Can You Handle The Pressure?

Nyls at Morven CIC3*. Photo by Valerie Durbon.

Nyls at Morven CIC3*. Photo by Valerie Durbon.

I’ve always considered myself a fairly low maintenance, laid back type of person, but recently I’ve come to realize that my threshold for pressure must be much higher than the average bear, because as it turns out, I’m quite exacting and persistent about many things.

Through a combination of riding a different set of horses this year and expanding my student base, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only do I put pressure on myself to perform, but I actively seek it out in my surroundings. I’ve also realized that this is not the normal procedure for everyone else in the world, and that’s OK too.

No, I will admit that I was not always good under pressure. In fact, I often tell my students that I identify with performance nerves as well as anybody. I fondly recall my habit of puking while at competitions, and no, I’m not talking about before riding, or after completing a course. I’m talking about puking off the side of my horse while galloping in between fences on cross country. I have to say that this may have traumatized a few unlucky fence judges in my younger days, sorry guys!

When they tell you that horse sport is at least 50% mental, they aren’t joking. It’s pretty hard to deliver the goods physically if your brain is spinning your thoughts (and your stomach) in a whirlwind circle, and causing you to puke over the side of your horse.

If every time you enter the arena, your body freezes up and prevents you from reacting innately to the movements of your horse, you’re basically doomed, no matter how many lessons you took and how well you could perform at home.

When we look at the best riders in the world, of course we admire their physical skill set, because, who wouldn’t want to ride like William Fox-Pitt? However, what’s even more impressive to me is that William can enter the grand arena in Kentucky as the last rider to show jump, keep his cool and pull off a clear round despite thousands of eyes on him and the pressure to succeed. His riding skills can only flourish because his mental game is hyper focused and practiced at delivering in the most important times. 

Polly, a rescued OTTB I worked with in conjunction with Days End Horse Farm Rescue. Photo by Erica Stevens.

Polly, a rescued OTTB I worked with in conjunction with Days End Horse Farm Rescue. Photo by Erica Stevens.

I always thought that I was pretty uncompetitive, although clearly the habits of my stomach should indicate otherwise. Also, there is the fact that all throughout my elementary and middle school days, I would “win” the mile during PE solely because I was more determined to show up everybody else. I’m not actually that fast or that interested in running, but I am interested in pushing myself to the limits of my ability, and proving that I can perform there.

Because I am the personality type that demands high standards from myself, of course it is natural that it leaks into how I ride and expect my horses to behave. This is not to say that I’m a dictator (we’ve addressed this before), but I assume that if everything is fairly presented and well within the realms of reason, my horses should try just as hard as I do, and do so willingly.

This system tends to work to varying degrees of success with horses that are used to the sporting life, as they have grown up understanding the idea of “job” and expect some pressure in riding situations. Some horses are more willing to take it, while others obviously take a little bit of a sophisticated touch to accomplish the goal.

This year, however, I’ve begun training horses at the Equine Welfare Society, which takes horses from the rescue world into the sporting world, and that’s been an eye opening experience for me as a rider.

When taking a horse with an unknown background, or very little training and handling, you enter the realm of fixing old habits and establishing new preferable ones. This is fine, but I’ve encountered on multiple occasions that I simply have to pick my battles, and I just can’t demand as much as quickly as I want.

Because I know what a connected and through horse feels like, I naturally want to teach all of them to carry themselves and use their bodies properly. Not only is this physically hard for these horses, but they often revolt when they realize, for the first time in their lives, that every stride has to be correct. “Not just every tenth stride?!” they protest, “You gotta be kidding me, lady!”

Just like a human who didn’t participate in high pressure sports as a kid, these horses are midway through their lives and just realizing that they have to deal with the pressure. Sometimes, that doesn’t go over too well. I’ve had to re-evaluate my training, and force myself to be a little more relaxed, and take more time. I have the luxury of time, but in our society it’s easy to forget that.

Leo, once terrified of pressure, now accepts it and improves under the challenge! Photo by Ellie Riley.

Leo, once terrified of pressure, now accepts it and improves under the challenge! Photo by Ellie Riley.

When I’m choosing a teacher for myself, I seem to gravitate towards the exacting and nitpicking type, which is funny because that isn’t how I perceive myself. I don’t get to have lessons as often as others, so when I do, I want to arrive and have that person point out all of the things that I’m doing wrong, and help me fix them, and then give me homework.

I yearn for them to put together a combination of jumps that I find uncomfortable, challenging, and something I would never put together for myself at home. I want them to force me to do that transition seventeen times until I get it just right. I love the pressure, and the corrections, and for my teacher to point out the flaws that I don’t see.

This is, obviously, not everybody’s preference. As a teacher myself, I’ve had to realize that this approach does not align with everyone’s goals, and that it’s OK to take things slower, and take the pressure off.

Not every lesson has to include a dramatic challenge, or involve taking the next step in the training scale. Most riders don’t thrive under that kind of microscope, and instead need positive messages to encourage them to grow as equestrians. This is a completely acceptable idea, because everybody has their own journey.

I saw a listicle recently that was enumerating habits of successful riders, and one of them was that they welcome failure. To me, thriving under pressure is closely related to your level of comfort with failure. To perform when you know it’s all on the line is equivalent to looking failure in the face, and saying, “Hey, I know you’re there. That’s cool, I’m gonna prove you wrong anyway”.

Of course, I don’t relish the idea of failure, but I know that it’s an inevitability of life (and definitely riding), and failing in one way is just crossing off one item on the list to success.

That’s why I seek the pressure; I yearn for the moment when my coach tells me what I did wrong, because then I can go about fixing it, and that’s what is exciting to me. Plus, succeeding under pressure is an incredible high, and nobody can tell you any different.

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