muscles while still keeping them supplied with the oxygen they’ll need to function to their optimum. If possible, try to match a steady breath to your horse’s rhythm. 

Some people find that listening to music while riding can help them to relax. There’s no reason why you can’t listen to your favorite chill-out tunes through headphones while you warm up, as long as you remember to remove your device before you ride your test.

Also, a small note on sitting trot: Sitting to the trot can make you tense and tight. If this happens, then go rising where possible. 

Tip #8 – Allow a little longer for the warm-up

The last thing you want to be doing is rushing. 

At a competition, it’s a good idea to allow a little longer to warm up than you would do at home. Many horses are distracted and excited by unfamiliar surroundings, and an extra 15 minutes will allow your horse time to relax and settle to the job at hand, plus provide you with some extra breathing room. 

Related Read: How Long Should You Warm-up for Before a Dressage Test?

During the test

Tip #9 – Take your time!

Waiting for the signal from the judge so that you can start your test can sometimes feel like an eternity! And then there’s the added worry of getting down the centerline within the allotted time. 

During this moment, don’t put any extra pressure on yourself or your horse, and don’t rush; just calmly and rhythmically make your way towards A. 

Related Read: How to Enter a Dressage Competition Arena

Throughout the test, again, take your time. It’s not a race to see who can finish the test first. You have paid good money to have a dressage judge evaluate you, so ride as you would at home and imagine that you are training. 

Tip #10 – Don’t think about what’s already happened

Throughout your test, you will know in the back of your mind how things are going. Try not to think about this. 

  • If your test is going well, you can create extra pressure to keep it that way, leading to you making a mistake. 
  • If your test is not going too well, this can make you feel defeated and want to give up. 

Both of the above thought trains are not helpful. 

Also, don’t give head space to “what happened last time,” as this could cause you to create issues where there aren’t any. 

Focus only on what you are doing and what is coming up next. Ride the horse you have on the day, help him get through the test, and give him all of your attention.  

Tip #11 – Mistakes aren’t the end of the world

If you haven’t already, you will make a mistake during a dressage test at some point; they happen to everyone, even professionals. 

A mistake may feel like a major catastrophe, especially at the moment they occur. But when put into perspective, they’re no big deal.  

Shake off a mistake knowing that you’re not the first and you won’t be the last to make one, and continue with your test, putting it behind you. 

Related Read: What to do if You Make a Mistake During a Dressage Test

Tip #12 – Don’t worry about the judge

All judges are trained to a set standard, and for them to give you a high score, there are certain qualities that they must see in your performance. A low score does not mean that the dressage judge does not like your horse. It simply means you didn’t show them what they needed to see for a higher score. 

If you see a judge who gave you a low score the last time you competed, again, don’t worry. They judge hundreds of competitors and, more than likely, they won’t remember you (unless you have a uniquely marked horse). But even if they do remember you, know they want to give you better marks. 

No judge enjoys giving out low marks. They’re on your side. 

Related Reads:

Tip #13 – Imagine riding the best test of your life and smile!

Smiling can help to prevent negative thoughts, and imagining yourself riding your best test will encourage positive thoughts. 

These combined will prevent you from worrying and getting nervous, helping you stay relaxed and calm. 

After the competition 

Tip #14 – The judges’ comments are not a personal attack

The judges’ comments on your dressage score sheet often seem very negative, but don’t take them to heart. 

When scoring your test, if the judge marks a movement lower than 7.0, they are encouraged to give a comment justifying the lost marks. So if you have many 6s and a test sheet full of “negative” comments, remember these just indicate why you didn’t get a 7.0 for those movements. 

These comments will be the most helpful during your training because you will know how to turn that 6 into a 7. 

Related Read:

Tip #15 – Mistakes are great learning opportunities.

Riding a foot-perfect test doesn’t teach you anything; it only confirms what you can already do. Therefore, don’t let the fear of making mistakes put you off; these mistakes will help you gain experience and improve, and you will learn to handle your nerves through this learning experience.

Related Read: How To Master Dressage by Embracing Your Mistakes 

Tip #16 – Remember that dressage is HARD!

Arguably, dressage is the most challenging equestrian sport, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get the result you wanted or if you let your nerves get the better of you on the day. 

No rider in history has scored 100%, and although the professionals make it look easy, it’s anything but, so cut yourself some slack. 

What if you still can’t beat your nerves?

If you have considered all the sixteen tips we have provided you in this post, but even the thought of competing makes you feel sick and anxious, ask yourself if you really want to compete. 

Is it enjoyable for both you and your horse? If the answer is no, then why do it? 

It is not compulsory to compete. You can still train dressage at home and enjoy your horse without the pressures of competition. 

Alternatively, you now have the option to compete in video dressage, allowing you to ride a dressage test in the privacy and comfort of your own home, which may be more suited to you.  

Related Read: How to Record a Video Dressage Test

In conclusion

Getting nervous while competing is your body’s natural way of preparing you. However, nerves can become problematic when they destroy positive thoughts, create tension in you and your horse, and ruin your performance. 

You can help combat your nerves by ensuring that you and your horse are well-prepared and that the test requirements are well within your capabilities. 

At the venue, forget about everyone else and concentrate on yourself and your horse. You want to be mentally prepared and focused but without tension and anxiety. 

The end goal is for you and your horse to have an enjoyable day out together. If you do your best and your horse tries hard, you’re a winner, whatever the result.

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