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Experts Weigh in on Finding Confidence in the Show Pen

To the timid rider, developing the confidence needed to excel in the show pen consistently, may seem like an unattainable goal. But as AQHA World Champion Whitney Vicars advises, “…being a confident rider is not something that happens overnight, it is a process.”

GoHorseShow spoke to several top amateurs and professionals for their tips and strategies to help timid riders develop confidence in the show pen.

#1 –  Change Your Mindset

Often, we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to showing. Instead of thinking of all the right things that could happen, we think of all the wrong things.

When you are sitting in the gate ready to enter the show pen, try not to focus on the negative possibilities that could happen while showing and instead, focus on the positive.

Before beginning your pattern, picture yourself getting that diagonal on the first try, nailing that lead change, or stopping and executing that smooth, flawless turn. Multiple World and Congress top ten AQHA exhibitor Brandy Baldwin-Bunting says, “If you have mentally pictured your pattern or ride going well, your brain will also step in and help that become a reality.”

Vicars adds, “Horse showing is a mental task as well as physical. I believe you need to train your mind to focus on the task at hand. To remain confident, you can’t allow nerves, fear, or any distractions to creep in. When you walk into the arena for that moment in time, nothing else should matter. Focus on doing your best on the task at hand and being in sync with your horse.”

Multiple Congress Champion trainer Missy Thyfault advises exhibitors and other trainers to “stay in their lane” and focus on their horse and program. “Don’t compare yourselves to others you are showing against. The comparison will only build anxiety – focus on your positive ability and skills and showcase them,” Thyfault adds.

Additionally, Baldwin-Bunting notes, “Believe in yourself. It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. To be confident, you must start by believing in yourself, and confidence is key to doing well in the show pen.”

#2 – Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

There’s no doubt that preparation is a crucial element to success. Top riders and trainers advise that preparing both physically and mentally is essential to handle competition rigors.

Multiple World and Congress champion Patrick Riley notes, “The best tip I can give to a timid rider is to be prepared. Do your homework. To gain confidence in your abilities, you must believe that you can perform the task, pattern, or maneuver at hand. This only comes from hard work outside of the show pen.”

Baldwin-Bunting adds, “I think it is essential to pay attention to both the mental and physical elements of showing and how that impacts us. I always try to be conscious of my anxiety and how my horse may be experiencing it. I am constantly paying attention to the, sometimes unintentional, cues I am giving my horse, especially as my anxiety rises as my time in the arena nears.”

AQHA all-around trainer and judge Amber Clark emphasizes that preparation is a crucial element for all, but most importantly for timid riders. She helps her riders prepare for the show pen by simulating stressful situations during shows at home, such as boot camps and mock shows where her riders can practice being “judged” on their performance. A firm believer in teaching her riders to work through and not avoid less-than-ideal situations, Clark embraces the distractions that naturally occur during lessons at home because it helps her riders learn what to do when something goes wrong.

Thyfault believes that for timid riders, the necessary preparation on show day is vital. “The more prepared you are for coming into a horse show and how time is used at the horse show should give you the confidence you are looking for,” Thyfault advises. “Get your lessons lined up in advance and be as consistent as possible. Make sure your horse is getting prepared at home. Make sure all equipment and clothing are ready in advance. In the end, confidence comes from feeling ready and prepared.”

#3 – Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Horse shows can be a challenging, grueling experience. Factors such as unpredictable weather, lack of sleep, and unhealthy meal options are just some of the reasons that a rider might not be feeling their best on competition day. The best riders can conduct themselves well in the show pen, no matter what the circumstances.

Multiple World and Congress Champion Tony Anderman advises exhibitors to remember that the judge can only evaluate you at the moment and is unaware of any negative factors that might impact your performance. “Good exhibitors exude confidence even when they are not feeling it themselves. When you step into the pen, the judge doesn’t know your flight got in late, or your horse just threw a shoe. All they know is how you are presenting your horse and yourself to them at that precise moment,” Anderman notes.

Also, Anderman emphasizes the importance of confidence when it comes to showing through difficult circumstances. “Confident riders are not confident all the time, but they have learned to push through any anxiety or fears they might be experiencing and deliver a good performance consistently,” Anderman adds.

#4 – Get in the Show Pen

To gain confidence in your abilities, it is essential to get out there and show. While preparing at home is critical, some issues can only be addressed within the show pen itself.

Vicars and Anderman both emphasize the importance of time spent in the show pen. “Showing is important to building confidence,” Vicars notes. “There is a difference in riding at the shows versus at home. If you want to learn to be a confident showman, you have to show.”

Anderman adds, “The more times people get into the pen, the more comfortable they become. Things will occasionally go wrong in the pen, no matter how well you prepare, but you generally exit the pen without catastrophic injuries to you or your horse. Once you realize the worst thing to happen will be a little bruising of your ego, it is easier to enter the pen with a clear mindset. The only difference between practice and showing is the judge.”

#5 – Focus on What Works

Particularly crucial for new or inexperienced riders, be sure to set realistic goals and focus on what classes both you and your horse can do well. AQHA judge and trainer Christa Baldwin notes, “For timid riders, I try to build confidence by encouraging them to do exercises and classes that they and their horse can accomplish well. This gives them the confidence to step up and not feel defeated. As their confidence grows, more elements and classes can be added.”

AQHA all-around trainer Seth Clark adds, “I am always sure to, particularly with a timid rider, discuss their class or pattern with an equal balance of what went well and what could be improved. This ensures that they leave the show with an understanding of what steps need to be taken to improve, but also a sense of accomplishment for what they have achieved so far.”

Final Thoughts

In addition to the steps outlined above, Bunting advises that timid riders should focus on themselves to improve.

“I believe the key to being a confident rider is focusing on yourself and not your competition. Comparing yourself to others you are competing against will often mentally wear on your confidence. Focus on having the best ride you can, making personal goals to improve, and block out everyone else. There is a difference between worrying about competition and striving to be like someone better. Watch those people who are constantly winning. Pick up pointers. See why they are always on the top of the judge’s card and don’t be complacent. Change and adapt where you can to improve.”

About the Author: A native of Northwest Pennsylvania, Kelli Hardy has been a lover of horses and all things AQHA for as long as she can remember. She graduated from Edinboro University with a BA in English literature and a minor in writing and is currently a high school English teacher at Erie First Christian Academy in Erie, PA. She shows with the American Quarter Horse Association in her spare time in amateur all-around events with her mare, The Pretty Committee.