Finding The Zone
One of the most important aspects of being a competitive athlete is being able to get in the zone when it's game time. What they don't show you in your favorite sports movies, though, is that not every athlete gets in the zone the same way. Not everyone just comes out with their game face on ready to bring home the dub - in fact, I'd venture to say most people don't. What I really learned in the past year was that there's an art to finding your system, and usually it involves a lot of trial and error and a lot of listening to your gut. I'm here to share how I get in the zone, and hopefully it can help you to find your system too!
First of all, I'd like to share a disclaimer that there are still a couple things about my system that I want to improve. I want to drink more water throughout the day, eat healthier (or at all), and get to bed earlier on show nights. Making those improvements is on my to-do list for this year, and I look forward to putting them into practice once Arli and I hit the show ring again in a month or two! Now, onto the good stuff.
Luckily, I don't tend to be very nervous at all on schooling days. I absolutely love the part of horse shows where you're setting up stalls, preparing your set up, and getting the horses and riders ready to rock and roll. Schooling days are a blast for me, to be honest. That doesn't mean, though, that I don't like to have a little bit of a routine.
My first step is to of course get the horses completely set up and settled. Going out to ride before literally everything is set up - tack stall, feed stall, decorations, everything - really stresses me out. Once everything is set, I like to give the horses some time to settle in. I'll go pick up show numbers and scope out the show rings, and if it's a new venue I haven't been to before, I'll walk the show grounds so I have a very clear understanding of what's what. Then, I'll go get my horse ready. [For this whole post, I'll just be using Arli in my examples because I have a very specific routine with him. When I ride other horses, I try to keep my routine very similar but I don't always do everything exactly the same way.] I do a good grooming, boot up or wrap, then tack up. Then I'll get myself ready in terms of putting boots, helmet, and gloves on.
With Arli, I usually mount up at the barn and ride to the ring I'm schooling in. I'll walk around a couple of laps, maybe in the schooling area for that ring if there's a lot of riders in the ring, then I'll work through the trot for a good while and a little bit of canter both ways. On schooling days, I usually jump whatever is set in the ring, which is usually pretty small. He's not at all spooky about jumps so I don't really school for him to see them as much as it's just to feel out how he is in the footing and to make sure everything is working as it should. If the ring is set up with the course for the following day, I'll jump everything once just to see how the tracks ride, and then I'll call it a day by walking around for a while and then head back up to the barn.
I'm not super neurotic on schooling days, but I make up for that on show days. Okay, okay, maybe neurotic is a bit strong a word... My main thing is I'm very competitive, especially on my own horse, and some might say I'm a little intense. I'm okay with that. I'd agree. I think any athlete who is serious about their sport is at least a little that way.
I have one superstition, and that's to wear my old horse Maritime's nameplate bracelet. Other than that, I'm not one for superstitions. My main thing when I'm getting ready is that I'm comfortable. One time, I was warming up to show and the breeches I was wearing were a little baggy from me wearing them around all day and it drove me crazy. So I wear the same brand of show pants, always. [Romfh Sarafina Breeches for those of you wondering!] I also wear compression boot socks from Incrediwear or Noble Outfitters because they keep me the most comfortable and provide a really secure feeling in my boots.
As for my actual routine:
My main thing is I like to have quiet time to myself to get into my best state of mind. I prefer to walk the course alone, if there is a course walk. When it's time to tack up, I like to do that completely alone as well. It's my quiet time with Arli and being alone with him really gets me relaxed and in the zone. I do a good grooming and boot up, then tack up. Sometimes, especially if I'm in a bit of a rush, Wendy will help me tack up by handing me things, but I always have to be the one to tack Arli up - no exceptions. It would totally throw us both off if someone else did it!
Once we're all tacked up, I mount up at the barn and ride to the schooling area. I'll already know my course. It drives me insane to try to learn it while I'm sitting on my horse! We'll go to the schooling area and walk a lap, then we'll pick up the trot tracking left. We'll trot a couple laps left before changing direction and doing the same to the right. Then we'll canter right a couple of laps and swap onto the left for a couple of laps. We'll take a breather, then start jumping. We always trot a big crossrail to start, then canter it, then we'll canter a couple of medium sized verticals. Then we'll jump one or two big oxers a little higher than we're showing, and off we go! Since being quiet is my main thing, it bugs me a little bit to have to tell someone how to set my jumps. I'm incredibly fortunate that Wendy and Kristi both know my entire warm up routine and always set the jumps just right without me having to say a word! [Seriously, they're the best!]
I hate warming up too early, and I never warm up for too long. I like to be able to walk out of the schooling area and only have to wait for one or two trips at the gate, because Arli is extremely impatient. We'll usually trot or canter into the ring, take a big deep breath, then off we go when the buzzer sounds!
Once it's all said and done, what happens next depends on how the round went. If the round was good, I love to come out to my team and chat! If the round wasn't so good, I like to decompress a little bit by myself. I'll go for a walk to cool Arli out and talk with him. This isn't to say I pitch a fit or am super upset, I don't and I'm not! I just like to have a few minutes of quiet time before I'm bombarded with comments. Once we've had a chance to walk or go back to the barn and untack, I always debrief with my team. It's a big help for me to talk through my round, good or bad. I'll chat about how certain parts of the course rode, what I was happy with, and what mistakes occurred and why.
So there you have it, that's my mental skills routine for both schooling days and show days at horse shows! I've been showing for around 15 years and it's taken me until this past season to pin this down, but it has made a world of difference. 2018 was my most consistently successful season so far and I know a big part of that is due to having figured out what works for me and my horse. Keep in mind, as you've read this, that what works for me might not be exactly what works for you...but I hope that this can inspire you to find your system and run with it!