Does pressure in equestrian sport really exist?

Well, according to some researchers and experts, it really doesn’t. It’s all dreamed up by you to make it difficult for you to perform when it counts.

According to a noted study (Beilock 2010), people create pressure for themselves. The only way we can ever experience “pressure” is to create it in our own minds. It is a product of our imagination. Another research paper explains that if we experience pressure, it is because we are projecting an imaginary view of the future (Markman et al 2008).

But, have these researchers ever had to jump fences on a 1,200 pound partner with the clock running in a show class? Or, had 20 friends standing around the hunter ring waiting for them to ride and anticipating something great? Have these same researchers acknowledged the pressure and used the energy as a positive tool that elevates their performance so they go beyond where they thought they could go?

Maybe not.

What is pressure?

Well, the general definition gives us a good picture of what pressure is…“the feeling of stressful urgency caused by the necessity of doing or achieving something, especially with limited time.”

Do you know this feeling of urgency?

You practice and lesson in a controlled environment you or your coach have created—some hacking, some flatwork, some jump work. You might also analyze past video to see how it looked, casually working on your riding skills. All good.

But, then it’s your time to compete in the class, everyone and everything seems more serious, someone announces your name to go—and the feelings of your controlled environment now seem slightly out of your control.

Sound familiar?

Where does pressure come from?

Pressure can come from both within you or from the outside. Your own expectations are often sources of pressure where you expect a lot (sometimes too much) from yourself. After all, you’ve worked hard, spent hours lessoning and practicing…and would like a good result.

Expectations can also come from the outside. With young riders, parents can pile on what kind of results they may be expecting. Coaches can expect results too. Any kind of expectations invites pressure for riders.

There are a number of sources that raise the boiling point and can give you the feeling of pressure:

  • Thinking about your result (the outcome)—and not focusing enough on “how” you are doing it to address each part of your trip (your process)
  • Timing—you have four jumps left and the clock is ticking
  • I’m not ready—your practice did not go well and you don’t feel ready
  • You’re working on something new—will it work when it counts?
  • The environment around you—things are a little more serious than they were in practice
  • Media and audience effects—if you are riding in a big event there’s lots of drama and distractions all around you
  • Doubting your own abilities—can I do this?
  • Perception of importance—wow this is a big show. The spotlight is on me!

What the best do

I have the opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading athletes (including some terrific equestrians), who are constantly surrounded by “pressure” and we talk about it often.

©Stefano Grasso/LGCT

The great athletes all acknowledge pressures, but work on creating the best approaches for themselves to best deal with it and maximize their abilities.

The very best I work with welcome pressures—it means they have the privilege of competing for something worthwhile and the opportunity to test the hours and hours of work they’ve put in to get to where they are. Great athletes acknowledge the reality of pressure and don’t pretend it’s not there. Pressure, for them, is in perspective and always positive.

Consider Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat and all the pressures following the London Olympics in 2012. Guerdat won the gold on super horse Nino Des Bruissonets and Steve knows that many people expect that kind of performance each week, even with different partners. But, Steve has put the difficult situation in perspective and creates his own, healthy ways to handle the pressure:

“When you get this medal, for me, there’s a lot of people in Switzerland who would come to the show and go home in the evening disappointed because they expected me to win. I was too slow, I had fences down, I wasn’t good enough. Sometimes it can be a little frustrating and at the beginning it’s not so easy to get over. On the other hand, it doesn’t allow you to get a big head. It allows you to keep on doing what you love to do, which is riding. I did it for me and I keep doing it for me now and I don’t try to think too much what other people expect from me.”

How to best create positive pressure for you

Acknowledging that pressure exists and turning it into a positive is your first step forward. You can also better prepare yourself for pressure situations by following a few key steps that will, like the greats, keep pressure in perspective and use it to your advantage. Here are a few ideas for you to start:

  1. Close the gap between training and shows. For most riders, the level of attention and focus is completely different. Consider a more structured routine for parts of your training. Apply approaches to reach targets and goals. For example, at the end of training or lessoning, put a target in place and try to achieve it.
  2. Thinking ahead to what you can’t control creates fear. And additional pressure! Keep your focus on what is immediately in front of you and executing to the best of your ability. The current moment is what you can truly control.
  3. Align your expectations with your abilities right now. What is reasonable for you right now? You might overestimate your abilities sometimes and even you can’t live up to them. This creates additional pressure. And, the expectations of others is not within your control and should not be a reasonable source of pressure for you.
  4. Build confidence proactively. Your confidence is built over time from the ground up. There will be ups and downs—it’s all a part of riding. So, little dips in your riding will happen. Be mindful of allowing these little dips to impact your overall confidence. It can add pressure that will impact your performance.
  5. Stick to the plan. Develop a plan that plays to your strengths and don’t deviate from it unless conditions really change. The best riders stick to the plan and adjust if needed based on conditions.
  6. Enjoy the environment and activity around you. But remember that focusing on you and not on the drama or others around you is what leads to high performance.
  7. Remember why you ride. This seems simple—but it’s important. Riding and sports is not life or death. You ride because you love it and enjoy it. Embrace the opportunity to feel the privilege of riding, competing and putting yourself in a position to do something meaningful.


In summary …

Does pressure really exist? Yes.

Should you be afraid of it? No.

Can you use it to your advantage and become a better rider if you do? Definitely!

Start accepting pressure, use it in a positive way and enjoy the feeling of having meaning in your riding.

About the Author

John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A former professional athlete and current bestselling author of You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve Morein business, sports and life, John understands how athletes think and feel…he’s been there—under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. John coaches athletes in all sports and is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes—professional and elite amateur. See to learn more.