Conquer Your Horse Show Nerves – Even as an Adult Newbie!

Edit to add: I started this post quite a while ago, and it’s been gathering dust. 😉 I’ve since moved on from the “adult” lessons that I refer to below to ones with teens (meaning much more challenging!! 😅) and have now completed a number of my riding goals, including showing 2’9 in a fancy derby ring, all by doing what I outline below and in my 12 Best Tips to Stop Being a Nervous Rider post. This stuff works!!! If I can do it at almost 50 with the fear I grapple with at times and toddler-sized legs and arms, lol, seriously anyone can!!

While I started this blog with the intention of sharing what I’d *already* accomplished, I’m realizing more and more, it’s a one-step forward, two-steps-back journey. Of course, I’ve known this the whole time, but in trying to write blog posts about things I feel like I’ve, in theory, gotten past, I realize there are times that I don’t feel like I’ve really gotten past anything. I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way, but rather no matter how much we accomplish, we’re always striving to do more and be better, and the journey is truly never-ending.

On top of that, the situations in our lives are ever-evolving, the horses we ride may change, and our physical or mental health has its moments, so even if you think you’ve got an aspect of your riding covered, some old programming or fears may crop up when facing a new challenge.

So on that note, I’d like to talk about horse show nerves, especially from the perspective of a beginner adult rider and all that entails.

Now I’m not a beginner rider, but in some ways, I might as well be. Yes, I can walk, trot, and canter; I can 2-point all day long; and I’m quite comfortable jumping 2’6, but I’ve got limited show miles, and also rather limited jumping miles. I only jump in lessons (twice a week), and due to the nature of my adult group lessons which tend to be a tad more recreational and often with less experienced riders and/or ones not interested in showing, it’s not always hugely productive. It’s just the nature of limited spots in the lesson program, particularly for adults. It is what it is and I accept that – my barn has a whole lot of other great things going for it which I love, and I love the other ladies I ride with.

So with all that in mind, when I’ve got a show coming up, if I’m not careful, I can start to revert to my old ways of thinking – read panic. lol

Now I definitely know many tools to use to help with this (which I’ll go over below), but no matter how many tools are at our disposal, it’s important to recognize that no matter how far along we are on this journey, showing is not for the faint of heart, especially those of us of the more fearful variety. 😱🤣

And I truly believe that for those of us “beginner adults” who do show (in whatever capacity or discipline), we should be getting ribbons just for showing up! Not only are we riding horses which, let’s be honest, has some major risks inherent especially for us on the other side of 30 (more like close to 50 in my case, but in the equestrian world, people seem to think anything past 20 is ancient so I’ll lead with 30, lol). And if we’re doing any kind of jumping, we’re adding significantly to that risk, which I know we’re ALL TOO WELL AWARE OF! haha

So yes, our fears are well justified, to be sure, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to get out there and do what we want to do, right? Otherwise, if you’re anything like I was, you’ll stay on the sidelines cheering everyone on while wishing you had the guts to get out there and do it yourself. You may even convince yourself that’s all you want to do. I love just being the groom and barn cheerleader, you may tell yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought that when faced with the option of showing or not. And while that very well may be true for you that you would rather be the groom and/or cheerleader (though I’m betting not since you’re reading this article), be very careful when listening to those thoughts as our minds are clever little buggers, lol, are determined to keep you safe, and know all the buttons to push to convince you to stay on the sidelines.

Yep, been there. Moving on.

So, what are we to do? There have been a number of keys for me which have made a huge difference, which I’ll list below. Please keep in mind, however, that I’m assuming you have a safe horse and a trainer to help with the riding skills side of things.

Tip 1: Get Clear on What You Want

Just like I wrote in my blog post, 12 Best Tips to Stop Being a Nervous Rider, first I get clear on what I want and whether or not I want my fear to be in control of my decision, in this case about showing. That’s the starting point. If you’re not clear about this, you may be fighting a losing battle. And again, be soooo careful about listening to your mind tell you that you don’t really want this. This went on with me for YEARS (an entire decade, pretty much), where I would constantly tell myself that whatever my goal was, was just not “me”, I’m not that type, I’m too quiet, not an adrenaline junkie, my legs are too short, I’ll never be good enough to do that, yada, yada, yada. I’d convince myself that what I dreamed of was not really what I wanted so I wouldn’t feel bad for not pursuing it.

Instead, you have to be really honest with yourself and follow your heart, not your fears. Does the idea of showing make you excited? Do you go watch your barn mates show and wish it could be you? Do you feel like you’d show if you thought you were “good enough”?

I used to pine away about showing and wishing I was good enough but convincing myself that 1) I didn’t really want to, and 2) I wasn’t good enough and probably never would be. Excuses, excuses, excuses, right?! Yes, I allowed my insecurities and fears to define what I thought I wanted for years.

Don’t be me! If you have an inkling you want to show, or show at a new height or whatever, be honest with yourself and don’t let your fear or insecurities talk you out of it! Admit what you want to yourself and commit to doing whatever it takes, including not allowing your mind to take control and convince yourself to stay small and derail you! Even though I’ve now shown for a number of years, it took a very long time (and a more extroverted friend who kind of forced my hand) before I was willing to step out of my comfort zone and step in the show ring, and then even longer to really do what it takes to actually do well at shows. Even when I was finally showing, I was still so timid and insecure that my results were mediocre and I honestly didn’t have a whole lot of fun.

Tip 2: Affirm, Affirm, Affirm

Second, I rampage on affirmations and visualizations well before the show. Truthfully, I do this all the time now and it really helps with my riding overall. You may not be into “woo-woo” stuff, but I wholeheartedly believe in reprogramming my subconscious as I find it really works for me. If I just let my thoughts and beliefs about myself run rampant, I will get absolutely nowhere.

That said, I half-heartedly did affirmations and visualizations for years, attempting to visualize doing well a couple of weeks before a show, but had mediocre success and only inched my way along in my riding skills since fear was such a big part of my riding. Once I started practicing affirmations and positive self-talk with more dedication and discipline, my self-belief significantly improved. This has translated to better riding skills, increased confidence, and better show results.

If you’ve not used affirmations before, how I decide what to affirm is by noting my limiting beliefs and fears and essentially saying the opposite over and over again. I also try to say them in ways that are as natural a way as possible, like I’m having a conversation with someone.

Then, as part of my daily routine, I’ll take at least 10 minutes once a day, doing it more than once if I have time and especially when a show is coming up, and repeat my affirmations over and over again. I’m finding that I don’t even have to believe them at first, I just have to repeat the affirmations over and over again. What happens is the affirmations start to replace the negative thoughts and beliefs and I start to automatically think these new, empowering thoughts. I honestly start believing them just through the act of repetition. And I sprinkle in ones that are already true or close to being true, which makes the others more believable as well.

They work even better if you can start feeling how you want to feel at the same time. Feel the feelings of, for example, being confident (just fake it!) or excited. Try imagining yourself riding and feeling these feelings you want to have. But don’t make it a big deal – you don’t have to have this full-fledged visualization all perfected. I’ve had success with just a vague imagining that I’m riding my horse in whatever situation I want to feel more confident in and pretending I’m this person with the confidence (or whatever) I want to have.

Here are some of the affirmations I use, or the gist anyway – changed somewhat to sound natural in a conversation:

  • I just love showing
  • Showing is so easy for me
  • It’s so much fun to show
  • I seriously love jumping
  • I’m so connected to *my horse* (his name), we work so well together
  • My horse is so calm and relaxed, I absolutely love riding him
  • We always get the perfect distance
  • Seeing distances is easy for me
  • My position is perfect on the flat and over fences
  • My leg is still and secure
  • I just feel so confident when I ride

I don’t necessarily go through them all each affirmation session, I just let them flow naturally, but you can see the gist of what I affirm for. My subconscious mind gets the picture. As long as the idea is consistent, the words don’t have to be identical. You’re essentially just programming the positive belief in yourself in whatever it is you want to improve. And of course, the affirmations change once your goal is reached.

If you’re having trouble believing your affirmations (though again, you really don’t have to believe them, just pretend you do!), try “ask-formations”. This just means rephrasing your affirmation as a question. For example, instead of “I love showing”, say something like, “I wonder why I love showing so much”, or instead of “Seeing distances is easy for me”, try “Why is seeing distances so easy?”

The reason this works is because our brains always want to find the answer to any questions we pose it. We don’t actually have to come up with an answer, just asking the question as a statement of fact like that sends your brain on a treasure hunt of sorts looking for all the reasons that prove the question true. Then, strangely enough, it starts to prove it to you in how you feel and then the magic really begins! Before you know it, you won’t remember feeling differently. Just like affirmations though, the key is persistence. You can’t just do them once in a while for them to work. Persistence and discipline are key.

Tip 3: Visualize

I briefly mentioned visualizing already, but you can also make this a deliberate practice on top of affirmations. Whenever I feel inspired, I try to visualize the end result of what I want, whether that’s a short-term or long-term goal. I’ll admit though that while many will suggest doing this when you fall asleep, that’s never worked for me. It tends to get me a bit worked up and then I have a hard time falling asleep. Instead, I tend to do any visualizations as part of my affirmations and just throughout the day whenever I’ve got a few minutes or am inspired to do it.

As for what I visualize, sometimes I’ll visualize one of my over-reaching big goals like showing higher, in bigger, more competitive classes while feeling confident and skilled, yada, yada, yada. Other times, like if I have a show coming up, or even just a lesson, I’ll visualize coming out of the ring feeling that heart-filled amazingness, patting my horse on his neck, my coach telling me my round was beautiful, etc. Also, if I’m working on a particular skill, I visualize over and over what it feels like to do it well. The options are endless.

For example, for the past few months, knowing I had a big show coming up, I visualized myself wearing my show clothes and coming out of the fancy ring I was hoping to ride in, and my fellow riding friends and coach were congratulating me on a beautiful round. This was a ring and a height I’d never shown in so it was honestly a dream, a “one day, maybe”, I didn’t know if I’d ever accomplish this goal. Well, guess what – I did it last week and it happened exactly how I had pictured! This stuff works!! 😀

The important thing with visualizing is to do it in a relaxed state and do your best to feel it as if it’s happening right now, in that moment. In first person, as in looking out of your own eyes, see what you’d see, hear what you’d hear, and feel what you’d feel while experiencing your end result. Incorporate as many of your senses as you can to make it seem as real as possible. If, unlike me, you’re able to do this while you drift off to sleep, I hear that’s even better as apparently that helps it seep into your subconscious mind. But, like I said, I can’t do it when trying to sleep and it works the way I do it too, so don’t limit yourself! Trust it will work for you. So much of our lives are a result of the beliefs we tell ourselves – only tell yourself ones that serve you!

Tip 4: Pick a Mantra or Word

When it’s crunch time, whether at a lesson or show, I have either a mantra (phrase) or word that I repeat to myself that represents how I want to feel. These are essentially short affirmations that help keep your focus on what you want to happen rather than what you don’t want or fear.

When trying to think of one to use, I think of it as a positive phrase or word that represents the feeling of all my affirmations combined. If every one of my affirmations came true, how would I feel? Or, put the opposite way, what feeling am I really after as a result of my affirmations?

If your show nerves are because of worrying about how you’ll do, you could try a phrase like “We’ve got this!” or a simple word like “success” or “fulfilled” repeated over and over to help bring that feeling that you’re looking for. When relaxation and calmness are more what I need for either me or my horse, words like “relax” (said “re-lax” in a kind of sing-song manner) or the phrase, “all is well” are my go-to’s.

The better you are at bringing that feeling you want into your riding, the more likely you are to experience it. Even better, your horse will appreciate the relaxed and confident vibe you’re giving off as a result.

The important thing is that whatever you’re saying to yourself is positive and suits what you need for that particular occasion.

You can also use a mantra or word as a reminder to help fix bad habits or reinforce new ones, or even as a distraction. So I don’t get too hyper-focused or stressed about seeing my distance, I’ll say to myself “Heels down” not only to remind myself of keeping aware of what my leg is doing but also to help me not get too stressed about seeing the distance.

Tip 5: Drop Importance

Now that we’ve covered the basics of deciding what you want, affirming, visualizing, and mantras, a surprisingly crucial next step is that you need to drop the importance of achieving your goal. Weird, right? Believe it or not, this is a key piece that a lot of people miss.

As a beginner adult rider preparing for a show, I know sometimes the outcome you want is just to remember your course or pattern and stay on the right side of the horse! And if you’re getting a bit more comfortable in the show ring, then the nerves start about performing well and getting ribbons.

While this is all perfectly normal, putting too much stress on the outcomes you’re trying to achieve will most definitely make your nerves that much worse. The way around this? Believe it or not, one of the most liberating things you can do is to be okay with whatever happens no matter what it is. If you allow yourself to be okay with the possibility of forgetting your course, coming in last, or even falling off, you loosen the hold those fears have on you. If you can imagine even briefly things going wrong at your show, you’ll be able to see that you can handle even the scenarios you fear, which is incredibly liberating.

Of course, we don’t want these things to happen, but if you can let go of things needing to go a certain way, you won’t create tension about achieving your goals. It’s the whole what you resist persists thing. The more you resist the idea of things going wrong, the more likely you are to create that happening. Even from a physical perspective, it makes complete sense – fear-based riding creates tension in both you and your horse, which we all know doesn’t usually ever produce a very good ride. Conversely, if you’re okay what whatever happens, you can relax your mind and body, which your horse will absolutely feel and respond to.

So, take some time and imagine one of these horrible scenarios where things go wrong and realize you will be okay no matter what happens. One way or another, you’ll be okay. Then go back to your positive affirmations and visualizations, but all the while having it in the back of your mind that you’ll be okay regardless of the outcome.

Tip 6: Feel the Feelings but Don’t Believe Them

This is an odd one, right? lol Stay with me here, it will all make sense in a minute.

Now of course it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or excited before and during a show. Those heightened emotions of adrenaline and excitement are part of the fun of it and there’s no real need to try to deny them – we just don’t want the over-the-top ones that make you want to run for the hills or throw up. No one needs that kind of anxiety when we’re trying to ride, and especially not our horses who are wondering what it is we’re all so scared of!

So first off, for those over-the-top feelings that are making you barely want to swing a leg over your horse, as uncomfortable as this might seem, you first want to allow them to be there. I know, I know, who wants to feel that, but when you try to fight them or resist them, they come back at you harder and give your mind more and more reasons to believe them. And your mind is incredibly good at finding all the reasons to prove itself right! 😬

However, if you don’t fall for the trap and let the feelings be there and don’t fight them, they will lessen and eventually fade away. I used to get panic attacks unrelated to riding, so I know of what I speak! 😉 What worked for me was to essentially say, “Bring it on”, when the panic started and be willing to feel these uncomfortable feelings at their worst. As soon as I did that, almost unbelievably, the panic attack would stop in its tracks.

The next part of this is to drop the importance of our feelings. Just like the bit about dropping importance on our desired outcomes, dropping importance on our feelings loosens their grip on us. This bit of advice might fly in the face of some of what you’ve heard about honouring feelings, they’re trying to tell you something, etc., and in some cases that is true, but for me, the fear was (is) just my mind/body trying to keep me in my comfort zone.

Yes, there are inherent risks to riding, but for years I allowed myself to believe that these feelings were my intuition when they really weren’t. Instead, they were just a conditioned fear response by my mind/body which kept trying to keep me “safe” (staying in my house, avoiding people, and wrapped in bubble wrap is seemingly what my mind/body would prefer, lol). This is where dropping importance on feelings is ridiculously helpful. If I allowed myself to believe my feelings and then act based on them (ie., not take any action on my “scary” goals because my so-called intuition was telling me to play it safe), I would never, ever have achieved any of my goals with showing or even riding at all.

Now I know to allow those feelings of being nervous but to not get frustrated or upset by them (or with myself for having them), and I don’t fall for their stories anymore. Feel the feelings but don’t believe them is essentially how I live my life now, especially when it comes to riding and showing. If true intuition comes to mind that I need to listen to, I know that will be in the moment I need it, it won’t be a negative story on repeat where my mind is trying to tell me why I shouldn’t do something.

Practically speaking, when you’re at a show and you notice nervousness creeping in, take a few deep breaths, center yourself, and remind yourself that you’ve got this, you can handle it no matter what happens. Avoid self-criticism or judgment for feeling nervous. Instead, be proud of yourself for stepping outside your comfort zone and challenging yourself! By allowing yourself to feel the feelings without resistance and not believing any negative stories your mind may be telling you, you can prevent your anxiety from overwhelming you and keep your focus on the present moment.


In conclusion, conquering horse show nerves as a beginner adult rider is an ongoing journey filled so many with ups and downs, but no matter where you are in your riding goals, you should be so proud of yourself for getting out there and doing it! I think it takes an especially brave person to take on riding as an adult, never mind showing! There are so many variables that we can’t control and, if you’re anything like me, the last thing you want is to not be in control 🤣, so kudos to all of us who brave this journey!

And don’t forget that progress is never linear, and our show nerves will come and go depending on the situation, but by keeping your goals in mind, along with a positive mindset about both you and your horse, you’ll keep moving forward. No matter what happens, a terrible show or a great one, you’re always learning and improving your skill set. I’ve had more than my share of embarrassing moments at shows, but they’ve all taught me something, even if it’s just resilience and turns into a good story to share years down the road! 🤭🤣

So embrace the process, savour each achievement, and keep pushing your boundaries. If I, as an adult newbie rider now at almost 50, can achieve my riding goals and conquer my fears using the tools I’ve shared, then absolutely anyone can!

Be brave, be compassionate with yourself and your horse, and most importantly, enjoy the ride! ❤️🐴❤️

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