Horse Show Anxiety: Fear of Falling or Failing?

When I was fifteen, my trainer pulled my mother aside and recommended that I see a sports psychologist. She said I was a much more capable rider than I gave myself credit for but my biggest road block was my own brain.

I was officially diagnosed as my own worst enemy. Fifteen years later, without the therapy that was recommended, I am still there.

I don’t like showing. This has become even more apparent these past few years, and I have begun to realize I am not the norm. Many others lament showing due to the cost, the time, and effort, yet still show up weekend after weekend committed to this competitive horse show lifestyle.

Not me. I am the opposite. While I too lament over those same issues, at the end of the day, I find entering a show the most anxiety inducing aspect of my life. Definitely worse than taking an exam in biochemistry. Possibly worse than analyzing data on a statistical software. And I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.

I am a capable rider. At home, I am fearless. I am constantly trying to get better.  When it comes to shows however, an anxiety emerges from the depths of my soul and lingers for days preceding the show. I lose sleep. I have nightmares about trotting down centerline only to realize I am naked. Or, I go into two point only to realize I pooped my pants, or worse, missed a fence.

I wake up in a sweat and check my phone. I realize it’s only 3am and that I have two more hours to sleep before even considering waking up, but now I’m wide awake. I pour myself a cup of coffee and sit on my couch, attempting to take a deep breaths. I pull on my breeches, tack up my horse and head out to the dressage arena or the in-gate to ride. And, 99% of the time, I will do just fine. Only for me, fine isn’t good enough.

I’ve come to the realization there are two types of people in this crazy horse world: those who are afraid to fall, and those who are afraid to fail. And I am the latter.


Before I moved up to training level on Mak, I sent messages to the people around me whose opinion I respect the most. My trainer, my best friends, the man who owns my barn and my mother. I lamented over my decision and gave them all the reasons why I should not. And each of them wrote back in exasperation that I was not only ready, I was beyond ready.

So I hemmed and I hawed. I skipped one event, and then another. Then I entered. I dotted my I’s, crossed my T’s, and paid the exorbitant ransom to gallop around 18 fences.

And then I got so nervous I was nauseous. Only, my nerves were very different than the nerves that my friends were feeling.

I wasn’t worried about getting hurt. I knew the risk of me falling off and being injured was very small. Mak was amazing. He would do his best to take care of me and I had the skills to stick onto him even in the case of a refusal. It wasn’t a fear of falling but a fear of failing. And for me, it has always been pass or fail.

Because the standards are higher, the risk of failure is greater. Because the risk of failure is greater, the pressure for perfection is palpable.

When I spend $300 of my own hard earned dollars, which accounts for about a week of working in the lab as I pursue my doctorate, I want it to be spent wisely. I set goals for myself, and being a perfectionist, I am unhappy unless I have reached each of those goals successfully.

For Nixon, it is about ‘ride-ability’ and adjustability—being able to collect his canter to fences and getting through the finish line on Sunday. But for Mak, it is so much more. I want a softer and more uphill trot; a stadium round that looks like a hunter round; a double clean cross country; and a well behaved and well mannered horse, every time out. Because the standards are higher, the risk of failure is greater. Because the risk of failure is greater, the pressure for perfection is palpable.

Fearless at home.

So me being me, I choke in the worst way possible. Instead of tackling my demons, lowering my standards and getting over this phobia, I just hide. I don’t enter the shows, even when I can afford them. Or, I enter a level lower than I know I should be competing. Instead of addressing the issue, I exacerbate it by letting the anxiety build and getting farther and farther away from that road block that becomes competitions.

I wonder if maybe this is why I enjoy riding young horses so much, and why I am much more willing to compete them instead of Nixon or Mak. With a young horse the expectations are lower. Pick up both leads, stay in the dressage ring and jump all of the jumps in the correct order. If they accomplish this, it’s the perfect day. If they don’t, it’s not the end of the world; we can chalk it up to “baby moments” and no gossip will be whispered.

But that is not ok. In order for me to grow, I need to force myself outside of my comfort zone. A lot of people comment how I am the bravest person they know, without realizing the internal anxiety with which I struggle.


So here is my resolution: I will put myself out there. I will enter my horses in the next show. I will set reasonable goals and I won’t beat myself up too badly if they are not met. I won’t worry about what people are saying as they check the online scores, and I will hug each of my ponies at the end of the event before loading them up and hauling them back to the comfort of their paddocks, acknowledging that we have both tried our hardest and deserve a pat on the back.

And maybe, just maybe, I will finally call that sports psychologist. I’ll let you know in a few years if I have finally been fixed, but until then, I will keep saddling up. That, I will never give up.

Read more from Carleigh at ayankeeinparis.com

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