Tag Archives: horse show nerves

Tales of a Horse Show Organizer—Somewhere in the Middle

Disclaimer: The views contained within this blog post are solely my own. I do not intend to speak for the other staff of the University of New Hampshire Equine Program, its students, volunteers, or other affiliates, who may well see things quite differently. I am merely using my experience as the manager of the UNH Horse Trials to inform my perspective on the continued loss of competition venues in eventing.

At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in West Palm Beach, Florida, I attended an interesting panel discussion: “Growing the Grassroots”. This presentation featured the work of a panel which included representatives from several USEF affiliates and disciplines. Bill Moroney, CEO of the USEF, facilitated the discussion, and he opened with the statement that “a majority of the USEF membership feels they are part of the grassroots.” This large group of riders mostly avoids competing at rated shows due to any of a number of barriers—cost, exclusivity and accessibility being among the most significant.

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The Grassroots Panel…photo “borrowed” from the USEF Annual Meeting e-newsletter emailed to members, uncredited. Like the Fiji water girl, I am in all of the photos… my profile is in the middle, looking left, with the glasses. Proof I was there, lol!

One panelist commented that local shows (which are often unrated) are doing well, and the upper levels are doing well, but there is a serious lack of opportunity in the middle levels—and this is where we are losing riders.  The middle is the land of the one day rated horse show; when I was a kid, these were the “C” and “B” shows, where you were able to log miles and trips and hone your craft in the show ring, without the budget and time commitment of going to a week long “A” show, but with the pressure that comes with an increased standard of riding.

Although most of those present were speaking of the hunter/jumper scene, I couldn’t help but think about the sport of eventing. In 2018, 28 horse trials were cancelled, reducing the number of starters by over 3,000 rides. Though some of these cancellations were due to weather, many more are permanent losses to the eventing calendar. Here in Area I, we have lost Stoneleigh Burnham (which hosted twice per year), King Oak/Grindstone Mountain (King Oak used to host two per year, and the new owners tried it in 2017 but threw in the towel in 2018) and we have just recently learned that for 2019 we also are losing Fitch’s Corner in New York and Riga Meadow in Connecticut.  Collectively, this represents over a century of eventing in the northeast. Losing these competitions impacts the bottom line of the US Eventing Association, which collects a starter fee for each ride, but more importantly, it is eroding access to local, one day events. You know, the ones where you log your miles and hone your craft and learn how to compete under pressure. These events are the bridge between schooling trials and premier, destination competitions.

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Anna at King Oak Farm, September 2014. Photo courtesy of Flatlandsfoto/Joan Davis and used with permission.

I have been managing the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials since 2006; we are the quintessential “middle” competition, a stepping stone from the growing schooling eventing circuit to larger, more prestigious events in the region. Our competitor base is largely local, coming from within a two hour radius, along with a handful of riders from further afield.

UNH hosts two events per year (spring and fall), and for five years, we ran one in summer as well—to help replace yet another event lost to the Area, Kingsbury Hill. Since Kingsbury Hill was sold, UNH has remained the only sanctioned horse trials in New Hampshire. When Snowfields stopped running, Maine lost its only sanctioned event. For those event riders in Maine or New Hampshire, save for UNH, you have to travel to Vermont, Massachusetts or New York to compete at a USEA horse trials. Most of these losses have happened within the past 5-10 years.

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Anna’s first novice at Snowfields HT, Aug 2012 Photo courtesy of DC Designs

Each semester, when I meet with the ten students who will head up committees of their peers to manage each phase of our horse trials (dressage, cross country, show jumping and awards/promotion), I ask them: “Why, for over forty-five years, has UNH run a horse trials on its Durham campus?”

The answers are fairly consistent: to promote the program, to give students a chance to learn about how to run a horse show, to make money. And most of these reasons are true, save for the last. It is an unusual show in which we actually turn a profit. Our goal is to break even—because truly, for us at UNH, hosting the horse trials is mostly about giving our students a living laboratory, a chance to get behind the scenes and to ‘learn by doing’ all that goes into organizing and running a horse event. We use the horse trials as a model; using similar skills, students could go on to coordinate any number of equine related activities. Plus, the experience of running a committee is a real resume booster, full of transferrable skills: organizing, communicating, delegating, meeting deadlines, coordinating, following organization rules. I hope you can tell how incredibly proud I am of the work that our students put into these competitions.

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Acclaimed international course designer Richard Jeffries joined UNH students and staff to design the courses for our 40th anniversary horse trials in 2011.

But each time I ask the question, I find myself thinking: “If this were my private farm, and I had all of these resources and the land to run cross country—would I still do it? What incentive does a private land owner have to continue to offer eventing on their property?”

Truthfully, I have no way of knowing what exactly motivates these landowners, but I sort of suspect it comes down to a deep seated love of the sport, and a desire and willingness to give back. People take pride in their properties, and I believe that many of them truly love watching others enjoy them as well. We competitors are just invited guests to a party.  Let’s face it—no land owners + no organizers= no more eventing. To that end, we have to keep organizers happy. We need to be better guests.

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Collecting the decor for our horse trials frequently requires the creative use of local resources.

It seems trite to say that running a farm is hard work. Maintaining a cross country course can almost be a full time job itself; it feels like you have no more finished mowing and weed whacking than you turn around and have to do it again. Mother Nature is always out to reclaim that which she considers hers. Water complexes become clogged with weeds, wooden fences rot and decay. Footing becomes compacted and worn away on trails as roots and rocks rise up. Trees fall, blocking routes and sometimes destroying jumps.  I come back to my earlier point; to do this much work on a private farm in order to run a competition a handful of times per year, one which is most likely not going to make you money and might even cost you—it is a labor of love.

The event at UNH is unique for many reasons. It is the only recognized event in the country held on a college campus. It is nearly wholly coordinated and staffed by students, very few of whom would call themselves eventers. They come from myriad equestrian backgrounds: horses at home, 4-H and Pony Club, breed specialty programs (we are the land of the Morgan Horse, after all), dressage, western, therapeutic horsemanship and of course, hunter/jumper. Some have shown, some have not. Some have volunteered before, some have not. Many have never in their lives been handed a clipboard and a radio, been trained to do a job and then told: you are now in charge. They are emergent leaders. They are your future boarders, clients and friends. They are equestrians.

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Still smiling, despite moving 20+ heavy standards and countless rails! Show Jumping Committee Chairs in Fall 2018.

Volunteers, like organizers, choose to offer their time and talents for myriad reasons. Just like organizers, if they are not getting what they need from their experience, they are unlikely to do it again in the future. Our students are not volunteers in the strictest sense—they are required to participate in the horse trials as a course expectation—but like volunteers, they are trying to fit competition preparations into their very full schedules. They have classes, homework and exams, jobs, family commitments and personal lives, just like all of our competitors. They are up early, giving of their time and energy, setting up courses in the rain and then running to an exam, coordinating a dressage warm up before their peers have even gotten out of bed.

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In between writing her grad school applications, this student committee chair made sure our cross country course looked sharp for the fall event.

So perhaps that is why, after a week of frenzied activity and three days in a row of 12+ hours of nothing but horse trials, and bearing witness to this hard work, I bristle to receive the following types of feedback from event participants (these are from actual competitor evaluations):

 “College kids were distracted and handled timing poorly….though they are college kids, so kudos for not wearing pajamas.”  (How insulting is this? Really? The nicest thing you can say is at least they were dressed?)

“College kids didn’t have a clue.” (Maybe the particular student you asked a specific question of didn’t have the answer you needed. That can happen, because most of them are only familiar with the phase of the event which they prepared for. But I can guarantee you that our students, overall, have been through a more comprehensive training program than the average event volunteer. For example, our fence judges have two hours of lecture training and are taken out to see their fences in advance of the trials, in addition to the TD briefing on the day of.)

Or one of my favorites, when a prominent trainer in our area said out loud to our dressage stewards this fall, “I hate when they give you benches to sit on. It makes you lazy.” (So you would like them to stand for seven hours? With no break? Is this any way to treat a volunteer? I should probably also add that the phase ran on or ahead of schedule both days—and I can’t even begin to explain the impact that remark left on the two people it was directed towards.)

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How many rails did we need per side again?

Maybe I just take these comments so personally because I know, first hand, how hard our students work to put this event together. For some, it is a steep learning curve, and when a phase is first getting under way on the first day, and people are figuring out their jobs, are there some hiccups? Sure. But the officials, full time program staff and student leaders are right there behind them, offering them support, helping them figure it out. Our students are not lazy and they are not inattentive. They are learning, and most take their duties quite seriously. They are volunteers.

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This group readies the start box for a spring event.

I should add here that we receive positive evaluations too, and a handful of emails or notes thanking us for hosting the shows. I am always sure to share these with our students and staff. But the hurtful ones leave a sting that can be hard to forget.

When Stoneleigh-Burnham School, our sister event out in Greenfield, Mass., was forced to cancel their 2018 summer competition on the morning of the event due to excessive rain, my heart broke for them. So much time and effort, and money, was spent for naught. This private girls’ school has an equestrian program, but their focus has become primarily hunter/jumper. Like UNH, SBS has run an event for decades, on its campus, the cross country course wrapped around soccer fields and tennis courts and its main dormitory. Like most schools, it doesn’t have a generous margin of error when it comes to its budget.

Within hours of the competition cancellation, while some of its entrants were no doubt still making their way back home, having already begun their trip to the foothills of the Berkshires when they got the news, the posts started on social media. “When are we going to get a refund?” snarked one competitor. “I don’t have the money to lose on a cancelled competition.” Others chimed in. Many defended the competition and understood that this was a lose-lose situation. But the fire was lit, and some threatened to never enter the event ever again, accusing organizers of keeping funds which should be returned to competitors (contrary to the omnibus listing, which clearly stated no refund in event of cancellation).

Within two months, Stoneleigh announced that they were done with eventing for good.

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And not one in pajamas.

Here’s the thing folks—if we want our “middle” eventing competitions to survive—organizers need to break even, volunteers must be treated with respect, and competitors need to say ‘thank you for inviting us’. We are all in this together.

“Middle” event staff and volunteers work hard and invest time, money, energy and love into presenting a quality, safe competition on a budget. We want our competitors to have fun, to meet their goals, to be challenged reasonably for their level. We take constructive feedback seriously, and over the years many changes to the format, layout and coordination of the UNH event have been the direct result of competitor feedback.

At that Grassroots round table, the panelists stated that in the hunter/jumper industry, the middle of the sport is in a bad place. There is no incentive for organizers to run local, one day recognized shows, because trainers don’t come; instead they take their clients to the high end shows, where they can camp out for a week or more. The clients which can’t afford it either bankrupt themselves trying, drop back to the schooling level or leave the sport.

Eventing must take this warning seriously. When events go off the calendar, they don’t seem to come back. There just isn’t a long list of new facilities and land owners clambering to get a spot on the schedule.

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Isn’t this what is all about? Camaraderie, fun, friends, and enjoying our horses.

 

It benefits ALL of us to ensure that people who start in our sport stay in our sport. We want people to be lifelong equestrians, which means they need to have good experiences, and this includes our volunteers and organizers. As a competitor myself, I appreciate that when we are under the pressure of a show, we are not always our best selves. I warn my students about this and I can forgive a sharp word or two. But please, before you hit send on that snarky competitor evaluation, take real stock of what it is you are trying to say. Are you offering help, or are you just complaining? Is your intention to make yourself feel better or to genuinely improve the quality of a competition?

Perhaps outgoing USEA President Carol Kozlowski said it best in her “President’s Letter” in the Sept-October 2018 Eventing USA, in regards to organizing, “It’s a tough job even when things go well, and it quickly loses any appeal when an unappreciative audience runs amuck,” writes Kozlowski. She then encourages competitors to reach out to organizers to thank them for their effort and say you are looking forward to their next event, even if the show had to be cancelled or something didn’t go smoothly. If being an organizer has taught me anything about how to act as a competitor, it is the importance of being grateful for the opportunity to even be there in the first place.

Please listen to her. I promise it makes a difference. The future of our sport may depend on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daniel Stewart “Pressure Proof” Your Riding!

The question of “mental toughness” as it pertains to equestrian sport is one which has been of increasing interest to me in recent years, for several reasons.  First, as the coach of an intercollegiate riding team, I have often noticed that what seems to separate those who win from the rest is not simply equitation skills; of course, you must find your fences, but equally important is the rider’s ability to maintain focus and self-confidence.  Secondly, as an instructor, I have seen so many riders whose progress is stifled because either they don’t believe that they are capable of being better than they are, or they don’t care to be better than they are.  Finally, “mental toughness” is an area that I find that I now personally struggle with as a competitor.  Nerves plague me far more today than they ever did when I was younger, and these jitters sometimes turn into a level of anxiety which causes me to feel utterly exhausted before I have even set foot in the stirrup. The question of how to build a rider’s “mental game” is one which has intrigued me and prompted me to begin investigating the topic further.

This summer, I was fortunate to be able to participate as a rider in a clinic focusing on “pressure proofing your riding” with equestrian coach and sports psychologist Daniel Stewart.  The clinic was hosted by Lauren Atherton Eventing and was held at our facilities at UNH in Durham, NH.

The participants and auditors from the Daniel Stewart clinic at UNH July 2013.  Photo credit: Lauren Atherton Eventing
The participants and auditors from the Daniel Stewart clinic at UNH July 2013. Photo credit: Lauren Atherton Eventing

Prior to the clinic, I was moderately familiar with Stewart (he has been a frequent guest speaker at the USPC Annual Meeting) and had read his first book, Ride Right, which focused a bit more on combining physical exercises with mental imagery.  His new book, Pressure Proof Your Riding, was just released this fall, and after riding in the clinic, I found myself pre-ordering a copy.

As it happens, the book arrived as the fall semester was beginning, and it was moved to the shelf, waiting for that mystical “free time” in which I would “focus” and “really absorb” the book.  Hmm….

A few weekends ago, I was able to hear Stewart speak again, this time at the Area I Annual Meeting in Northampton, MA.  The lecture he gave was similar to the one he provided at the clinic this summer (and a hearty “atta boy” to Stewart for being able to maintain the same high octane energy level and enthusiasm he did presenting this lecture, which he must have given at this point on countless occasions), but it did help me to reconnect with some of the important concepts that I learned about in July.  As we continue to move forward into the Year of Gratitude, it seems like a good opportunity to “focus” and “really absorb” some of his key concepts, even if I don’t actually get to that “free time” where I will sit and read the book from cover to cover.

Developing a Solution Focused Mindset

One of Stewart’s first points is that being nervous means that you care about what you are doing, and overall, nerves are a good thing!  However, nerves can get out of control, so learning to manage your nerves is a critical skill to master.  To quote Stewart, “Perfect position won’t help you if you can’t focus”.

Stewart also discussed learning to develop a “solution focused mindset”, as opposed to a problem focused mindset. Of course, this can sometimes be easier said than done.  Therefore, he proposes several unique yet interconnected strategies to help riders learn to control their arousal level and thereby maximize their performance.

Music Motivation

We all know that music can affect our emotional state—so why not use this to our advantage?  Stewart suggests choosing several songs which you personally find “pump you up” (if you need that type of encouragement) or “calm you down” (if you are someone who tends to get hyper under pressure).  Look up those songs’ lyrics—do any of them contain motivational messages? You are basically looking for positive affirmation sentences within the lyrics.  Stewart then says you should narrow your play list down to just one or two songs whose anthems really help you get into a positive and focused mental state.

Listen to your music at the beginning of the week before an important ride or competition, and imagine yourself having the ride you are hoping for.  Stewart likens this to creating your “personal highlight reel”.  You can listen to the music on your way to the barn or in the aisle as you groom.  Spend some time really feeling your ride as you let the positive motivational messages seep into your psyche.

Anna on approach under Daniel Stewart's eye during the "playground" exercise at the July 2013 clinic.  My "pressure" would have increased exponentially if these jumps had been about five holes higher.... Photo Credit Lauren Atherton Eventing
Anna on approach under Daniel Stewart’s eye during the “playground” exercise at the July 2013 clinic. My “pressure” would have increased exponentially if these jumps had been about five holes higher…. Photo Credit Lauren Atherton Eventing

Cue Words

Stewart points out that when under pressure, it is easy to forget what it is you are supposed to be doing—does anyone remember watching David O’Connor looking for the next jump when the Olympic gold medal was on the line?  He calls this “stress induced amnesia”.

We all know that there are certain pieces of our riding that require extra focus—maybe you need to keep more weight into your heels, or look where you are going, or establish a forward canter with your horse before the first jump.  But add a bit of pressure, whether as intense as competition or as basic as someone you want to impress starts to watch you ride, and those skills go out the window.

To help riders stay focused and motivated, Stewart suggests coming up with a personalized “cue word”.  A cue word is a three to five letter acronym which triggers your long term memory about important information.  He gave several examples—STAR (Sit Tall And Release), LUCKY (Look Up Cluck Kick Yell), there were more… but you get the idea.  This cue word will help you to remember the one or two most important physical or mental things you can do to ensure your success. Most of the words he gave as examples also carried a positive message or image in and of themselves.

Stress Stoppers

Stewart says that a “stress stopper” is a pre-competition ritual that can be used to regain focus when you have lost concentration.   It puts your attention back onto something that you can control, and helps to stop the perception of stress.  Apparently professional athletes in more conventional sports do this all the time—a particular dribble of the basketball before taking a foul shot, knocking the bat against a cleat before matching up with a top pitcher, etc.

In riding, a stress stopper can be as basic as taking deep breaths and smelling the “aura” of a horse or stroking a ‘lucky’ braid, even wearing a special pair of socks.  It really is a personal ritual or action that you find gives your brain something to do, to calm down and re-focus when needed.  Many of these rituals are almost superstitious, but they allow us to take our brain’s focus off of the pressure or nerves and onto something else.

An interesting concept that comes up a lot in sports psychology (and education, as well) is “flow”.  When someone is in a state of “flow”, they are totally immersed in whatever task they are doing, and it is as though no time passes at all.  They are focused, intense, and wholly engulfed in the work at hand.  Stewart spoke of “flow” and that it is important for a rider athlete to be in a state of flow in order to “get in the zone”.  When a rider is “in the zone”, they are able to focus on the present, and to identify solutions to problems by being aware of the skills that they have and what they are good at.  The ride at this point becomes automatic.

Here, Anna and I were "in the moment" and the exercise became easy and fun-- like bring on the playground is supposed to be! Photo Credit Lauren Atherton Eventing
Here, Anna and I were “in the moment” and the exercise became easy and fun– like bring on the playground is supposed to be! Photo Credit Lauren Atherton Eventing

“Targeting” is when you use an auditory target to help achieve a state of flow.  In horseback riding, Stewart says that focusing on repetitive sounds such as you or your horse’s breathing, or the sound of the horse’s footfalls, works really well.  This is a form of “cadence training”, where you focus your attention on the rhythm of your horse’s gaits (one-two, one-two), which can help you to achieve harmony with the movement of the horse.

Stewart explained that this type of auditory cue can almost become like a chant, a positive affirmation or a mantra that can help riders to maintain focus.

Focus for a rider really is everything—humans are not good at “mental multi-tasking”, says Stewart, meaning that in spite of what we might think, we cannot focus on two things at once.  I know that I can’t watch TV and also attend to the person on the phone (so don’t expect an answer if I am watching one of my favorite shows), and I also know that I can’t focus on my placing in a class and my show jumping course, or wonder what score the judge just gave my centerline while still riding a balanced and flowing corner.  The rider must choose what she wants to focus on, and that is why these techniques which can help us to “stay in the zone” become so critical.

Staying focused when the unexpected happens (like clearly missing your distance) takes practice and "mental toughness".  Photo Credit Lauren Atherton Eventing
Staying focused when the unexpected happens (like clearly missing your distance) takes practice and “mental toughness”. Photo Credit Lauren Atherton Eventing

Building Your Brand

Stewart’s final theme of the lecture was on “building your brand”, and my take away is that this is a way of combining all that you have been working on into one effective strategy to gain control of your focus.  Actually, writing this blog is part of my own “building my brand” process.  Stewart reminded us that up to 80% of what we hear in a day will be forgotten; to just sit in the lecture and not do anything with the material will not allow the listener to really absorb it.  However, we DO remember 90% of what we teach to others—so in listening to the lecture twice and now summarizing it for you, I definitely feel as though I personally am beginning to internalize Stewart’s message. Whether you, gentle reader, will do the same is up to you!

To “build your brand”, Stewart says that you must take your four pieces of homework (music motivation, cue words, stress stoppers and cadence training) and connect them together.  He gave many examples of how previous clients had done this; the only one that I really remember was the LUCKY girl, whose horse’s name was Lucky, she rubbed a horse shoe for luck before mounting, had the word “lucky” in her music, etc.  By making all four of your pieces “fit” together, they become a system which is easy to remember and to apply.

Laugh Learn Love

In spite of our best mental preparation, things do not always go the way we had hoped for.  And so, a final message from Stewart—and so relevant in this Year of Gratitude—is to remember to LAUGH (even if you don’t feel the laugh for real, faking it with ‘strategic laughter’ will still release feel good hormones, and since your brain can’t focus on two things at once it will respond as though you meant it), LEARN (when things don’t go your way, figure out what went wrong and look for the solution) and finally, LOVE—there is a reason we do this sport, after all, and I doubt for most of us it is for a $2.00 ribbon.

Our first ride-- already a match!
Our first ride– already a match!

Final Thoughts

So what is my “brand”?  I am not quite sure yet; actually, I don’t even have a clue.  I do think that much of what Stewart is teaching really makes sense to me—and some of his concepts are ones which I have already (unwittingly) used.  For me,  it is all about being able to push the other thoughts aside and to find that state of ‘flow’; those moments when it is just you and your horse, and you aren’t worrying about what people think about your style of riding or whether you are going to embarrass yourself or make your horse look bad.  I guess these are some of the worries that go through my mind, anyway.  When I can just feel my horse, feel the rhythm, and really ride, all the rest of that goes away.

Anna schooling at UNH Event Camp, 2011
Anna schooling at UNH Event Camp, 2011