Mental Preparation and Overcoming Horse Show Anxiety

Updated July 13, 2023
hunter horse and rider on course at show

If you’re competitive or have been showing horses for a long time, sometimes you can lose sight of the big picture. There is much more to competing and training than just going home with a blue ribbon! Importantly, competition builds on the bond and foundation you build with your horse, both in and out of the saddle. The ultimate goal in competing in any discipline of riding is to do your best and be proud of yourself and your horse. If your horse was perfect but you don't have the ribbons to show for it, still try to be thankful for the experience and happy with your horse. Remember, the judge isn’t always going to agree or see everything, and that is okay. 

Optimistically, remember to just have fun. But realistically, no one competes to lose. It’s always nice to walk away with the champion title to show off your hard work. For most people, the biggest thing that stands in their way is themselves and their own mind games. The pressure we put on ourselves can be overwhelming and cause us to lose before we even step into the arena. Here are seven tips for mentally preparing and overcoming horse show anxiety.

Horse Show Anxiety can be a GOOD Thing!  

An older rider smiling at a horse show.

That feeling right before you walk in the ring when your stomach drops and your heart starts to race faster and faster is your body’s natural response to being ready to compete. It can be a good thing! However, most riders view this as anxiety and stress. Work on shifting your thinking so that when you get that feeling, remind yourself that it means you’re ready. Instead of letting it hold you back, use it as a way to feel pumped up and excited to step into the ring.

Fuel Your Body

western halter horse and handler on show day

Some people say they can’t eat before horse shows, but others need to eat a substantial meal or they get cranky and can’t focus. It is not just our horses who work hard and need the proper nutrition to perform their best – you do too! Grab a breakfast sandwich or some fruit if your classes are in the morning. If you’re showing later in the day, don’t forget about making time to have lunch. Aim to have something with high protein. Keep snacks like protein bars or trail mix in your grooming tote or backpack that are quick and easy to grab between classes for a good energy boost. Most importantly, always remember to stay hydrated!

Remember to Breathe 

Jumper horse and rider trotting in show ring

Breathing while you’re in the show ring can be tricky. For example, in a complicated equation course when the jumps and turns come up quickly, you may notice you’re holding your breath! A good goal is to use the short ends of the ring to regroup. This means taking a moment to steady your breathing and focus. You might try to close your eyes while inhaling at the corner and taking a quick mental check.  

One Jump, Movement, or Class at a Time

If you become overwhelmed by the class or overthink a small mistake, try slowing your thoughts down. Nothing is worse than having the most beautiful round and then chipping the last jump. Sometimes it’s helpful to break down the course, test, or class into its individual movements. 

For jumpers, this may mean focusing on the flatwork between the jumps. Once a jump has passed, whether good or bad, put it out of your head and not dwell on it. Usually, a mistake feels worse than it looks. So, if you mess up the first jump, don’t give up or let that negatively impact the rest of your round.  

Focus on Yourself

The horse world is small. If you have been competing for a while, you’re probably familiar with the people and horses at competitions in your region. Don’t let the mental games or gossip mess with you, and move away from that negative mindset. If you see a competitor in your current division and you begin to think, “Oh, they’re better than me. How am I supposed to beat them?” remind yourself that you are perfectly capable of winning. 

Avoid watching others compete so you can stay focused in a positive mindset. Their performances  matter. They are not you and will not make the same decisions in the ring. Also, know how many people are in the class so you can plan your timing for the day. Then if you’d like to watch some classes, look for those with the same or similar courses, but watch people you are not directly competing against. This helps prevent you from psyching yourself out.

Talk to Your Horse

dressage rider petting her horse's face at a show

Some trainers will tell anxious riders to try singing or humming to their horses when they are in the ring. If that’s too much for you, just try talking to your horse. This may help settle your anxiety and is a great way to bond with your horse. For example, you can tell him how many strides are in the line and if it’s forward or short. If you have any high jumps, tell him which ones are bigger and to pick his feet up as you approach.

Don’t Overthink it

Not overthinking sounds a little too easy, but it works. Don’t think about anything while you’re competing. This is especially hard as an adult because you likely have so many things going on that it’s hard to clear your mind. Think of it almost like a meditation. When in the saddle, try not to overthink about actually riding. Your body knows the motions, so completely clearing your mind allows your body to let the riding happen naturally.  

Check out this article for more tips on how to handle horse show nerves.

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.