Tips for Handling Horse Show Nerves

Updated June 14, 2023
horse and rider at show with champion blue ribbon

A big part of the horse show experience are the nerves, anxiety, and fears that many riders have on competition day. Sometimes, those anxious feelings kick in the night before or hit you first thing in the morning while braiding. 

If you ask your fellow riders if they experience show day anxiety, you will get a wide range of answers. Even if everyone seems calm and collected, they may hide their anxiety just under the surface. Having this feeling before a show is entirely normal. The good news is that the more often you compete, the better you will learn to handle horse show nerves.

7 Tips to Reduce Horse Show Nerves

When you are at a horse show, the entire focus is on the competition. Whether planning for your next class, grooming your horse, cleaning tack, or watching others compete, you are entirely immersed in the show environment. If you get nervous at horse shows, this complete immersion can make it even harder to relax. Here are some tips to help you stay calm and collected at your next horse show.

1. Breathe and Reflect

If you are feeling tense right before you enter your class, give yourself a little pep talk, or have a trusted trainer or friend give one to you. Recap your training and plan for the class, and take plenty of deep breaths before entering the ring. 

At the end of the class, breathe and reflect on the performance. This is an excellent way to develop as a rider, calm nerves before another class, and learn from the highs and lows. Don’t forget to show yourself a little appreciation for all your hard work!

2. Don’t Forget to Eat and Hydrate

It seems obvious, but don’t starve yourself when expecting so much from your body. With a crammed schedule, it's surprising how many people skip breakfast and lunch during horse shows.  Before you know it, it's 3:00 PM, and you feel queasy and lightheaded. Instead, pack food or have a plan for meals. On the same note, stay hydrated, and keep lots of water on hand. Remember, your body needs fuel to perform. 

3. Have a Routine

western halter horse and handler on show day

Create a horse show routine, so you know exactly where you need to be when as well as where everything is that you could possibly need. Part of this routine may be packing the trailer before the show or doing a deep cleaning on your horse. You may want to find a quiet spot like the tack stall or your car to sit, close your eyes, and visualize how you want your ride to go. It could also include jamming to your favorite tunes while running through the class schedule. It’s okay to have fun with it, loosen up, and let go of the nerves! 

4. Focus on the Ride

Horse shows have enough pressure and stress. Give yourself a break! Remember, it’s not always about winning or losing, how fast you were, or how many downed rails. What’s important is how your horse felt and whether you made progress as a team. 

Focus on the ride's positive parts. Your horse got all the correct leads, nailed his extended trot, or stayed on the rail. These are all accomplishments. If you remain in the right mindset, your horse will feel your positive attitude, and you’ll feel better about the experience overall.

5. Challenge Yourself

We’ve all heard the saying, “If it were easy, everybody would do it.” As riders, we’ve all been through plenty of difficult situations. Challenging yourself is the best, fastest, and most rewarding way to improve. Remember, you are trying to improve your skills and overcome nerves, and it is ok to fail sometimes as long as you can learn something.

6. Be Prepared and Be Flexible

Many people find managing horse show nerves starts with your training at home. Take some lessons to improve your skills in advance of the show. Practice the test, course, or movements repeatedly until you can do them with distractions. Then, when in the ring with all the busy show day sounds and distractions, you will be more confident in your abilities. Life with horses can be as unpredictable as rewarding. Don’t be upset if everything doesn’t go according to plan — what seems like a disaster might be an opportunity.

7. Get Support 

hunter jumper riders walking together at a horse show

The best cure for horse show nerves is having an incredible group of barn friends, trainers, and horses who make showing enjoyable and can support each other. Most riders (from beginner walk-trot to Olympic level) have experienced show day nerves at one point in their lives. If you need help handling your nerves, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask your trainer or fellow riders. 

Competing should be a fun experience. Shows should be an open place for riders to develop their skills with their horses and learn and grow. If that is not your takeaway, try something new on show day and see if it changes the game.

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.