Dealing With Stress To Improve Your Riding

Whether you’re an elite dressage rider or someone hopping on a horse for the first time, we all experience stress. It goes hand-in-hand with pursuing success.

How stress plays out for you in your riding ultimately depends on how you handle it.

What is stress?

We often view stress as a negative and in the process, we tend to forget that stress at a certain level is actually healthy. It’s important to remember that stress activates our ‘fight or fight’ response. When you’re hunting for food and a lion chases you, you want to hope your body switches on this mechanism!

So, stress is not a negative feeling or hormonal interchange. It’s the amount of stress we’re coping with that causes a problem. Our modern-day environment sees us feeling overwhelmed, stressed, run down or exhausted on a weekly, if not daily basis.

When we experience stress, a coping response is initiated. Back in the days when you were hunting for food, you would have slept more to cope with the stress of the morning. Today, we continue to push ourselves with little break or reach for sugars, caffeine or alcohol to perk up our sugar and cortisol levels.

As we push to continue, the more stress you’re creating for your mind and body. The more nutrients your body uses and the greater the load on your liver. The more likely your body is going to switch off your cognitive capacity to think, make decisions and feel in order to survive.

This lead to a loss of focus, fatigue, illness and mental burn out. Exactly not what a rider wants when in competing. Ever experienced ‘brain freeze’ where you forget the test? This is a classic sign you’re a rider under too much stress.


Strategies to deal with stress

We’ve all entered an event with mental cutter and feelings of self-doubt. We’ve all left an event feeling frustrated and less than satisfied with our riding. Perhaps your horse spooked in the middle of your test for no apparent reason, you forgot part of your test or you and your horse simply couldn’t get it together. Thankfully, there are some strategies to deal with your stress to improve your riding.


Clear your mental clutter

If you’re a rider who struggles with mental clutter, you need to clear it to reduce your stress. A helpful way to do this is to develop a check-list so that you’re prepared on the day of your event. Having confidence in your preparation will help you focus and direct your energy to the task at hand, rather than worrying if you packed your jodhpurs!


Control your focus

You often hear about riders buckling under the pressure. A lot of time this can be because they lose their focus. Instead of focusing on the job at hand, they focus on who’s watching, who’s judging or what could potentially go wrong.
Instead of building mental clutter and multi-tasking, control your focus to the job at hand. Focus on one powerful thought only. One great way to do this is to create a step-by-step routine for your ride. This can start when you’re grooming and getting ready for your test, all the way up to the competition of your test. Practice that routine and focus only on that to get you in the zone.


Utilise the power of visualisation

Visualisation is a powerful too that can help you direct your focus. You can utilise this in several ways depending on your own personal preference. One way to use visualisation is to imagine riding the test before you enter the arena. Visualise yourself performing at your absolute best without any errors. Another way to use visualisation is imagining yourself as your idol dressage rider. How would they handle themselves? Would they ride with confidence or enter riddled with self-doubt? Develop this image as you practice and then take it with you into your test.


Learn to breathe

When we’re stressed, everything is heightened as our nervous system responds to the threat. We can either hold onto our breath or it can speed up to an unhealthy level, particularly when anxiety sets in. Learning to breathe is a great way to create calm and lower your anxiety levels. Every time you get onto your horse, take a few deep breaths. Every few points when you’re riding, check in with your breathing. As you continually return your awareness to your breath, it will become a habit and you’ll naturally learn to breathe as you ride.


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