How to Stay Confident at Shows

A top U.S. Grand Prix dressage competitor explains how she handles show nerves.
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A top U.S. Grand Prix dressage competitor explains how she handles show nerves.

At the 1999 Pan-American Team Selection Trials in Gladstone, N.J., I learned a very valuable lesson--never lose confidence in your horse and yourself.

I have owned and ridden my horse, Jellowa (Joey), from the start of his career at First Level. Imagine how pleased I was in 1999 when we qualified to compete in the Intermediaire I Championships in Gladstone for the second consecutive year. The big bonus was that it was also going to be the dressage team selection trial for the Pan-American Games. This would be my first time in a U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) selection trial. I was thrilled with the opportunity to compete against several of the best horses and riders in the United States. I was intimidated as well.

Throughout Joey's career, I have adhered to a consistent program that builds his confidence, while at the same time strengthening and supporting him as he has progressed. This has helped ensure that I know Joey inside and out and that he knows and trusts me. My consistency in Joey's program has produced a special partnership of trust and harmony. That is, until that weekend at Gladstone.

Joey and I entered the warm-up arena with confidence. But when I saw all those beautiful horses and famous riders, I started to question whether I belonged with them. My confidence faltered. As I walked around the ring on a loose rein, I watched all of them ride. I noted what everyone else was doing, how their horses were going, their positions and their spurs. One person was galloping forward in a half seat while another was piaffing. Some were practicing exercise sequences that I had never even thought of.

In that short 15-minute period, I became all of those people rolled into one, and poor Joey had no clue who the person in the saddle was. He had never heard some of those aids before or had any clue what I was asking of him. Neither did I. Gone was my careful preparation and my plan as well as our trustful partnership and harmony. I ended up very disappointed in my riding that weekend.

I have learned my lesson. Now as part of my mental preparation for competition, I go over my warm-up plan. I tell myself that I know my horse. As we all know, no plan can be rigid, so I adjust. The point is that it is my plan. If I have a trainer at the show, my plan becomes our plan, not the plan of several different aliens that come to inhabit my body.

I also have learned that the time to watch the famous people warm up is not just before I put my foot in the stirrup. I love to watch other people ride and learn a lot from watching, so I set aside time after my ride to relax and watch. This experience has helped me be a better competitor. It also has helped me be a better trainer for my students. We discuss the plan for the warm-up, complete with a plan for "what-ifs." This helps keep us on track with our training and our horses.

It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to prepare for any show. Never forget that it is you who developed your relationship with your horse, not that random person on the flashy, big bay across the arena.

Susan Jaccoma of Kennebunk, Maine, is a U.S. Dressage Federation gold medalist and 1998 Can-Am team silver medalist. She is head trainer at Jeannette and Warren Knight's Wolf Run Farm in Buxton, Maine. Currently Sue is successfully competing her Dutch Warmblood gelding Jellowa and Harmony Holsteiner's (Elizabeth, Colo.) Harmony's Coolio at Grand Prix.

This article originally appeared in the October 2002 issue of Dressage Today magazine.