Zen and the Art of Dressage

We all know that feeling… You’re ready for the big show. Your horse is tacked up and his main is braided. Your friends and family have come to watch you and there’s even someone there videotaping the event. Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and all this pressure is making it hard for you to remember your test.

Stop…. Breathe…. Breathe again…  You’ve got this!

If you find yourself suffering from intense anxiety prior to an important ride,  use this simple set of tips to bring yourself back in the zone:

  • Breathe: Yes, I know I said this earlier, but breathing is foundational. Slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths help to stretch the chest muscles, improve your posture, and calm your mind when you are stressed.  Use the “4 Count” breathing method to optimize your breath…
      1. Breathe in slowly while counting to four.
      2. Hold your breath while counting to four again.
      3. Exhale to a four count.
      4. Count to four again before taking another breath.
  • Stretch: Stretching before a ride will not only improve your posture, but can help your mind relax. Our brains take cues from our bodies, and tight muscles lead to stressed minds. Bend over and touch your toes.  Pull your elbow across your chest with your opposite arm. Lean forward against a doorway and stretch your chest muscles.  Taking time to care for your body leads to a calmer mind.
  • Laugh: It might sound hokey, but laughing is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for an important ride.  Deep belly laughs relax our diaphragm, give us a boost of endorphins (our bodies’ nature feel good chemicals), and help calm the parts of our brain that are overactive when we are stressed.  Laughter is such a powerful anxiolytic that even psychologists prescribe it as a form of treatment generalized anxiety.  Laughing helps us take ourselves less seriously so we can get on with the serious business of having fun at the show.
    • (Pro-Tip: You might want to excuse yourself to a private place before trying this tip… People may look at you funny if you are doing the Santa Claus laugh in the warm-up arena).

These tips can be very helpful if you are preparing for a show ride and need a quick fix for your mental “freak-out”. They have saved me from pre-show panic and have helped me optimize my performance at competitions. They are not, however, a substitute for practice and preparation.  If you can’t remember all the parts of your test, it may be because you are anxious…. or it may be because you didn’t do your homework.  As Archilochus said:

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”