No wonder dressage is often referrred to as “stressage”. Of all the equestrian disciplines, ours demands the biggest application of mind over matter.
When heading for a big hedge out hunting, shortening your reins, sitting up and keeping your legs on rarely goes amiss. But dressage? Goodness, it’s intense; every stride is scrutinised by a judge.
As palms sweat and butterflies do aerobatics in the stomach, almost every competitor must have questioned whether this is fun.
So what’s the problem, exactly? Is it that dressage riders take themselves too seriously? What precisely are we worried about? Maybe finding the answer to that is the key to coping with killer nerves.
Maybe we’re stressed about letting our trainers down? Well, no, we’re paying them, so they won’t mind. Or maybe we’re anxious about looking inadequate in front of anyone who happens to be watching? Well, honestly, people aren’t really that interested…
Or how about the very real fear of letting down one’s horse? Ah, he won’t care a jot as long as the rider takes the blame for any shortcomings and doesn’t punish him instead.
And what about pressure from husband/partner/parent who can’t understand why, after getting up at some unearthly hour and having spent so much time and money, you don’t appear ecstatically chirpy five minutes ahead of a test? Well, wait until they want that holiday that would pay the mortgage for a month, or six!
Of course, every worry is magically swept away on a heady tide of elation and pride when it all goes well. So maybe that’s the thing to hang on to?
Nature or nurture
Asked whether competition nerve — otherwise known as composure — is developed through nature or nurture, I always say it’s both.
Confidence plays a big part, and that only comes with preparation and repetition. So by definition, the professionals who compete often are best equipped to cope.
However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that one rider’s first prelim is another’s Olympics. And at any level, trying too hard is always the kiss of death.
A top international showjumper once told me they always rode best when “high as a kite on pain killers” — because they didn’t care and just went into the ring to enjoy the experience. Far be it from me to recommend pre-test substance abuse, but you get the drift —it’s all about attitude.
‘Just do it’
Mental health issues are now with us 24/7 across the equestrian industry.
As employers, we have an increasingly onerous duty of care. Meanwhile, I confess my teaching has been refined to suit the fragile. Yes, seriously folks, us older generation must remember to ask the person in front of us, “How do you feel?” about everything.
Once, while being taught by a world-renowned trainer, I was told to “just do it”, upon which I made the mistake of asking, “How?” Silence ensued, and I got on with whatever it was with renewed vigour.
Today, when enthusiasm can be interpreted as bullying and saying, “That’s hopeless — try this or that,” produces a need for tissues, a form pre-signed by the client is an option to protect one’s business.
Ref Horse & Hound; 17 January 2019