Competing ‘‘Against’’ Friends


BY Tonya Johnston, MA

Going to horse shows with your friends can be such a fantastic, fun experience. As a matter of fact, the social aspects of our sport can play a huge role in our overall motivation to ride and compete. We get to root for each other, be silly together between classes, clap and whoop after each other’s great rides, talk through our shared experiences, and help one another through the occasional rough patch.

Some days, however, having to compete against your friends can feel like a distracting challenge. Who will have to go first? Who will ride well? Who will get more attention from the trainers? Who will be champion or reserve? It can catch you off-guard to feel competitive with people you consider good friends, and you may feel strange, vulnerable, or even disloyal in those instances. If this sounds familiar and you have occasionally felt off-kilter when competing with your friends, here are some ideas that can help you stay focused and composed.

For starters, you are hopefully at a horse show first and foremost to compete against yourself—to be better than you were the day before, to help your horse put forth his or her best performance, and achieve your goals together. So, the phrase “competing against friends” is really just a way of describing the situation that occurs when your friends happen to be in your class or division. One of the best ways to steer clear of the distraction inherent in worrying about your friend’s performance versus your own is to stay focused on your personal progress and performance goals. For example, is one of your performance goals to use your outside aids to get arrow-straight to each jump as you come out of the corner? Perhaps you are also focusing on riding the course in sections by taking a breath in each corner? It can be nice to talk about your performance goals with your friends (especially the ones in your class) so that you can support one another. This way you can intentionally and specifically counteract the temptation to measure, compare, and define success based on scores and ribbons.

To redirect your focus from the social aspects involved in competing with your friends, it can be helpful to create a mantra for yourself that can act as a quick key to your performance goals. If you were to find yourself worrying about your friends’ opinions or wondering how your day will stack up against theirs, a mantra can bring you into the moment and create a productive thought. Continuing with the examples from above, “Like an arrow” or “Just breathe” are mantras that you could use to put your mind on task and on your goals. Repeating them to yourself as you walk to the warm-up ring, for example, can be a useful touchstone for productive thoughts and positive action.

Any time you find yourself worrying about riding in a class with your friends, take a moment to remind yourself that there is enough talent to go around. You can put in an amazing round, and so can your best friend, all on the same day—even in the same class. The results are dependent on a myriad of factors, including the judge or the clock, none of which are 100% within your control. Staying grounded in the moment and keeping your awareness on things that will help you ride well (like performance goals that are within your control), versus constantly evaluating you and your friends’ rounds is extremely important.

Communicate with your friends about your preparation plans, expectations, and concerns ahead of time to proactively plan for an enjoyable experience. For example, you may want to be alone and have quiet time to mentally prepare for your ride or walk your course once by yourself, which are choices that can be misinterpreted by those around you. Remember it is absolutely okay (and often helpful) to focus solely on your own performance as you prepare for your round, but making the effort to communicate your plan to your friends ahead of time will greatly reduce the risk of misunderstandings within your relationship.

Good sportsmanship positively impacts your self-confidence. This cannot be overstated. Please read that again. If you have noticed yourself turn unduly critical of other riders (including your friends) in the heat of the moment, even if only in your mind, it may mean that you can be unduly negative or judgmental of your own performances as well. Craving a desired outcome like a blue ribbon instead of fully valuing effort and progress can lead to this type of negative mindset. Appreciating quality performances, respecting talent, and complimenting success means you are fair and genuine with everyone around you—including yourself!

“Treat others as you wish to be treated.” This saying is an oldie but a goodie and it typifies the way to successfully navigate friendships during competition. For example, when competitive juices are in full effect, what would you rather your friend said to you literally moments before you entered the ring? “Be careful, everyone is having problems at the end jump; its really spooky.” or “Go get ‘em, good luck!” Communicating in ways that are supportive, positive and motivating are the best expressions of friendship within competition. Also, your friends very likely value your opinion, so sharing compliments and positive feedback can be a way to honor the bond you have in what can be a very charged atmosphere.

Remember, it is a blessing to share a sport you love with people you care about—appreciate it to the fullest!

The Expert: Tonya Johnston

Tonya Johnston, MA, is an equestrian mental skills coach with over 30 years of experience helping riders of all levels be their best. She conducts “Mental Skills for Riders” clinics throughout the country or via Zoom and does phone consultations with individual clients. Her book, Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse, is available on Amazon and Audible. Tonya has a monthly “Inside Your Ride” podcast that is a part of the Plaidcast. Connect with Tonya at 510-418-3664, or