The Power of Presence

By Mackenzie Shuman

Imagine this: you are walking in on your horse into a big equitation flat class with tough competition. Your stomach is turning with anxiety, dread, and doubt. You pick up the trot and attempt to show some confidence with a big pace to show off yourself and your horse. However, the feelings  haven’t entirely subsided. While now you may feel concentrated and focused, those earlier sensations are now buried beneath that thin layer of concentration. They show by lowering your chin, rounding your shoulders, and bringing your heels up. You simply don’t have the confidence to thrust your chest out and show off. You end up coming out of the class without a ribbon but dismiss it by saying, “Oh, that skinny girl was going to win anyway.”

Now imagine a completely different situation: you are walking in on your horse into a big flat class with tough competition. You feel confident, excited, and prepared. You pick up the trot knowing exactly how to show off yourself and your horse. Those feelings of confidence and excitement are exemplified through your erect posture, steady hands, and firm leg. You come out of the class with a ribbon and a smile on your face.

So what really changed here? In the first situation, you were nervous and worried about what the judge was thinking and you were consumed by fear that you wouldn’t place in the class. In the second situation, you were happy to be present, excited to show off your best equitation, and liberated from fears of not placing.
In a recent book I read by Amy Cuddy called Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, she said, “We can’t be fully engaged in an interaction when we’re busy second-guessing ourselves and attending to the hamster wheel in our heads-the jumbled, frenetic, self-doubting analysis of what we think is happening in the room. The excruciating self-awareness that we are, most definitely, in a high-pressure situation. And we’re screwing it up. Exactly when we most need to be present, we are least likely to be.” In the first situation, you were screwing it up. In the second situation, you were present and winning.

To be present means to have presence. Though it’s hard to define, we know presence when we see it, and we also know when there is an absence of it. To have presence you must be comfortable with yourself, and carry over that secure feeling into those high-pressure situations like that big eq flat.

Before a big class, look at yourself in the mirror. Look at all the parts of yourself that you love, your hair, the way your helmet looks on you, your eyes, anything. Look at those qualities and live through them.

Now look inside to your inner qualities. Question yourself, ask why you are doing this class, why you want to win, and what you aim to get out of the class. Look into your core values. Remind yourself of who you really are and think about what matters the most to you.

This exercise of looking within and finding your core values is what Amy Cuddy calls “self-affirmation.” This “makes us feel less dependent on the approval of others and even comfortable with their disapproval, if that’s what we get.”

Self-affirmation isn’t cockiness. It’s feeling safe with yourself and therefore being open to feedback and less defensive, which can also make you a better learner.

Now that you’ve looked inside and found your core values and have self-affirmed, you are at peace with your own mind. Your focus and attention have been fine-tuned and sharpened.

However, the main point of Amy Cuddy’s book is that confidence not only comes from the inside out, but also the outside in.

“Your body shapes your mind. Your mind shapes your behavior. And your behavior shapes your future. Let your body tell you that you’re powerful and deserving, and you become more present, enthusiastic, and authentically yourself,” she said. Through research, Cuddy has found that either picturing yourself in a powerful body position or physically doing the “power poses” actually impacts one’s confidence.

So how does one get their body to tell their mind that they are powerful and confident? Cuddy’s power poses include a starfish, Wonder Woman, and others. But, I think these two are the most effective.

The starfish position is simply standing up straight with both arms stretched high and wide toward the sky. Your legs should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart so your position is as open and erect as possible. Stay here for a minute, breathing slowly and focusing on the challenging class before you and how you are going to conquer it. After about a minute or until you feel good, relax, but make sure to walk with your shoulders back and your chin up as confident posture can make a confident person.

The same goes for the Wonder Woman pose. This pose is the same except both hands are on your hips and your chest is thrusted out.

Either pose is effective for different people. Before your next class, find a quiet area to take a moment and power pose. At first you may feel silly, but give it a few tries. You may also find that simply changing your posture gives you new-found confidence.

The world of horseback riding has grown so competitive that riders feel pressured to perfection. Perfection may not be attainable, but confidence is. So, next time you’re feeling anxious before that big class, take the time to address self- affirmation as well as physical posturing.