Competition Anxiety vs. Fueling Your Personal Best

From The Rider’s Art © 2018

Silver Johnson and Spinner
Silver Johnson and Spinner

As we watched Brian Moggre ride a very well executed, well-defined and well-balanced round to capture the coveted Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal top award, young equestrians, young aspiring riders want to know his secret to success. Was he nervous? How does he deal with all the peer pressure? How did Brian make this final test, with its numerous upward and downward transitions in between jumping combinations look smooth and effortless?

Brian’s excellent delivery answered every expectation the course designers and judges put before him with smoothness of transition, no interference and ease of motion. These results cannot occur without lots of practice, and a plan! Even though he said he was feeling confident yet, nervous on the first round, Brian beat his nerves and used them to fuel his goal of riding a flawless final. As he said ‘I just gave it my all.’

Brian Moggre

Giving it his all means Brian remained totally focused. His award winning result showed thorough preparation followed by eloquent execution. It’s what I refer to in the Riders Art as ‘riding thorough.’ We want to ride ‘through’ each movement, with fluidity, connecting all the questions, movements and courses into one flawless motion picture. Thorough preparation must come first.

The Losing Focus Lesson…

The photo above is a photo I cherish. The invaluable lesson I learned riding this course taught me so much for future trips, on my horse, and in my daily life around the sun!

Because of the voice I listened to right before I entered the arena, because of one tiny remark, even though I had a plan, the outcome of this round was completely opposite. I thought I was relatively good at ‘clearing the mechanism’ or ‘creating the circle’ or whatever term other sports and performance enthusiasts use to drown out noise, comments, distractions or such so I could give this course my all.

Somehow I was lax on my clearing or creating the circle process. The last thing I heard someone say before I entered the arena was ‘… go off course.’ I so wish I hadn’t heard that. I was confident about the jumps, my horse, my ability, etc. Yet, somehow, I heard that remark and took it to mind. Listening to that remark scrambled my memory banks. I lost focus for one moment and it cost me that round.

Just as we rounded the corner, I felt lost. Not afraid, just a flicker of a feeling I’d made the wrong turn. If I had stayed focused before I went into the arena, I wouldn’t have gone off course. Or jumped that last fence which was leaning the wrong way. We sailed over what had become a backward leaning 5 foot gate like a flat goose sails over a lake. The groans from the crowd, the disappointing groans couldn’t top the disappointment I heard in myself for taking my mind off my plan and not focusing on the task at hand.

Staying Present…

Waiting for next instructions or final results in the line up, equitating around the arena in a circle at a walk, trot and canter, or over a course of jumps means we must remain just as present in all circumstances.

Whether instructions are being delivered by a ringmaster or coming from inside our head, we still have to have to be completely present, have a plan and follow instructions. We still have to practice, learn and apply our skills with some sort of plan for precision. Whether we are at home schooling, galloping at speed, jumping big jumps, equitating in an arena, perfecting our practice takes complete focus if we are going to bring our personal best to the competition arena. During competitions, what our competitors think about us interferes with our focus, and insights an anxious voice to invade and interfere with the conversation we are having with our horse. This makes our plan of doing our personal best null and void.

The Four Principles…

George Morris
George Morris

The four basic elements of any rider’s art are preparation, alignment, practice, and allowance. In order to be economic and masterful in our riding skills, preparation takes place learning basic skills and practicing them. These basic skills are our go-to references no matter our riding skill level or mastery of technique. We prepare each ride using them. Each practice ride is based on aligning ourselves with the horse’s mechanics and athletic skills of horsemanship.

Riding well, in sync, in balance, with security is the proper execution of our preparation. Winning is a moment when we have displayed what we learned, and how well we are prepared to demonstrate those skills in our execution. Judged above our peers as exemplary in any particular class is when excellence in preparation and practice is revealed.

As we excel at each skill level, our confidence increases as we continue to align ourselves with more highly evolved elements and principles of equitation and horsemanship. Profound understanding of and adaptations to our most trusted equine partners, means building expertise in our riding skills on any horse. Layer upon layer of learning from every horse we ride gives us principles to use on different horses.

When we are secure, comfortable and confident in our level of mastery, we have an easier time of ‘allowing’ our horses to move freely forward while maintaining balance and expert guidance.

Without evoking the mechanics and need for preparation, understanding the elements of dressage necessary to apply in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final course, the outcome of Brian’s goal would have been completely different. Brian had to have a plan. His plan to execute a flawless and beautifully transitioned ride, to demonstrate his personal best proved exemplary.

Brian proved preparation, proper alignment and practicing those principles paid off! It is the whole picture of equestrianism evident in his ride, in his presentation, in ‘how’ he rode the course that put him on top.


The fourth principle, ‘allow’ is the hardest one to practice and execute for many riders. It takes riding security, maturity and mental focus to ‘let go’ at just the right moment. To remain in the ‘letting go’ stage of allowing the ‘art in motion’ to be free gains ground when we are required to elevate our riding skills during tests and finals.

We only have ourselves to learn from when we allow our fears within our sphere of influence. The only conversation we need to be having is between our skill sets and our horse. The outcome of our ride is directly proportional to executing our plan with success or doubting our need to focus and falling short of expectations.

In relationship to our horse skills, without a strong and secure seat, leg and balance point, we tend to ‘hold’ on to our fears with our hands. Equitating in a class such as the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final is pressure filled, and requires displaying maturity in our skills. If we doubt those skills, we turn into a pressure cooker and ‘hold our breath’ or hold on to the horse’s mouth as a means of controlling our anxiety.

When indeed, it is when we are skilled enough to know when to let go, allow our horse to move freely forward, it is in that place of full on trust we see exceptional movements and blue ribbon winning rides.

In that place of security, when we feel we are in sync with our horse, feel what they feel like, breathing doesn’t seem necessary.

Allowance takes a secure seat and a good set of ‘Forgiving hands.’ This may be a term of the past, but it is completely applicable today. The word ‘forgive’ translated from the original Hebrew actually means ‘to let go.’ Secure seats, legs and balance are the keys to the door of allowing brilliance, synchronicity, and economy of our aids to appear and shine. Our hands are merely auxiliary tools for guidance.

The Evolution of Practice…

Practicing the art of riding and in this case, Equitation, evolves at different levels of mastery. Nuancing skills that must be present yet, almost invisible, comes with much practice. The more ‘practiced’ we become in our riding skills, the less anxiety shows up and the more mature our focus becomes. One must not only practice athleticism and proper body placement, we must be aware of spatial concepts, of where our own body properly meets our horses. Mastering our skill levels means we are many things to our horse at once, as they are to us. As riders we evolve as leaders, listeners, friends, communicators, translators, mechanics, mathematicians, athletes, time-keepers, educators, synchronizers, and eventually artists expressing a masterpiece in motion.

Perfect practice evolves over time. Perfecting each one means we can learn more skills, evolve our riding principles and keep learning from every horse every time for the rest of our lives.

From fueling us, inspiring us with the excitement of performing up to our own level of personal bests, if we focus on applying what we have practiced and the joy of the experience, of what it feels like to be completely present with our horse, fear has no place in our ride.

When we present a ride that exemplifies excellent preparation, alignment, practice and allowance, that is when we reach our own next skill level and personal equitation championship bests!

Alexandra Worthington

A WELL DONE and CONGRATULATIONS to ALL who competed!!!

Silver Johnson © Oct.2018 The Riders Art All Rights Reserved

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