Competition Nerves - It's not just you (Part 1)

After heading off to my first dressage competition in a while on a pony who has never competed before the subject of nerves was very much in the forefront of my mind.

And it wasn't just my nerves!

As i was chatting to my fellow competitors; who were also riding babies; comments like "the battery just ran out" and "I just lost all go" were made. this got me thinking.

Horses have 3 ways of dealing with stress




We speak and know a lot about the flight & fright, the bolting and spooking. But not so much is mentioned about the freeze.

Freeze can be expressed in many ways, (and I'll write more on this in another blog) and in a show situation freeze can be felt like 'shut down', 'lazy', 'dead to the leg', 'switched off', your normally quite responsive horse takes a little holiday as you have to work over time to get them to seemingly do anything. They feel stubborn, and by the end of the test or found you feel like you've practically carried them around the class rather than the other way around.

I certainly experienced this on Wednesday, after a few skips sideways my pony didn't throw herself in the air or jump out of her skin, she held it together but at the same time she went so inwards on me I had to practically shout to get her to hear me, her freeze break was fully ON and going was the very last thing her nervous system wanted to do.

It's important to notice when our horses head into this freeze, as its easy to miss and only see your pony behaving 'well' but being lazy. If we miss the freeze mode we don't realise how nervous our horse really was/is, and we could be tempted to push more. The freeze break can release slowly as the horse feels safe, or in some cases if the horse is pushed past their limit of coping can release very quickly, causing an outburst that usually gets labelled as unexpected, these sudden explosions in my mind can be the most dangerous as the rider just isn't expecting it. But the horse has been giving the signals all along, just in a way that we don't always recognise.

So what am I going to do with my horse that's freeze mode was fully activated?

I'm going to treat her the same as a horse that went in that ring and flung herself all over the place, I'm going to take time to get her confidence, I'm going to build back up slowly and not be tempted to push her past the limit that her nervous system can cope with. And only when I feel that break slowly coming off and her usual responsiveness resume in that environment do I know that she's ready for the next level of questions.

I'm a BHS Senior Coach based in Suffolk, I train riders to understand their horses more, build a deeper connection, and work on the biomechanics of the rider to improve theirs and ultimately their horses way of going.

Send me an email if you're interested in working with me

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