Improve Your Focus During Training, Competition

Strategies for dealing with distractions and improving focus at dressage shows and at home.

Your horse is schooling well at home, all the movements in the test are easy, and you are feeling confident. You’ve memorized your test backward and forward. Your horse is glistening and every braid is perfect. Your warm-up goes fine, then the bell rings. Down the centerline you go. The only thing to prevent the test of your dreams is the unexpected: You go off course, your horse decides monsters live at F, a baby stroller appears or paper blows across the arena. The movement you always nail doesn’t happen at all. Suddenly the test of your dreams is going down the drain.

Momentary distractions don’t have to ruin or even affect the rest of your test. Whether you let the remainder of your test be affected by the unexpected is up to you–it’s how you handle the unexpected distraction that makes the difference. There’s no substitute for experience for knowing how you and your horse will handle distracting situations, but you don’t have to wait for show day to gain some of that experience.

Elizabeth Clarke and sports psychologist April Clay offer additional tips for maintaining focus during a dressage test (Read the complete article in Dressage Today’s November 2005 issue).

Overcome Pre-Ride Jitters
Having family and friends come cheer for you at shows is great, but they can also create distractions before you compete. Gently explain that you need time and space to focus on your ride, and you would love to see them after your test to celebrate. Put them to work in helpful ways if you can. Encourage them to have a drink handy for you when you’re finished or find a good place from which to view your test and watch your competitors. If you plan their pre-ride time with them before show day, you’ve avoided one more stress, that of choosing between hurting their feelings at the show or getting the space you need to focus on your ride.

Learn to Focus
Shut out distractions while riding at home by ignoring anyone who walks by the arena or who drives up the driveway. Don’t talk to other riders in the arena while you’re schooling. Completely tune into your horse and focus on the quality of what you are doing at that moment. When you give your horse walk breaks, give yourself mental breaks. When you expect your horse to be working, give him your full attention.

Sports psychologist April Clay explains, “If you were told to train somebody new at work, you wouldn’t begin to talk to them and then walk out mid-sentence. But we do this to our horses all the time. And much like our disillusioned co-worker, they often veer off into their own agendas. Staying present means learning to place and keep your mind on the conversation with your horse. If it veers, show some compassion for yourself and your horse. Gently bring both of you back. Start up your conversation anew.”

Ride for the Next Movement
Bringing your mind back to what’s coming next incorporates a well-established tenet of human and animal psychology. Neither humans nor horses process “DON’T” well. The horse will understand and process better if you tell him what to do rather than what not to do. Experts agree that anticipating a problem is a self-fulfilling behavior. Instead of thinking, “Don’t shy there again,” it is more constructive to give your horse a positive instruction: “Forward and between my aids through this corner. Half-pass coming up.”

Sometimes family and friends can create distractions at shows. Encourage them to have a drink handy for you when you

Getting the horse’s mind on the next movement and preparing him fairly for it can help to make a mistake or distraction an isolated past event. Staying mentally present in the test and focused on the next moment is not just a strategy to avoid distractions or keep mistakes from getting out of hand; it’s a key element of riding the best test possible.

Elizabeth Clarke is a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School and has a degree in Economics from Smith College. A serious dressage rider, she runs the Equine Business Institute, a business management resource center for professional equestrians in Santa Rosa, Calif.

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