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Dealing with Show Nerves – Reclaim Your Competitive Edge

Published on 5/28/2018

Our August guest blogger is Kaili Graf of Speak Equine in Ventura, CA. Kaili’s passions lie in the how, why, what and when of equine behavior. She studied equine ethology, biomechanics, physiology and genetics abroad before forging her career in the training field. Kaili ran the Willing Partners Program under Monty Roberts before branching off with the intent to create her own program of Natural Horsemanship. Her background in horse rescue, OTTB thoroughbred rehab, dressage and APHA all-rounders has led to the desire to build a new training endeavor in Ventura, CA. She founded Speak Equine in 2014. 


Does this sound familiar?

You roll into the pristine showgrounds in the crisp cool morning; excited, hopeful and ambitious. Freckles unloads like a dream and the two of you stride off to stretch your legs and get your bearings. You’re the picture of perfection; polished boots, tight bands under a slick slinky, saddle shining. You march past the announcers booth and turn a corner, daydreaming about those blues, the judge handing you a ribbon with a smile while the crowd cheers.

You’re rudely wrenched back to reality when your horse notices the Bleachers of Doom. Or perhaps it’s the Tractor of Death, the Umbrella of the Underworld, or worse – a plastic bag drifting in the breeze. Freckles instantly morphs into an eighteen-foot fire-breathing dragon on two legs. Shoes are flying, blankets rip; it’s a dustbowl, you’re at the end of the leadrope and barely holding on. It’s all you can do to get the both of you back to Trailer Safety Zone.

You’re rattled but you bravely slurp down a coffee, brush the dirt/debris/tumbleweeds from yourself and your horse, collect your show number and saddle up. Freckles nervously rips hay out of his hay bag and dribbles it everywhere. You clean the green slime from his not-so-white-anymore socks, attempt to find a missing glove, almost forget to tighten the cinch, mount haphazardly from the tailgate and the two of you bravely dance sideways into the warm-up ring. Your confidence is shot, but you’re not giving up yet. Before you careen into the second circumnavigation of a jittery egg-shaped circle, the announcer calls your class. You’re on. You gallop toward the ring, leap low bushes, terrify a passer-by or two, plaster a smile on your face and attempt to convince the judge that your frothing horse, missing glove and sweaty brow deserve that blue ribbon.

For too many of us, this is a reality. Nerves take a bite out of our long-sought success; they leech the fun out of show day and impede progress and accomplishment. It’s not fun. I’ve been there, and I’ve worked with top riders who also deal with show day nerves – so don’t feel alone. You can learn to create habits that combat nerves. Prepare to embrace and enjoy your show day. Prevent those jittery meltdowns with preparation, mindfulness and intention. Mastering a handful of habits and anti-anxiety tricks will make a big difference.



Preparation is my #1 recommendation – a little bit of prep will have far-reaching implications. Expose your horse to new situations. Haul out to new arenas or attend a clinic just for the experience. Train your horse to quietly and reliably enter and exit a trailer, and make sure your horse is used to tying, grooming and tacking up in new settings. Visit a local extreme trail course (or build one yourself) and expose your horse to new obstacles. Create situations where your horse looks to you for an answer. Guide him calmly and respectfully through these obstacles to create trust in your horse. Establish yourself as the rock-solid leader in this partnership, then watch him learn to ask you what to do in a frightening situation. Make sure that your horse can accept music, banners, balloons, umbrellas, easy-up canopies, the camera flash, dogs, strollers, a busy arena, grandstand seating, and anything else you might see at a show. And don’t forget those deathly plastic bags.

Prior to show day, create a schedule. When you arrive, allow plenty of time to quietly unload from the trailer, stretch your legs, tack up and warm up. Know where your arenas are, and when and where you can warm up. Have your tack and grooming items organized, clean and handy. Thorough preparation removes the anxiety of a rushed show morning, reducing your stress levels.


Your Quiet Ritual

Create habit and ritual associated with times of quiet, relaxation and oneness. This might sound hokey, but it’s a powerful technique. Horses use ritual amongst each other to build bonds – they mutually groom, use breath, touch and close proximity. Build on this and teach your horse to associate a singular ritual with times of relaxation and trust. With my own mare, I approach quietly, place the palm of my hand on her shoulder, breathe out audibly and she usually mirrors my deep breath. I take a moment to simply BE. I scratch her withers and neck, mimicking mutual grooming between horses. Don’t underestimate the power of touch. A horse can feel a single fly land on his coat – he won’t ignore a scratch in the right spot. Use this to your advantage. Recognize these moments of calm and create a new ritual – it’s good for both of you! Later on when you need to cause a horse to be calm, you have this ritual in your bag of tricks.


Awareness and Inner Calm

When you’re in the saddle, start to pay attention to how your breathing affects your horse. If you take a big deep breath, relax, and let all of your tension out, chances are your horse will too. Learn to breathe with purpose – as you’re sitting quietly in the saddle, breathe in and feel your body elevate and open up. Exhale slowly and feel gravity pull your seat bones down into the saddle, your weight down through your heels.

Be mindful of your body language. Your mount looks to you as the leader of the partnership. Horses are an excellent judge of emotion and fear – it’s a survival mechanism. If their herd member is anxious, it probably means that there’s a lion somewhere nearby (substitute wolf/bear/crocodile to suit…). As a horse it’s in your best interest to be mighty nervous as well, or else you might get eaten. As a rider, ask yourself; “If I’m the leader here, what am I conveying to my horse?” Anxiety, nerves, rapid breathing, clenched hands, arms, seat? How do you expect your horse to respond?

Teach yourself to shift focus and create inner calm. There are many tricks, but I highly recommend focusing on somatic sensation – squeeze one finger at a time on the reins, feel your weight sinking through your heels and through your seat bones into the saddle. Notice how your weight shifts with the rock of the horse’s’ gait. Count his steps, focus on one single hoof (the near hind for example) and say a letter of the alphabet every time it hits the ground; a… b… c… d. You’ll be amazed at the power of distraction to remove tension and anxiety from your mind.


Your Horse is Your Mirror

This builds on the previous point; if you feel rushed, worried, nervous, tense or scared, your horse will reflect exactly that. Create inner calm and watch as your horse finds his. Make sure you’re not in a rush. Learn to respond to a spook with a calming, gentle “eeeasy.” Respond rather than react. A reaction is a reflex; abrupt, a tug on the reins, tension in the saddle, harsh words. A response is a pre-meditated, chosen pattern of behavior. Always remember that your horse is your mirror. If you react when they react, you’ll cause tension to spiral out of control. If you stay calm, you give the horse a chance to stay calm. Never reprimand a nervous horse, it will do nothing to calm him.


Bring Focus and Intention

When you enter the show ring, enter with intention and focus, breathing deep into your belly. I shift my focus to how I feel in the saddle – feeling the synchronicity between my balance and the gait of the horse, my seat as it sends my gravity downward into the saddle. I recognize that I’ve taken the time to prepare; I’ve put in my saddle time, I’ve practiced that pattern. I don’t allow myself to think about what might go wrong, but instead I focus on what I’ve already done right. I had a really great ride two days ago and that walk-lope transition was just magical. Now is a time to trust myself and be confident. I think about my equitation; is my core strong, hands soft, heels down? I breathe out softly, exhale my tension. I visualize the ring steward handing me a blue ribbon and I smile. Show time.



At the end of the day take a few minutes to note when you felt most nervous and when your horse felt best and worst. If there were triggers to an unwanted behavior, write down the behavior and what you think caused it. Later on, you can work through similar scenarios and find a solution before you might have to deal with it again on show day. Trust that even if you don’t place well, you can watch and learn from your competitors, judges and observers. Remember that the journey to success is why we’re in the sport in the first place. If we were perfect from the get-go, it would be mighty boring! Finally, write down your biggest success for the day and remember how it made you feel.


Kaili provides world-class training to her clients by sharing the intricacies of equine behavior and learning. She is an advocate for horse rescue, volunteers with HEARTS therapeutic riding. Kaili says she considers herself an amateur musician, and is an absolutely terrible chef (unless it’s mixing horse feed). If you’d like to learn more, visit, or visit her page in the CAWDA Trainer’s Network.

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