Taming the butterflies

I think just about everyone who has competed in horse shows is familiar with nervous energy that comes along with it. If you’re one of those rare souls with ice running through your veins, count your blessings. I am not one of those people. To what degree those butterflies really affect us varies from person to person… some of us just feel a little bit of heart-pounding at the in gate, while others might be in the porta-potty barfing up their breakfast all morning.

I’ve always been the type of person that feels anxiety and nervousness at shows. I’m lucky enough that it’s never been super severe (no hyperventilating, no puking, no hysterical bawling in the warm-up ring) but it has definitely varied from almost none to feeling queasy. For a long time I tried really hard to conquer those nerves and force myself to relax. Eventually I realized how ridiculously futile that was, and it dawned on me that maybe I was looking at it from the wrong perspective. I have never succeeded in getting rid of my butterflies, but what if I could tame them and turn that nervous energy into an advantage rather than a detriment? It took time and a lot of introspection, but this is what has really helped me a lot and I’m hoping that by sharing it here it might help someone else too.

The first thing I had to realize is that nervous energy doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can be positive too. Research has actually shown that nervous energy, when properly channeled, can help you perform tasks more efficiently and can improve memory. The butterflies are not our enemy. For me, recognizing that fact and learning how to make it positive has been the key to a happier horse show experience. That’s not to say that I win the battle with nerves 100% of the time, but it’s gotten better and better, and substantially improved after I changed my perspective on nervousness.

yes I just used a Beyonce quote

When I start feeling those butterflies creeping up on me, I take a deep breath and think “Ok self, you’ve got two choices here. You can let the nerves overtake you, fill you with doubt, and defeat you. Or you can embrace the feeling, use it to energize yourself and sharpen your focus, and go out there ready to kick some ass. Your choice.”. It’s my own little pep talk to myself, so to speak.

One of the first things we start thinking about when we feel anxiety is how many things could go wrong, and in how many ways. What if, instead, we thought about all the things that we could do to make things go well. After all, things are going to happen no matter what. We can’t do anything about that, and worrying about all the things that could go wrong does absolutely nothing positive. What we can do is figure out how to plan accordingly, how to react, and how to move past it. That’s what we’ve spent so long training and preparing for… at horse show time it’s just a matter of implementation. By the time you’ve gotten to the show you theoretically have all the tools necessary for success, all you have to do is use them. Success isn’t something that happens to you, success is something you make happen. And you can’t make it happen if you allow yourself to become debilitated by nervousness.

Whether it’s deep breathing, visualizing success, giving yourself pep talks, or even simply just smiling, the first step to handling the nerves is to stop the cycle of negativity. If you can’t get rid of the butterflies you might as well learn how to tame them and use them to your advantage. 

What do you do to help calm your show nerves and/or turn them into a benefit instead of a detriment?

Some useful articles for further reading:

The Hidden Power of Anxiety

Embrace the Butterflies: How You Can Use Your Nerves to Get Ahead

You Can’t Control or Cure Nervousness – Use It to Your Advantage

Stop Nervousness and Use It to Your Advantage

19 thoughts on “Taming the butterflies

  1. Love this. Truthfully, I don’t believe people when they say they don’t get even a little nervous before shows, I think those people just know how to handle it better than we mere mortals. 🙂 My big thing with nerves is that I shove them all to the back of my mind until the end of my ride and then as soon as I’m out of the ring I usually freak out, sometimes faint, etc. It’s probably not the best coping mechanism.

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  2. Nerves are awful! I try to just breath and ride through it. Also I get my coach to say something funny on my way into the ring. It makes me smile and forget just a tiny bit that I’m nervous. Most recently I’ve also been trying to just not think about it… go numb in a sense. I don’t think that it makes me less nervous but it does seem to push it to a back burner.

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  3. Great post! I too get quite nervous at shows, but I’ve figured out a way to minimize the jitters. Most of the shows I go to (Dressage) are two day events (Sat and Sun) but I show up on Friday afternoon whenever possible.

    Upon arrival, I walk/graze my horse all over the show-grounds before many other people are there and it’s still quiet. This allows him to get a feel for his surroundings and relax, and I take that time to go over my tests in my head and just enjoy some quiet time with my pony. Then I settle him into his stall, unload my gear and go find the show management to see if there are any tasks I can help with.

    Volunteering to help set up the rings, pick rocks, distribute shavings to stalls, etc. helps me relax and feel useful, and it makes it easy to meet and make connections with other volunteers, who are usually fellow competitors.

    Having friendly acquaintances at shows to hang out with makes the weekend so much more fun. We cheer each other on and have each others backs. One time, my nerves were making me draw a blank even though I had memorized my dressage tests. I asked a friend to read for me at the last minute and she totally saved my butt! My strategy of showing up early and volunteering really came back to benefit me that day–I would not have had anyone to help me if I hadn’t made a friend through volunteering. 🙂

    Going down the centerline knowing our peers are rooting for us REALLY reduces the nerves, as does laughing and socializing in between rides.

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  4. great post! i definitely deal with a lot of this too – esp bc those nerves aren’t reserved for horse shows with me, and for a long time they dominated each and every single ride. it’s been a process, to say the least. but i agree 100% that the nervous energy CAN be harnessed and used for good, not evil.

    in a strange twist tho, i find that having someone who is MORE nervous than me around actually has a calming effect on me. i try hard to reassure them, and in the process end up more confident in myself. so nervous nellies – come hang out at shows with me! lol

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  5. I love that twinge of nervousness before a big ride/presentation/whatever. I know it means I’m going into hyperfocus and things quite literally get sharper, brighter, time slows down a little bit – like I’m in my own little vortex world. Totally nauseous show morning and can’t eat a thing, but in a great place mentally. I’m usually sitting at the in-gate running my pattern in my head one last time, but almost subconsciously, if that makes sense? If I’m too conscious of it and I forget a piece, I flip out, so I try not to think of it. I almost always have headphones on until the last possible second too, because I don’t want anyone talking to me or interrupting me in my own head when I’m in that zone. I used to have entire playlists for the in gate at big shows or for each season.

    If I have a really good ride or go, I usually come out and gasp for air (because I forget to breathe while I’m in there) and I don’t remember any details – it becomes a blur. It’s like time suddenly speeds back up to normal speed, like some kind of weird movie.

    Annndd now I miss it again. Guess I need to find a horse to show!

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  6. I agree 100%. I choose to label it “excitement” rather than nervousness to help me channel it positively and use it to my advantage. Also, realizing it’s eustress rather than stress.

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  7. Great post! I used to struggle with throwing up, going to die fear lol!

    Ive gotten so much more confident and better at breathing through it. For me, being able to get in the ring the day before the show has helped SOOOO MUCH!

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  8. I don’t get nerves often, but when I do I always sing to help make myself breath. I get more anxious and excited…like OMG is this happening!! Especially when it comes to XC 🙂

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