Becoming a Happier Competitor

dressage performance mindset podcast Nov 28, 2022

Sometimes it seems we riders forget that riding is supposed to be fun! We get so wound up, especially when it comes to competing, that we lose our way and find ourselves in such an unpleasant state that we wonder ‘why am I even doing this?’.

I had a wonderful talk with three riders who’ve made a transformation in terms of how they approach competition and being a happy competitor, and they’re happy to share their stories with us.

Our riders joining me for our conversation today are Sharee, Liz, and Kavita.

This is an edited transcript of an episode of The Collectives podcast – listen here or watch the video version above.



My name's Sharee and I'm from Brisbane. I got back into riding about ten years ago from a long hiatus and I was going to start with Western, then his [my horse] ground manners were so bad, I got into dressage to get some buttons back in place.

That started off my journey of being a really unhappy competitor for a while. Now I'm competing my Warmblood mare at elementary level, training medium, and I've got a green one and a young one coming along.

As a competitor, I think my goal has really shifted, and the benchmark has shifted, over time from someone who was actually focused on winning at all costs. I’m really quite a fierce competitor and might have been my whole life. For various reasons, that attitude and perspective really shifted and pivoted completely to one that's really, really focused on the partnership with my horse.

It's ironically, and paradoxically actually made me a much better and happier competitor and a nicer person to be around.

I think it was back in 2020 when I joined Performance Riders and went through the entire program. The thing I love about it is you can dip back into it whenever you need to. We all hear different things at different times and it's when the student's ready, the teacher appears.

I've been really competitive my entire life and incredibly, no matter what I did, whether it was a triathlon, a marathon, yoga or horse riding, I was not a happy competitor and I was focused solely on winning.

Without going too deep, I just found that I wasn't stressed by getting to the competition, like a number of my friends are. They just talk themselves out of even going. But I'd go and I'd set the bar so incredibly high that it became such an anxiety-producing, stressful experience. It's only relatively recently that I've stopped to become present enough to realise the energy that our horses pick up on, and that I was actually creating my own problem by worrying about not performing.

I was at Warwick one-day event one weekend. We did our dressage test, and to my surprise, we were winning before we even went into the show jumping. He went clear show jumping. So, we just had the cross country at 95cm. And I thought, Oh My God. I just had an anxiety attack; how am I actually going to perform, and actually stay on top? And he was just an absolute nightmare cross country because of that anxiety and that energy, and I was so focused on getting to the end of the course, I just wasn't focused on the present and listening to what was under me. He was so wound up that he ended up stopping and I came off.

I thought, I'm doing something wrong. This has got to stop. This is crazy.

I’ve got to the point now that I’ve made the mental shift from I'm riding the horse to actually having a partnership with the horse.

It sounds really obvious to a lot of people probably, but I’m actually realising that this is a living being that I'm working with, and there are no guarantees. I had to say I'm the problem and I'm going to have to change the way that I approach this. So, I did, I actually started focusing on the training.

It's important to have a goal to get to that competition or to ride at this particular level, but then you've actually got to allow that north star to sort of provide a rudder, it actually gives purpose then to how you train. It's not just about paying attention to the horse while we're training.

It's being present with your horse and tuned to its mental and physical state at any time, whether you're in the paddock, you're feeding up, doing groundwork, or riding, and making sure that you take all of that on board. So being a happier competitor in my experience is actually about being more present. If we are too focused on a goal or two, then we're not actually being present and working with what we've got.

The other thing that makes it really hard, and a main point I'd like to make, is that you've really got to consider carefully, especially these days, your digital diet.

I think one of the real poisons in any sport is comparing yourself with others. We all know that someone can take a thousand pictures and then post the perfect picture of them jumping or dressaging, but they don't show you the 2000 photos of all of the mistakes. And, being a teacher myself, I think that's a really important lesson for younger people. All of those disturbing emotions just cascade when we compare ourselves to others.

One of my coaches and best friend said to me that some of the best advice she heard was, ‘it's not about being the best, it's about doing your best’. It's so much easier said than done. But I think we've always got to bring ourselves back to something like that.

I think us as horse riders and women too, are really good at talking ourselves down. And being really, really hard on ourselves. It makes it even worse when you're a perfectionist or a highly competitive person.

I think that one really important strategy is making sure that you surround yourself with a healthy tribe of people because there's some really toxic cultures out there too. I think that you can become a much nicer person to be around; you are who you hang with.

I was just so focused on the goal - the outcome, that I was one of those dreadful coach-hoppers. I'd go along to every event, just because I could. I’d jump from coach to coach, just whoever could actually give me the outcome I wanted. And, it's embarrassing to admit, I've learned that that's the most confusing thing for you and your horse - if you hop from coach to coach.

Now I've got a wonderful, wonderful coach who has given me the hardest advice and good slaps now and then. But she's amazing. I'd say things like, Oh My God, look who's in my class, there are all these people on the eventing squad, what am I going to do? And she’d say, stop! They don't care about you. They're so focused on what they're doing. They don't even know you're there.

And it was one of the best pieces of advice she gave me. You need someone who’s not just a coach, they become friends because they tell you the stuff that you don't want to hear as well. I know some coaches out there who will sugar-coat things and tell people what they want to hear but, it doesn't necessarily help the learning journey.

I used to hang onto disappointment for days and days and ruminate on things, and it was actually really quite unhealthy. Another great piece of advice from my coach is that I'll give you three hours, you've got three hours to be really disappointed and then stop it. Let go of it.

So then, it's about how you move on from that. And it's okay to be disappointed and it's okay to be upset, that's normal. But I think it's about managing your expectations. What I've learned is that if your expectations are so high and the reality is different; for example, if my mare wakes up on cross country day with a puffy leg, do I ride or scratch? Two years ago, I would've ridden, but now I scratch.

And it's the same with my training.  Don't aim for 50% improvement today. Go for just 1%. And then you feel like you've achieved. And if you add up all those 1% over four months, then you've got 40…50%. It’s about just being more patient and not in such a hurry. Because horses will let you know if you're being too impatient.

I think it’s really important to spend time with the horse other than just riding it, building that relationship and that trust with your horse. My Warmblood mare, when I first got her, was so standoffish, she didn't want to interact with people. She'd had stuff done to her. So she's been a great teacher because now she'll walk up to me in the paddock, and the other day I was sitting down with her and she just licked me all the way up my back, up my hat, and she pulled my hat off and dropped it on the ground. It sounds silly, but she would never have done that, she would've just stayed away from me on the other side of the paddock.

I think when you can start to build that relationship with your horse and it becomes interactive, then when you ask questions in your training, they're going to be more amenable to tuning in.

Sometimes we ask the right questions of our horse, but we might not be present enough and ask it at the right time. Someone might say, I put the aid on and they didn't respond, what bad behaviour. Whereas someone else might say, okay, well that's interesting, why didn’t you actually respond to that? And get a bit curious about it.

I think being flexible in your training is just the most important skill. That's what my coach says; that being flexible changes you from being a rider to a trainer. Then you can respond rather than react.

When I was eventing and now at dressage, I wouldn't go and look at the score sheets once I started to get a handle on my competitive monster. Because it doesn't put that weight of pressure on you. I just refused to look at anything and focused on the moment instead.



Hi, my name's Liz, and I'm from Western Australia, but I live around two and a half hours south of Perth on the South Coast. It’s quite isolated down here in terms of coaches and clinics.

I have a Warmblood whom I am competing medium and training advanced on. I started the Performance Riders program two and a half years ago when she was five and training Prelim so I've been with this program basically her whole competition life.

I've had a lot of problems in the past with competition nerves. I'm a naturally very competitive person, even in yoga! I think for me, a happy competitor is someone who is kind to their horse and who gets the best out of their horse, but also who is pleasant to stewards, pleasant to other competitors, and is generally a nice person to be around at a competition.

That for me has been an incredible journey over the last two and a half years. And I'm now really enjoying competing.

I began riding as an adult. I never rode as a child. I have always had quite difficult horses because I've never had the money to purchase a good horse. I've had off-the-track race horses and Warmbloods that I've bred and then broken in and ridden. And they weren't always suited to me, perhaps.

I think that probably set me up in some ways for failure as a competitor, because I didn't have a lot of coaching and I just would throw myself in the deep end and go out and compete.

My first Warmblood was horse-shy, and she was 17.1 and I'm five foot five. No one would pick a 17.1 Holstein-cross mare as a beginner’s first dressage horse.

Unfortunately, she went unsound, probably because I put about 50,000 kilometres on her poor legs. But anyway, I ended up breeding lovely horses from her.

I think those early experiences of competing set me up for some fairly strong show nerves. I'd been a very successful netball player. I have a psychology degree. I'm a fairly intelligent person and I think I'm very competitive in everything I do.

But what was happening of course, was that I was very competitive, but I didn't have either the knowledge, the skills, or the horse to actually win. So, then I became very depressed and sad and I would quite often leave a show in tears.

I then got a very nice Warmblood whom I bought as a yearling, and he grew to 17.2. And I did manage to start winning some classes because he was just stunning, and at prelim and novice the judges love it when they're nice and quiet. But then of course I hit the same problem once I hit elementary and up because of my skill level and my horse really wasn't suitable for me.

But to cut a very long story short, I did actually compete him at Inter I and I gained a couple of reasonable scores on him. That was because I had started to get a lot of coaching and spent a lot of money actually training myself how to ride.

But I still had horrendous show nerves. This horse was honestly the quietest horse God put on the planet. He's actually a Para horse now. So, I still was hitting that wall, that he wasn't really going how the judges wanted him to go. He still got reasonable scores, but I wasn't winning those championships. And it again became quite sad for me.

I then bought another unsuitable horse, a four-year-old unbroken mare and that's the mare I have now. But she's lovely, she really is quite super. She's not a huge mover. But my goals have changed. I will train her to Grand Prix, presuming she stays sound, because I have the grit and belief in her; we will get there. This Performance Riders program has taught me to take criticism.

That's something I did not do well. If a judge gave me a low score, I would be devastated and cry all the way home, I'm a very emotional person. This course taught me to be realistic.

I now know my horse is not the world's biggest mover. I'm a lot more prepared for competition. I set goals that are achievable and I've taught myself to be happy with that. And that's been the hardest thing.

It's all very well to go into a competition saying, I want to ride my corners and I don't want to override and I want to finish in the top 10, but if in the back of your mind you really want to win or finish in the top five, it's not going to work. You're going to be disappointed. So, I've taught myself to accept that. That's been huge for me.

I've learned how to warm up without a coach. I've never really had the money to pay someone to warm me up at competitions. And I used to find myself very lost. I now can warm up by myself because I trust my training. I no longer throw myself in at the deep end. I am not outcome-focused. I'm very much focused on the process and I really do just compete against myself.

I'm still very competitive, don't get me wrong, but I have learned to set my goals that this is what I want to achieve, and if I achieve that, I've won.

I was pretty bad. My competition nerves were to the point that the week before the competition I was unbearable to live with. I would be snappy, and bad-tempered. And of course, when I had my daughter ten years ago, I realised I can't do that because that's not okay as a parent. My poor husband, I'm sure he's a lot happier as well, but you can't do that to a child, so I've had to learn to cope with that.

I used to wake up on the morning of the competition with this sense of doom. Why am I doing this? I wish my horse would have an abscess and then I could not go. But it never happened.

The other big change for me obviously was doing the self-confidence workbook. It was a game-changer. I thought I was really confident, but I wasn't. I wasn't at all. It was terrible.

I realised I was actually as nervous grooming for my daughter at competitions as I was competing myself. She's only ten, but she's been doing pony club for a couple of years and we’d go to State Dressage. I've actually now learned to be a really good groom. And my daughter's a fabulous competitor. She's luckily not quite as temperamental as me.

You've got to do what's right for yourself and your horse, not what other people are doing. You've got to be prepared. I now give myself one day to analyse. Because you do have to analyse. You can't just say it didn't go well. You have to work out why and try and learn from that.

But only one day, that's it. And then move on. And honestly, I think you need to be fit and flexible in both your body and your mind. You can't expect the horse to go really well if you've got physical problems that are stopping you - or you have to accept those physical limitations.

I wish I could go back and have that first Warmblood horse now, since I've been in the Performance Riders program. I think it would be a different kettle of fish because he was a really lovely horse. I wish I had had him in this program because I would've enjoyed his strengths rather than always thinking about his negatives.

My mare has accelerated up the levels really quickly and happily and I think the reason is because we spent those two years at prelim novice. And I took that year away from competition to actually deal with all of this stuff.

I do think sometimes people should do that. I took that whole year out and spent it training and doing all that self-confidence stuff. I think that set me up because she's a very sensitive mare and she just could not cope with my moods.

I just don't have that anymore. I hardly ever even tap with a whip let alone hit her with it. I don't use spurs. I would get a bit upset and I just don't have that anymore. I've let that go in my training. So when I get to a competition, I don't feel that there either, because I've almost trained my brain or myself to not be frustrated with my training.

Through this Performance Riders program, I really have developed all the tools and I now don't get frustrated.

I will look at my scores after each test because they work together. If I get a bad score, it fuels my fire to go better in a second test. If I get a good score, it makes me feel really good to go better in the second test.

Occasionally, I'm either pleasantly surprised or disappointed, but I would say most of the time I'll come out of a test and think that was a 64, or I might be pushing a 60 here.

At State Dressage I rode four tests and I made errors in three. What I think actually happened was, and this relates to this podcast, I was so relaxed. I had never been as relaxed as I was at this competition. I had no nerves at all.

I was so relaxed and I was so happy. I think we all probably need a little bit of adrenaline. To actually make our brains function. I think that might have been what happened. I rode my horse. I didn't think about the test and unfortunately, I was so relaxed that my brain had perhaps not clicked in.

In the last test, Jenny Creed was at C. I know Jenny quite well, but I had another judge on the long side and when she belled me for the second error, I just burst out laughing. I said, oh, I'm so sorry. And I was just laughing as I finished the test whereas in the past I would've been crying.

I was disappointed because it actually turned out to be the best test of the day and my horse was going really well. But I still got 60%, nearly 65%. My daughter said to me as we were walking out, oh mom, I was just hoping you weren't going to make a third one and get eliminated!

Then she said, now mom, what did you tell me? You said we all do it and not to be too upset. And she gave me this little talking to and gosh, I feel a bit teary, but it made me realise how I've actually become really quite a good competitor. Because I have said those things to her and I've taught her to deal with disappointment.

I tell you it was really quite amazing. I think that sums up this program.



 I’m Kavita. I learned to ride in 2015. I went from riding school lessons to suddenly owning five horses, and yes, I am still married! I have an assortment of horses. I have an 11-year-old Warlander, who's a Friesian and Andalusian-cross. He’s a high-level horse and he's training with my coach to be a better horse, but I ride him at the low levels, and he's really teaching me how to ride. And then I have a young horse, a four-year-old Andy purebred who is just being started and just being schooled. And then I have a couple of other ones along the way.

This whole dressage thing is all very new. It was actually my coach here in Auckland who encouraged me to do the program because he said to me, you cannot learn everything that you need to know about dressage by just riding. So that was my encouragement to do it.

Competitions obviously have been a really new thing for me as well. I'm also a litigator [lawyer] so my life is competitive. But being a happy competitor, what does that mean to me? I think it probably means being an organized competitor. It probably means being a prepared competitor. And, it also for me means being a competitor who's got the confidence to go in there and do my own thing, follow my own training, follow my plan without being distracted by whatever everyone else is doing.

I started out a really happy competitor. I had a horse before my current horse. And he was lovely. Just a really lovely hack. My daughter started riding at the same time as me as well, and she was having so much fun on her little off-the-track Thoroughbred. We all started out and it was all really peachy and rosy. I was getting these really nice marks and doing O tests and level one tests and everything was going really well. But then I bought my new horse when my other horse had to be retired.

He's a Spanish horse, so first of all I'm on the back foot because the judges think that they go like sewing machines. He came from a Grand Prix rider who was training him and riding him really nicely. And then suddenly I got on him and I started doing registered tests on him and everything literally turned to custard. I got some really shit scores. I got some really shit marks. I was lucky if I finished second to last. That was a good day for me. I had all this weight of expectation because I'd have people come up to me and go, oh, he used to go so nicely with his last rider.

I think my favourite one was, oh, he's a hell of a lot of horse for a little person like you. I’m someone who is used to walking into court and having everything prepared, how everything is going to go, what questions I'm going to be asked, what the weaknesses of my case are, what strengths of my case are. So, of course, I then went into these tests thinking that I had prepared and thinking I was ready for them, I can make up my bad marks with my good marks, all those sorts of things.

And the marks I had on paper had no resemblance to what I was expecting. And that really sent me into an I'm not doing this anymore mindset. But I was really lucky because my coach is a Grand Prix rider and represented New Zealand as well. He sat me down and he said to me, you have to know why you are going into these competitions. You must know your why. He said, your why is not to go in there and perform like a Warmblood and give the judges what they want. Your why is to pick up your correct canter lead to ride your circles accurately and properly. And then he said, your why is to enjoy riding, this is what you wanted to do.

That kind of woke me up because I realised that I was getting so much anxiety over trying to give people what they wanted to see as opposed to me giving what I wanted, what I knew my goals were and just delivering on those goals for myself. So that was a real game-changer for me.

He also encouraged me to do the Performance Riders course because he said Brett's a really good guy and he knows his stuff.

And Brett's always saying as well, know your why. And once I knew my why things definitely got way better because I would go into these competitions way more prepared. I would go in there knowing that there was a 50% chance that he'd fall out of canter across the diagonal. And I knew that if I revved him up too much, we'd break or something would happen. I knew my why and I could prepare for it. Surround yourself with really positive people. You’ve got to block out all of that noise. And where I keep my horses, there are a lot of people who do a lot of talking and not a lot of riding.

They'd kind of all gravitate over to where I was training and they'd come and have a look. So being able to shut all of that out was really good for me. And knowing exactly whose opinion I should actually value.

Competition looks really different for me now. I take my Mag Calmer. I get annoyed with myself for making stupid mistakes. But I don't look at my papers on the day. I look at them the next day. I input my scores into my spreadsheet but I then sit down with my coach and I go through and he'll say to me, oh, well, we always knew that that was going to happen, didn't we? I go in there with a lot more predictability now, and I go in there with a lot less expectation of myself. And I have definitely learned to block out the little comments like, oh, well, you tried your best.

I think it would be really good for some of these judges to hear from us amateurs about what it's actually like competing in this sport at grassroots. Because competition should be a really fun, supportive experience. This isn't our day job; we should actually be really encouraged to do this sport. I've been lucky because the last competitions I've done I have really been encouraged and inspired.

I've had some test papers I just haven't picked up before. But that's also because I'm pretty sure I knew exactly where it had gone wrong. And I'm really supported by my 16-year-old daughter. She’ll video my tests or often she's riding, so she's watching my test from her horse as well. And she'll really give me a complete rundown on it.

She doesn't even look at her papers. She just gets them, if she gets a ribbon, it's all great. Otherwise, she checks them in the back of the car. And, that's it. I always say to her, aren't you interested? And she says, no, I know that she ran through in the canter, I don't need the judge to tell me and equally I don't need the judge to tell me that that was a perfect, accurate 20-metre circle.

She’s got that kind of self-awareness that I've now started picking up on as well. I've really been working on my self-awareness. I want to bring my expectation in line with what the judges see now.

I always think the competitions are there to highlight the errors in your training, or the gaps in your training or the things you need to work on. And, now that I look at it like that, it's a way happier experience.

The Performance Riders program is great, a great initiative. And I've honestly learned so much from you both today. I've come away feeling inspired as well. Thank you.



Not entirely sure what to work on, especially when you're by yourself?

Unsure if you're focusing on the right things at the right time?

I challenge you to take on my 5 rules to making every dressage training session productive and enjoyable.

It's all in our free guide... 'Beyond the 20 Metre Circle'

We'll follow up with training tips and ideas we think you might be interested in. Unsubscribe at any time.