Question: Dear Dr. Bonomi,
I hope you can help me. I’m frustrated because I forget my courses all the time! Last year I went off course more times than I care to mention. This year I want to put a stop to that. I get a lot of nerves at shows, and even though I memorize the course with my trainer, I’ll go around and all of a sudden have no idea where the next fence is. Sometimes this also happens during lessons.
Sincerely, PL, Sonoma County, CA
Answer: Dear P,
Yes, I can help you! I’m sorry about your frustration, but I understand. It’s such a terrible feeling to be on course and then forget where you are going! But yours is not an uncommon challenge. Your nerves are causing you to be elsewhere rather than in present time. If we can get you to be more present and focused, you’ll stay on course more easily. I will also give you some tips about course memorization to make the pattern easier to hold onto—even if you do have a momentary lapse (which we all do!)
First of all, let’s think about reducing your anxiety and helping you stay present. I suggest you practice relaxation breathing. This kind of breathing can take different forms, but start with this: take a slow deep breath in through your nose for four counts, and release it out of your mouth for six counts. Repeat this cycle three or four times, slowly, while paying attention to your breath. You will start to feel your body relax and your mind focus in on the moment. You might notice your horse take a breath too! I recommend you use this breathing technique before you get on, before you start your course, and any time you need to calm and center yourself.
Take Your Time
Second, give yourself enough time to learn the course. If you’re in a lesson, take an extra moment or two to go over your plan before you start out. If you have questions, ask your trainer to repeat the pattern. If you’re at a show, get there early. In my experience, most people who are nervous about going off course actually do not give themselves enough time to learn it effectively. They are so afraid they won’t remember it that they rush through the preparation process, thereby setting themselves up to be flustered and forget it.
If you’re at a show, be sure you learn the course in multiple ways—for instance, first look at the course map. Then, if possible, watch some rounds so you see how it rides. Take a photo of it, if you need to, and visualize riding it as part of your pre-ride routine. Take note of any points in your visualization where you start to go off course or feel uncertain, and actively correct yourself in your mind. Ideally, all this preparation takes place well before you go to get on your horse. The worst strategy would be to warm up, walk over to the ring, and then have your trainer tell it to you as you walk in the ring!
When I personally get to a show, one of the first things I do on show days is to go to my ring, learn my courses and watch—even if my class isn’t for a while. By doing this, I allow my brain to start working on it unconsciously. Being prepared helps calm me, and I know that when I get back up to the ring with my trainer for my rounds, I’ll already have my plan. Also, if there is something tricky or with choices (such as a medal or handy round), I’ll have already watched and have some ideas on how to negotiate it. For me, more information is better. And, the more prepared I am, the more I enjoy the ride!
Another tip is to memorize the course as a series of patterns, rather than as individual fences. It’s much easier to remember a sequence than individual items. (The sequence can be any pattern that helps you remember—most common patterns are the color of the fences or the location of the lines.) So, the course could sound like this: “the single off the right short diagonal, to the left bending grey 7-stride, to the single brown oxer, to the red judge’s line in 6, to the far white 5-stride.” Then repeat, “single, grey, single, red, white.” Thinking about the course as a pattern will help you strategize about how you’re going to ride it too. Once you have the pattern down, you can add additional details such as noting which lines are long, or where you need some extra left leg, how you’re going to support your horse in the corners, or where you plan to take a breath!
Finally, try not to rush into the show ring. As I said earlier, those who are anxious about remembering the course are often in a hurry to start. Before you go in, take an extra minute to take a relaxation breath or two, and go over the course one more time out loud-either to yourself or your coach. Be deliberate about your entrance and your opening circle. And, if you’re tired or it’s late in the day, give yourself a little more time.
Last, enjoy it! If you do make a mistake, have compassion. It happens! Keep working on it and try not to put additional pressure on yourself. With time and determination, you will develop a strategy that works best for you.
Please note: this column was written with a hunter rider in mind, but of course the strategies apply to event riders, jumper riders, and dressage riders as well.
Author Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. For more information or to contact Dr. Bonomi, click here.