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Conquering Doubt in the (Western) Dressage Ring

Posted on: June 10, 2021 by Sara Martineau

Riding Should Be Fun! Part Two:

How SmartPaker Sara deals with doubts.

There is not much as exciting as a looming horse show, there is not much as nerve-wracking as a looming horse show!

One of the disciplines I show Sis Western Dressage and I happily mark, in ink, the show dates that I plan to attend on the calendar, while giddily preparing for said shows with glee and excitement…cleaning tack, washing, and ironing show clothes, gathering health records and necessary papers for my horse and myself.  I have notebooks with endless lists, highlights on the items I am especially prone to forgetting, like my mounting block or extra braiding elastics, and I update and check them compulsively.

Inevitably, no matter how much I enjoy the preparations, when the day of the show dawns, my doubts, jitters, and fear of failing are strong enough to (almost) make me change my mind about attending.   Usually when this happens, the threat of losing my pre-paid entry fee is motivation enough to get me out of bed and to the barn.

That motivated feeling lasts long enough to get my horse loaded and rolling to the show grounds, and once there, getting him tacked and prepared is enough keeps me occupied until it is time to mount and warm up. The moment of mounting, when I am about to swing my leg and settle in, is the most anxious moment of the whole event.  This is when the self-doubt and visions of disastrous fails cloud my thinking, and it takes everything I have to tell myself that I will be OK.   This is when I most appreciate the “You can do its!” and “You look great, you got this”, from fellow barn mates and competitors, while also passing along the same sentiment to them.  This is very empowering, and I find it to be one of the best experiences of showing! 

  My fear of forgetting the test is one of my biggest obstacles so, once I’m on my horse and ready to warm up, I try to focus on the positive words I doled out and take my own advice, visualizing riding my test accurately and efficiently.  Telling myself, that I know the test and that when I hear the bell and prepare to ride down centerline, the movements will come to me in a fluid, flowing manner and I will not hear the dreaded “off course” bell!

I was lucky enough to be blessed with an easy going, mostly laid-back, “good ole’ boy” of a horse who is generally calm and non-plussed no matter where he finds himself upon backing off the trailer.   This allows me to concentrate on calming myself without the added stress of trying to act calm to keep him from blowing up with nerves.   I  talk to him quietly as we jog and lope along, telling how wonderful he is and how pleased I am to be able to have the chance to show him.  As I tell him these things, it makes me remember why I am doing this and how much fun it really is!

When it is our turn to enter the arena, I remind myself that I owe it to my horse to give him a great ride, we have prepared and trained, and we belong out here showing the judge just how well we work together.  I find that when I ride down centerline to halt and salute at X, it is calming to take a deep breath look the judge in the eye and smile, this serves as a reminder that the judge is human and not a scary demon just waiting to see me get bucked off or go off course!  Sometimes the most difficult task can be remembering to smile and look like I want to be there, smiling helps keep me positive and I think of how nice the photos will look too if I have a pleasant expression.

As I am riding the test, I work on keeping myself in the moment and being aware of how I am riding and how my horse is moving. I tend to “freeze up” and not move or fix things if they start to go awry, so that has been a goal of mine, to actively ride and be accountable as a rider, not a passenger.  Straighten myself, if I think I am hunching my shoulders, apply an active leg, or half-halt if my horse is hanging on me and plowing through his gaits.   And when we finish a movement that felt right, I silently congratulate myself for a good effort and put my mind to the next transition.

As we come back down centerline at the completion of our test, I smile proudly, no matter how it went to convey to the judge that I had a wonderful ride and was happy to be there…and also because it is over, we survived and I can be proud of the fact that I had the courage to try, which, is for me the very definition of success!