It is finally spring here in the Northeast! In my home in Maine, we have begun to poke our heads out of the almost-melted snowbanks and are eagerly preparing for the season ahead.
Since it has been known to legitimately snow in Maine well into May, I don’t usually start my competition season until early June. That allows us to bank on at least one warm day to ride outdoors and get ready for the first big event. (I’m kidding here, it’s actually been a pretty decent early season!)
Prior to every show season, I field a lot of questions from my fans (aka, my students) about the best way to develop the nerves of steel that I am known for (seriously, I am). I’m not going to fib: Prior to a big outing I might get some happy little butterflies of excitement and anticipation, but I do genuinely enjoy showing.
I have worked long and hard over the years to develop mental fortitude for the pressures of competition, and tend to really enjoy my show days. On a professional level, I encourage all of my students to be well prepared and calm before heading down the centerline, and to realize that pressure is a privilege.
However, I’m not here to dole out professional wisdom today. I’m here to tell all of you out there in Dressage Land why you NEVER need to be nervous before entering the show ring.
Why, you ask? Because I have been doing this for a long time and have managed to make every mistake known to mankind—every one, mind you—and I have yet to perish from embarrassment.
Let’s take a trip back to Colonial Times, when I was a child doing dressage in the Olden Days (aka the 1990s, which according to my youthful students, is literally the Land Before Time). Thankfully, that was also the Land Without Internet, so there was no risk of being on the front page of a Dressage Disasters website. I am grateful for this, as I had my share of catastrophes.
To name a few:
- In order to win a third level junior championship class in the late ‘90s, the only thing I needed to do was survive, as I was the only one there. Needless to say, this did not happen. My great incompetence, paired with my opinionated horse’s opinions, caused us to do approximately half the test in reverse, before getting rung out. Not my finest day.
- A very young me decided to crack on and take my spooky horse into a bonus test in a very scary arena “for practice.” This went as well as you would imagine, and we finished with a stunning score of 48% or something equally dreadful. Even back then, this was a pretty horrid score. Nobody got too ruffled over it though, as it was, in fact, practice for the horse—and he went into the same arena and won his class the next day. (I file this under “things you can get away with when you are very young, but try to avoid in public as an adult.” I am thankful that there was no live scoring being shared over the internet back then.)
- Also back in the Jurassic Era, we competed in the kind of weather that would cancel a show nowadays. On one such day I found myself (older, and much more competently) riding an FEI test in 50 mph winds, sideways soaking rain and an underwater arena. This was all well and good, until an ambulance came screaming in (foreshadowing), and that was the last straw for the poor horse. He rather unceremoniously and spectacularly deposited me right under the nose of Axel Steiner. I was fully submerged, but did not require an ambulance, at least. It really is not cool to be chucked off in an FEI test, but I lived to tell the tale and am none the worse for it.
- Another day, another weather disaster and I discovered that a mount who was new to me was water adverse. There was a puddle at A, and I could not get him in the arena. That was problematic.
- Final weather disaster: Back in 2008 a fully adult me needed to take a young, high-strung horse into a championship class on a true mess of a weather day. Just before I entered the arena, the horse took control of the situation and slowly turned his back to the windswept rain, then refused to move from that position. Honestly, I could not blame him. During the test, he put forth a great effort to avoid facing the wind, which resulted in a unique pattern unlike that described in the test.
- In my adult years I’ve had a variety of unique excursions. It comes with the territory when one mostly rides the youngsters. You just never know when there will be an excavator working in the woods next to your arena, or when the judge will ring a giant bell, or when a pop-up tent will escape its vendor and come rolling toward you in the wind.
The moral of the story is that I have seen a lot and done a lot, and I have made about ten thousand more mistakes than I have listed here. (Thankfully, this has been balanced out by also having plenty of tests that were memorable for good reasons—I try not to specialize in being a hot mess!)
Along the way, I have discovered the key to helping my students avoid nerves is reassuring them of this: I have paved the way for you with my errors and explosions and, therefore, you now know you are not the only one making tremendous blunders. You can rest easier, knowing that the judges have seen it all before (possibly from me).
From a less lighthearted standpoint, I can honestly say that nobody remembers a mistake someone else made in a test, so if you make an “oops,” nobody is going to be chatting about it over dinner except you and your trainer.
When I see people having issues at a show, I am very sympathetic—I know how it feels! So, if you are having a bad day at a show, remember all those “watching eyes” are most likely supportive, as we all want our fellow riders to have a good experience.
Get out there, be brave! Leave your nerves at home and remember to be awesome—and if you make a mistake, you better believe I made it first.
I’m Sara Bradley, a full-time dressage trainer and rider. Most of my time is spent educating young horses and young riders at my facility, Waterford Equestrian Center in Waterford, Maine. (And yes, I do like to instruct mature horses and humans as well and have some lovely ones in my stable!)
When I’m not busy juggling the day-to-day activities at my farm, I enjoy activities like trail running over actual mountains and running marathons. (Life in the slow lane is not my style!) I enjoy many dressage adventures with my German Riding Pony, Dubai’s Dream, and you can follow this journey on Instagram @dubais_dream.