Updated: May 9, 2021
When I was little, I took care of my own pony, who lived in our garage. I rode him every day of the week and twice on the weekends (poor pony!). As soon as I was old enough, I started working for lessons with the event rider up the road, and I spent every summer being a working student. Mom bought an ancient Cadillac ("The Horse Caddy") and a tiny trailer and dutifully took me to events and rallies whenever possible. I was obsessed. I saw myself on the road to the top.
Then my brother made the travel hockey team. 150 games a season. A coaching staff. An athletic trainer. Strategies. Tactics. Tournaments with round robins, semis, and finals. My handful of events every summer suddenly looked like backyard ponies again.
My brother made 150 competitive starts in his first season on the travel team. I did not trot up the centerline or leave the start box 150 times in a decade.
Fast forward to the present(ish). One of my student's parents recently asked me what they should be doing to help their daughter reach her goal of becoming a professional rider. Like me at her age, this young woman has one horse. Unlike me, she does not take care of it herself and has never had a working student job. Or any job. Anyway, we had a meeting with her parents to discuss her career plans and map out a way to reach them. She does not want to teach, manage a barn, groom, or to be a horse health practitioner of any kind. She just wants to be a rider. My suggestion, only half-jokingly, was for her parents buy her five more horses. I told them this would still not get her as many trips around cross country per year as the top riders her age, but it would be a darned good education and would get her as much competitive experience as one rider without a full-time staff could handle. Hopefully I softened my delivery a little (not my strong suit): They did not fire me, and they got the point.
I have another student just starting out in eventing. She gets terribly nervous at shows and struggles to remember courses and stick to her plan for each ride. We have good strategies in place to deal with this - course walks, notes on the maps, "remember to laugh when you pass the garden gnome by the porta-potty," etc., but it is hard for her! I asked her what other sports she does, and she looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. "What do you mean??" Do you play soccer? No. Do you do anything else that requires performance, like dance or play a concert instrument? "Why does that matter? No, I ride."
It matters because soccer games and piano recitals are all high-pressure situations. These situations teach kids how to manage their nerves, mentally prepare for an important day, recover from mistakes and go on to win the game, and how to self-coach.
Adult riders need these skills, too, but we have lived long enough to experience pressure in many situations: Work, public speaking, relationships, hiring, firing, failing, recovering, and succeeding.
My Mom is a life-long elite high school teacher and a Head of School. She has been the head of several schools that needed her intellect, character, and effectiveness under pressure to guide them out of challenging scenarios, she is known as a change agent for schools in transition. Now, at age 76, she has a great job at a school on the west coast and is learning how to play the flute. She has been promoted from the second chair in the 1st-grade band to the 4th-grade orchestra. She says that a key difference between 1st and 4th graders is that when a first-grader makes a mistake in a song, he or she picks up playing again wherever the error occurred. They do this even if the rest of the band has moved on a few bars, resulting in a whole bunch of kids playing different parts of the song at the same time! The 4th graders, thankfully, have more experience with mistakes - when one happens, they take a breath then successfully rejoin the music alongside everyone else.
Performing under pressure takes practice! All kinds of pressure count as practice. At horse shows, I ask my young students to check in with the warm-up and in-gate stewards themselves. This act is practice for them to introduce themselves to grown-ups, talk to officials, and be heard in a crowd. Of course, they have me in the wings for support and to make sure all is well, but it is good practice for kids to do this kind of thing.
Competitive starts in other sports are good practice for horse shows. Job interviews are good practice. Public speaking is good practice. And right back at ya – horse shows are good practice for job interviews, college applications, and public speaking.
My Mom can walk into a board meeting and run the room. Just like I can enter at A and command a good score, go all the straight routes on XC, and (hopefully) leave the poles up on Sunday. Similar skills are at play!
I recently sat down to chat with upper level eventer Lindsey Oaks about intentionally putting myself in high-pressure situations in order to continually become a better competitor. You can watch the interview below. In what ways are you leveling up your competitive skills by putting yourself under pressure?