Written by: April Clay

Whether you are tackling your first entry-level cross-country course, ammy jumper round, or returning to competition after a long hiatus, here is a timeline for successful mental prep.

Thumbnail for Countdown to the Ring

Andrew Bailini Photo


1. Stage a “test” performance

Riding under pressure is a skill. Like any skill, it needs to be practiced. Would you rather walk into the ring hoping you won’t crumble, or knowing you can cope? Simulating the competition experience can give you an idea of where you are with your showing skills ahead of time.

2. Create some pressure

Invite people to your test performance. If you can, invite a lot of people whose opinion you value highly to watch you do your thing. Crank up that pressure until you can feel the heat. Maybe jump a bigger course or do a harder dressage test.

3. Decide on your pre-performance ritual and practice using it

A pre-performance ritual is something you use just before entering the ring. Its purpose is to connect you with that confident, capable part of yourself that knows exactly what to do. You can think of this as your “performer self.” There are two major rules to follow with this process: keep it short (no lengthy rituals, you won’t have time) and keep it meaningful.

4. Eliminate the unexpected

Sit down and make a list of potential problems and how they would be dealt with. These are your “controllables” and you should decide how you will deal with them ahead of time. Yes, there are “uncontrollables” such as a bad judging call and there is nothing you can do about those, but you can decide how you will respond to them so they don’t get in the way of your ride.


1. Do you have all your equipment, etc., prepared?

It’s amazing how many riders panic the day before the show because they don’t have something. Make sure you have a list and you have checked it twice.

2. Wind down

As you get near the end of this week it is time to do less – to wind down. You can’t cram a bunch of learning in at the last minute, so don’t even try!

3. Rehearse feeling good

Visualize yourself performing well. You don’t need to make this picture-perfect, just good. In fact, your mind is more likely to “believe” if you keep it realistic.


1. Take your horse and yourself on a guided tour

Look at the ring. Stand at the in-gate if you can. Close your eyes and visualize yourself performing. Fill in the backdrop with what you now know about your surroundings. As much as possible, you want to desensitize yourself and your horse to this new environment. The more you become familiar with it, the less power it will have to take your attention away.

2. Work out your show schedule

Check your classes and know when you will be in the ring. Check with your coach to see if he or she has any ring conflicts for which you need to be prepared.


1. Last-minute goal check

Review goals and, if necessary, make appropriate alterations. (Uncontrollable factors such as an injury may mean a last-minute goal change is in order).

2. Trust yourself

Strive to let go and trust yourself. Do not try to do any last-minute “work.” You cannot – I repeat – cannot learn better upper body control, for instance, by worrying about it at this moment. You might as well turn around three times and cluck like a chicken.

3. Activate your pre-performance cue

Put on your game face and go!