Taming Butterflies

Nikki enjoying a Pop Tart at the Vermont Summer Festival, 2013.

By Emily Pope

Every rider who competes is familiar with the feeling of butterflies in the stomach before a big class. Maybe it’s the first time competing in a new division, or the course looks particularly big that day, or it’s your first horse show; regardless, those show-day nerves are a normal and common reaction to the adrenaline rush of competing. Seasoned competitors are accustomed to these nerves and know how to channel them into productive energy instead of letting them cause doubt and affecting their ride.

Learning to control these nervous butterflies took a few years before I truly felt like I mastered it. When I was a young rider on green ponies, it was extremely important to not let my nerves affect my ride; the last thing anyone wants is a nervous kid and a nervous pony! I didn’t truly grasp how to think about my butterflies until I started riding with Kip Rosenthal. Kip has a doctorate in psychology and has many strategies for controlling nerves, including naming your butterflies and talking – quietly or in your head (you don’t want to get taken away in a straitjacket) – to ultimately take a deep breath and relax. I’m not one to name or talk to my nervous butterflies, but with Kip’s help, I learned several methods to keep from sabotaging myself in the ring.

The hardest thing for me to learn was that it is okay to make mistakes. Mistakes can be great teachers; it’s certainly helpful to do something correctly and feel it, but it’s also helpful to make mistakes and learn not only what causes them, but how to correct them and prevent them from happening. For anyone who is a perfectionist, realizing that it’s okay to make mistakes seems completely wrong, but at least for me, I found that I often made mistakes because I was trying too hard to be perfect. Focusing on perfection makes me too tense and too likely to second-guess my decisions, which negatively affects my ride. Kip told me to focus on striving for excellence, rather than perfection, because until I can walk on water, I can’t expect to be perfect all the time.

Emily Pope and Seize the Moment trot in for the $30,000 Grand Prix of Vermont, 2013.

Although I can’t expect perfection, I can expect myself to be reasonably competent in the classes I do; I have enormous faith in Kip and know she would never put me in classes that I’m not ready to do. Even if we’re walking the course for a Grand Prix and I think that the jumps look enormous, I know that if Kip has confidence in me and in my horse, we’re ready to compete. I sometimes have to tell myself that it’s just another class, perhaps just one with a bigger entry fee or with jumps that are the same height I am, especially if people ask me if I’m nervous! I needed a few years of mileage in the bigger classes before I truly believed that it was just another class, but the more I told myself that, the more I believed it. I wasn’t thinking that way when my mare and I first moved up to the national standard Grand Prixs: the first few we did, I was so nervous that I didn’t eat before them because I was afraid I might be sick! These days, I can control my nerves more and actually believe that it’s just another class.

That isn’t to say that I don’t get nervous now, though! I had to learn how to shut off my emotions when I went into the ring, to just focus when the buzzer goes off. It’s difficult to do that when you’re looking at a course that you’re afraid of, but lots of practice taught me how. Even now, I sometimes have to actively concentrate on shutting off my nerves before starting a big class. Last summer, my wonderful mare and I went into a Grand Prix in Vermont that was such a solid course, I actually told Kip that I was nervous. When we were in the in-gate waiting for our turn, I visualized reaching for a light switch that represented my emotions, and I pictured flipping it to the off position before we cantered into the ring. Even though we’d never jumped a course that was quite that substantial, we laid down a respectable round (only marred by a brief lapse in concentration on my part that resulted in a light touch and 4 faults) and placed 11th. It wasn’t our best placing, but I was thrilled with Nikki (Seize The Moment) and with the fact that I’d been able to control my nerves that effectively.

So the next time you’re feeling nervous before competing, picture yourself riding to success. Picture your butterflies and name them, if that suits you; just acknowledge that you’re going to make mistakes and that’s okay. Most importantly, remind yourself that this sport is supposed to be fun, and have a great time with your horse or pony.

Emily Pope works in cancer research in the Largaespada lab at the University of Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2013 with a B.S. in animal science and hopes to go on for her Ph.D. in cancer biology in a few years. She shows Seize The Moment, an 18-year-old Thoroughbred mare, in the open jumpers and national standard Grand Prixs.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine.