I’ve Become a Space Cadet- Show Nerves

I have developed a new and exciting technique for dealing with my show nerves, or any nerves.  What is this fantastic new talent?

I forget everything. My mind goes, “Duho…” and Bubba says, “Here we go again.”

I can be in the middle of a test I have done hundreds of times and then completely blank out.  Although I have noticed I tend to do it more when we come to the walk sections of the tests.  Or the stretchy trots.

These two movements have been the bane of my existence for the last two years.  See a correlation?

I have a stupidly difficult time getting any horse to lower its head. Why?

I cannot let my reins go.

I’ve been told to stop riding with my hands so many times that I go a little nuts if someone chimes in with that bit o’wisdom now.  I know that I need to learn to let go, in more ways than one.

I believe the underlying issue is that I lack confidence in my ability to influence the horse with my seat and leg aides.  A naturally fearful beginner rider, I relied too heavily on the reins as a fundamental tool for slowing down Bubba, who at the time looooooved to speed off in a canter that sent my mind into panic mode and my body into a fetal position.  My go to response was to pitch my torso forward, pop out of the seat into a jockey position, and yank backwards on the reins.

I wince when I think about it now.  That poor boy put up with a lot of uneducated riding from me.  Well he still does but I’m making progress.

Further complicating my fear issues is the unfortunate occurrence of my bouncing off of Bubba the first time I tried to canter with him.  For two weeks afterward my trainer would try to get me to get him to canter and I would think canter, canter, canter, canter but my body would lock up and my reins would be firmly clenched and I could not physically get myself to do it.  I was Ice Rider, stiff and cold and not so melty.

Fed up,my coach hooked a lunge line on, told me to hold on to the bucking strap and deal with it.  She let me keep my reins because at that point, not having them would have probably sent me into a full blown panic attack.

OK, after that I could get him to canter easier, but it was still a massive struggle for me.  I would bounce around in the saddle and knock on his kidneys and he’d try to go faster and I’d…pull on the reins.

My coach then tried to get me to let go of the reins by telling me that if I kept pulling up and backward, Bubba would go up and backward too.

Rearing?!  Hello panic mode.

Needless to say I did not let go of the reins and we had a handful of rearing incidents, completely my fault not his.  He’s very good at following the bit.

Over the course of the last thee years I’ve managed to convince myself that I can survive a canter around the arena a couple of times but the whole letting go of the reins thing?  Still not happening so well.

I had a friend and dressage trainer come out to give me some lessons last week and at one point he asked me to give him the reins, while we were just walking mind you, and I had to mentally pry my fingers off one by one.

I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a couple of bricks short of a load now.

I know at one point this all used to be necessary as I constantly rode like a starfish, feet sticking out away from the horse, elbows projecting East and West, and well, the idea of sitting on my seat bones let alone using them was still unfamiliar and unpracticed.

I’ve gotten better with my leg aides, my calves actually touch the horse now!  And as we’ve been to more and more shows and I’ve seen more and more awful equitation pictures I’ve been on my own case to actually try to sit up straight, which still feels to me like I’m falling backward off the edge of the grand canyon.  On the occasional chance that I can ride where a mirror is available or convince a kind stranger to take a video and I mentally berate myself into a decent riding position where I ‘feel’ like I’m falling backward, I’m still leaning forward.  I am however much closer to the ideal vertical though, I’d say I’ve shaved off at least thirty degrees.  Only 5-10 more to go 😉

Any how, I’ve begun experimenting.

I can get our lunatic uneducated, exceptionally athletic warm blood mare to trot around happily to the left with her nose buried an inch in the arena sand.

How she hasn’t gotten a belly full of sand yet I don’t know.

I can rocket around the arena at her version of a collected canter, my version of a cross country gallop, without completely loosing my mind.

I ride my goofy and also uneducated but far less athletic OTTB Deemer around the giant field behind the barn next to where his brother is freaking out because he’s totally alone and abandoned (even though he can clearly see  us not ten yards away).

We haven’t cantered out there yet though.  I don’t want to tempt fate and teach him that those little itty bitty fences that come up to his pecs are actually jump able mid runaway. Better safe than sorry.

I cannot however get my completely sane, very well trained, exceptional quarter horse to do a free walk or a stretchy trot that’s not sort of just a stretchy trot or a free walk with his head not so forward and not so down or an actually free walk or stretchy trot that moves at an absolutely glacial pace.

I know right. Ridiculous.

Once in a while we’ll see a brief glimpse of it but I have yet to develop the confidence that I can consistently ask for it and not hope and pray that it might happen if I let go of the reins just a teensy little bit but still clutch them with every finger and pretty much the tensest forearms ever.  My other favorite trick is to not let go of the reins at all but just pitch myself forward in the hopes that throwing all of the poor guys weight onto the forehand will do the trick.

Once again, please feel sorry for my horse.  I am the issue.  If he could talk he’d probably tell you this too.

I have a theory that if I would just get dumped off a couple more times I wouldn’t be so afraid of getting run away with or getting bucked off.  Have I ever been truly run away with or bucked off?

No.  I can think I’m getting runaway with or buck off quite easily.

I have a fantastic imagination that loves to seize onto any passing thought in my subconscious and create new and exciting under the bed monsters out of it though.

Anyway, back to the whole space cadet problem.

I don’t think the last show season helped at all.  I put massive amounts of pressure on myself for absolutely no reason at all.  For gods’ sake half my season is schooling shows, we’re not registered for all breed awards because Bubba’s papers are still MIA, and I’m in a region with phenomenal riders at the same level as us so I had no shot at GMO awards last year.

I’ve talked about this before.

I recently read an article about show nerves that advised that all perceived pressure is just that, perceived and most importantly self imposed.

It said that you shouldn’t care about where you are placed, or even if you’re placed at all.

dressage, ribbons, horse, show, champion, blue

Yes, we did earn them. We did those tests. But, we were still the only Intro Level entrants at the show. Shh, don’t tell anyone.

This is a philosophy I’ve been truly trying to accept since the beginning of the year.  Looking back at the dozens of blue ribbons Bubba and I have received, at Intro Level, I can honestly say I only remember two of the rides.  Ride one because it was the first ride of the season and we got our first 80% + score.  Ride two because we got our first 10, in a medium walk no less.  The rest?  Those other blue ribbons came because I was riding a ridiculously over qualified horse in a lower level test with virtually no other entries.  We were lucky if two other riders showed up for the same test.

I can tell you what though,  I remember perfectly the ride we had at championships the same year.  Why? No we did not win.  No we should not have won, please don’t ask me to actually reveal the score.  But, I did learn something.  I fought through an adverse beginning to pull off respectable marks in the last half of the test and I felt like I had actually accomplished something.  I kind of wanted to cry because, really we should have won.  We’d been consistently scoring 7-11% higher than every other competitor who’d entered.

That’s dressage for you.

Not to diminish Intro level riders at all, I’d be happy to continue riding Intro level tests for the rest of my life.  But, the feeling of walking and trotting around on a very well trained horse to a ridiculously high Intro Level score definitely did not compare to doing our First Level 1 test this year and receiving a respectable slightly higher than 63%.

I was ecstatic.  A.) It was a qualifying score B.) I’d done a first level test! C.) I got the first two scores toward my Bronze Medal.

Maybe I should just hold on to that feeling of accomplishment, pride, and joy for the rest of the season.  Maybe then I could actually relax in and out of the saddle.

If only it were that easy.