By Martha Josey and Ashley Schenck
In any sport, nerves can get the best of athletes. When it comes to horse events, specifically barrel racing, nerves can affect both the rider and the horse. To control your nerves, first you must determine where it is coming from—you or your horse?
Are You Prepared?
Preparation is important to help keep nerves at bay. Make sure you have a plan for the week of your event, and start preparation weeks ahead. If you are unable to ride much the week of your show, this could be affecting your confidence and allowing for your horse to have excess energy. During the weeks leading up to your event, you should strive to have a perfect practice at home.
If you horse is nervous at home, you may need to spend some extra time in the practice pen teaching them to work through their nerves. If you are still struggling in the practice pen, taking your horse to a show can magnify this problem and ruin confidence between you and your horse. Work on being comfortable at home prior to entering a show. Muscle memory can be built at a walk and a trot, which will help your pattern become second nature.
Adjusting Your Body Language
Many times, a perfectly calm horse can become nervous when their rider becomes tense. This usually means the nerves are starting with the rider and passing to the horse. You need to be aware of your body language and recognize when you are getting nervous. Try to go through a mental checklist: Are your holding your reins tightly or pulling on your horse constantly? If you are tense, your horse will feed off that energy. Some riders may find it beneficial to get off their horse and hand walk them before making their run at the event to help settle the rider’s last-minute nerves. Right before your performance, you should be picturing your perfect run over and over. Do not go in thinking about what you do not want to happen, or you will cause it to happen. Instead, you should approach your run picturing the perfect pattern and how you want the run to unfold.
If you have confidence in yourself and your horse, it will help. How do you get confidence? Communication between you and your horse by preparation and practice. I have been fortunate to go to the National Finals Rodeo four consecutive decades on six different horses as well as be part of Team USA at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Canada. To do all of that, I had to prepare my game plan way ahead of time, work hard to get there and control my nerves.
Facing The Alleyway
In barrel racing, the alleyway seems to be where most riders get nervous. My husband R.E. Josey often says that there must be a giant vacuum over the alley that sucks out a rider’s brain as they run in and then it drops it back in as they ride out! Do not let barrel racing nerves ruin your run. R.E. would always tell me, ‘If you need to get off your horse, run around and sing the National Anthem to conquer your nerves, do it.’ Everyone might think you’re crazy, but if it works and you win, then everyone will be trying it. I spend a lot of time discussing nerves with students at my clinics as well as in my book, “Run To Win With Me,” because it is one of the biggest issues a rider will face.
Check Your Basics
If you have worked on your practice sessions as well as your nerves, and you horse is still acting up at competitions, there may be a few more factors to consider. If you arrive at a show and your horse immediately shows signs of nervousness—pawing, pacing at the trailer, or loose stool—this is an indicator that your horse’s nerves may need a veterinarian to examine them, especially for ulcers. Trailer rides and events can upset a horse’s stomach and cause them to become very uncomfortable as well as cause poor performance. Try to keep hay in front of them as much as you can to keep them occupied, especially in the trailer or at the race while waiting.
Sometimes you may need to evaluate your feeding program to be sure you are not causing the horse to have too much energy. Just like people, horses are different with differing dietary needs. If you feel your horse never relaxes or gets ‘ridden down,’ you may want to consult a professional about what kind of grain your horse needs.
Barrel racing nerves are a big hurdle that frequently can be hard to overcome, but you can do it with determination, confidence and preparation. One thing you should always keep in mind is that you are doing this sport because you love it and because you love your horse. Every time you make it to an event, try to enjoy the atmosphere of the event and the opportunity you’re given each time you get to ride your equine partner.