Horse with competition anxiety

Shoei

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24 February 2011
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Hi Guys,

I wondered if anyone could advise.

My horse is pretty stressy in general.
He is 13 so by no means a youngster but was broken late at 7 and had a slow start to his ridden career for 1 reason or another.

Now 3 years ago, I decided to do some dressage with him. We had a year and intro, did a bit of prelim and due to illness last year and Covid we managed one Novice outing at the beginning of last year and not much else.

I have taken him to 2 competitions in the last fortnight and he just shuts down on me.

I can take him (and do) to arena hire and other yards and he is fine. He isn't too bad in the warm up but it is like riding a different horse in the test and it is serious impacting on our scores as the tension is very visible and he often hollows because of it.

He has been on calming cookies.

Has anyone got any advice? We have a busy summer with camps and stay aways and I am hoping this will help him.
 

Shoei

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24 February 2011
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I don't think so, in fact yesterday I was super chilled due to the fact I was taking him for experience fully expecting a poor score.
 

Sam_J

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3 December 2011
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Could you pay to enter a class, go in and just trot round in the boards a few times and come out again? (Obviously you would need to explain to the judge/steward!) It wouldn't be cheap but it would be interesting to see if your horse's behaviour (or yours!) was any different. Especially if you plaited up and did everything you would normally do if you were competing in earnest.
 

paddi22

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you need to analyse what changes when he goes into the ring, because he doesn't logically know he's going into a ring to compete, it's just a sectioned off area in reality. I had this issues with a few horses and the solutions varied, you just need to work it out logically
- one was picking up that my breathing rate changed. I only copped it when I wore a heart rate monitor and my heart rate changed massively during the test, so my breathing definitely would have
- one horse didn't like the way my contact must have been changing when I rode in a small arena. he was fine in warmups as we weren't doing as tight turns. so I just wasn't balancing him correctly
- another just hated the white boards and took ages to get used to them.

I found it good to go to tiny local shows, pay to go hc and just go in a school, and maybe do a few moves in front of a judge. it got young horses used to boards and cars with no stress.

it's just a case of picking what's upsetting the horse, but 99% of times I'd say it's your breathing changes or you stiffen when you concentrate
 

milliepops

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I have one that just goes tight and backwards in the ring. Its only her, and it only happens at shows. So its not me, because none of my others have this problem. And like yours OP mine gets over her nerves fairly quickly at arena hire.

I would suggest a few things, this is what has helped mine.
1. Keep on going. You can't recreate the show atmosphere in any other way really
2. Find out what makes him start to relax and then try and do that while you wait for the bell. For me its canter, so I cantered round regardless of what pace we were going to start in. Mine only starts breathing when we canter. Medium canter if necessary!
3. Don't over ride in the ring. It sometimes feels like mine is wading through treacle but it feels waaaaay worse than it looks. Generally its better to let mine mince around when she's feeling anxious than to hassle her too much.
4. Try some freestyles, e.g. if like mine yours is better if he canters first. My freestyle tests all start with canter ;)
5. Try some arena hire where you ride as though you're just going into the test. So no nicey nice warm up, go in and expect the horse to be in front of you in a nice way of going from the start. Some of this is actually a bit of a mindset/obedience thing and that takes practice.

I still try and choose venues where there's not much difference between warm up and test arena because its going from one to the other that mine loses her nerve. But I have been able to improve her confidence a lot by working with her and finding ways to help that don't make her feel like its too stressful.
 
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Horses_Rule

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Agree with all MP’s points!
How many tests do you go and do? If it’s just 1 usually perhaps try 2? My mare was always more relaxed in the second and it’s abit more exposure than just warm up and 5 minutes in the arena and out again! And get out as many times as you can! My mare was so awful at shows and she only got better when I took the pressure off myself and her. In the end I used to just laugh at her and that relaxed me and her! She would go away and train at other arenas with no problem then when we went to competition it all went to pot and it’s really disheartening! It’s so easy to not even realise you’re tensing up especially if they’re behaving in an undesired manner whilst your being glared at by the judge . So just pat, laugh and carry on 😂
 

Red-1

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I agree with Milliepops, one of mine was ring averse and it took many tings to make him Mr Plug and Play.

In addition to the above...

1. I would also hire the arena for half an hour on the day of a competition. So, warm up in the arena with others, then as soon as the last competitor came out, go in and do the half hour. The horse soon realised that a few minutes of mincing didn't bring relief, he had to actually go and do the work before he had a nice walk off. I also rode the arena hire so we had loads of breaks, but they were all at the opposite end of the arena to the entrance/colleting ring. The far end of the arena would become the happy place. I did this for both dressage and SJ, although that did mean warming up in an arena with frighteningly big fences in at times!

2. A couple of times I warmed up, went in, walked around a bit, dismounted near the judge and walked out again. As days out go it was still worthwhile for the entry fee as I got half an hour collecting ring hire out of it, and it was to the benefit of our training.

3. At a competition, I always would go from the arena at the end of the test, back to the collecting ring. If the horse had done good, then we would do one trot round than walk. If the horse had not done good, then we would do more work until he was going correctly. That way, the arena was not 'the end' of the work session, just a brief interlude.

4. In addition to the above, I would consciously make the actual arena a less pressured place. So, work hard in the collecting ring, go to the arena and try just a little less hard in the test, then turn to the collecting ring to work hard again. The horse soon realised that the arena was a nice place!

5. Even once the horse is going well, I ride each test 'for the next test' rather than screwing everything out of the test I am in. So, riding nicely for improvement rather than trying to be perfect.
 

Cowpony

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17 May 2013
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Mine gets incredibly tense in competitions. Sometimes she is tense in the warm-up, sometimes she warms up beautifully, sees the white boards and goes "Oh what! We're not jumping?? Go on then, make me!". As Milliepops said above, it then feels like wading through treacle. Sometimes my pony carries the tension from the warm-up into the arena and will look and spook at just about anything. At those times she resembles a llama and I wonder why I am even bothering to compete! I've also noticed that my shoulders and hands get very tight when we go into the arena and this must have an effect.

We did our first competition since lockdown last weekend. There were only 3 of us max in the warm-up, and often only 2. She was so chilled! We've also been working on getting her to work more "through" and she offered that as soon as we went into the warm-up. We did the best test we've ever done in an affiliated competition. Not the best mark, unfortunately, because the judge was well known for being very tough, but I didn't care!

So, a few things had changed - not so many horses zooming around; my riding has improved a lot position-wise; I am now aware of the tension in my shoulders and hands; her frame has improved. None of these may be the same as your issues, but maybe it helps to know the sort of things that can have an impact without us realising.
 

Shoei

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24 February 2011
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Thanks for all the great advice.

The breathing thing is really interesting as while I don't think I am overtense I think sometimes I hold my breath.

Also competing HC! I don't know why I didn't think about that!!! Do you still get comments?

Riding through treacle is exactly how I would describe it!
 
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