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  • Writer's pictureDerry Vilcans-Moody

Beat the nerves & grow in confidence

I'm not going to be able to uncover all areas of this topic in a 6 min read but I hope to give some helpful advice .. Its that time of year, where equestrian events (shows, sponsored/ pleasure rides, dressage SJ etc) are beginning to take place and the current road map out of the lock down measures is meaning we can get out and do more with our horses. I have also seen a rise in enquires about building confidence and helping overcome nerves. As a rider I have struggled with my nerves hugely over the years, when I share this with people they are often shocked; and I do see the irony as I regularly deliver seminars to large audiences of over 100 people and coach and teach with large groups and in those situations I feel in control of my nerves and able to focus the energy positively.

It is essential to know that having a level of nervousness is a natural reaction that takes place in your body, many professional sports people and elite athletes use this energy and focus it to drive them to their optimal performance. The adrenalin can heighten and enhance output, but it can also disengage you. The challenge we have is ‘managing’ that energy in way that doesn’t affect our performance in an adverse way or influence the horse.

Nervousness is the body’s reaction to a situation that it believes will put it in danger or cause it harm, and riding horses carries and inherent risk. It is a common and I want to stress normal feeling brought on by your body's stress response. This involves series of hormonal and physiological responses that help prepare you to handle a perceived or imagined threat. Your body prepares to fight or flee a threat by boosting adrenaline production.

The fight or flee actions are not as literal in many cases as fighting your way out or running as fast as you can away; although I have seen (thankfully not in any session I’ve ever been coaching) a rider dismount un-announced and leave- as their nervousness built up to a point they had to leave, this is their ‘flee’ response taking place; likewise it’s not uncommon for the fight instinct to take a relatively organised rider and manifest itself in way where you can actively observe hands becoming ‘tighter’ and ‘harder’ in their use legs being used in a less effective way – and the horse and rider interaction also breaks down.

Here are some simple techniques that may help if you are nervous or anxious


It is not uncommon when you feel nervous or anxious to not breath properly and fill your lung space fully. Typically, shallow breathing, taking small quick breaths, often breathing in more than you breath out. There are some useful exercises to help with this using the Franklin Method® Franklin Balls.

Admit that you're anxious or nervous

This is half of the difficulty, but this admission allows you to own the feeling and then begin to take action to manage it. Remember feeling anxious and nervous is perfectly normal, not to mention when you are sat upon over 500KGS of living, thinking, breathing horse who has his own feelings, thoughts, and emotions.

Challenge your thoughts

Is what you are thinking or feeling likely to happen? How likely in reality? Is it real? Has it happened before? Is your memory factual or has it become ‘enhanced’ or ‘clouded’ by the feelings it creates within you? Can I handle the possible outcome? Once you have run though this list you then need to reposition your thinking. For example, If I use my leg in trot the horse will canter off with me; reframe to I have trotted several hundreds of times and he has never catered unless I’ve asked, and if he does canter, I know how to ride canter so I can do this an quietly rearrange things back to trot.

Visualise yourself calm,

Practice good breathing, take a moment if it’s safe to do so, try to clear your mind, see yourself relaxed, imagine walking through the situation step by step, fielding off the trigger thoughts of ‘what if’ replacing with the is this necessary to consider in what I’m doing and focus on the ‘I can’ and ‘I will’. Sometimes verbalising this to your coach or a friend helps.

Think it through

Assess the reality, is it really important that you ride a dressage test with no errors (let’s face it even Charlotte Dujardin doesn’t score 100%) or that if you have a pole down at the jumping, in reality what has been lost – for most, it is really not that essential (it’s a nice to do!) Focus on rationalising what you’re thinking, listing it clearly and prioritising ‘need to keep in your mind’ against ‘irrelevant and unhelpful’ I call this the ‘reality check’ mindset.

Change your focus

This is the one commonly used in question coaching, focus on something different. I often direct attention to things such as talking, singing, riding something different, changes of directions, even discussing the surroundings. Rhythm beads are also helpful with some riders too.

Feed and hydrate your body (and mind).

We all know eating well and keeping hydrated is good for us, research has shown over and over, that this is also linked to our emotive state.

Remember it is ok, to not be ok; and the feeling of nervousness is a normal feeling.

Social media. It feels appropriate to mention this hear as even while writing this blog I have been speaking with people who have been in touch to discuss how social media has a huge impact on their feeling of confidence or nerves. The Derry VM Equestrian social channels are used as a dual purpose, 1) to share my coaching stores, and 2) to share my journey as a rehabbing rider from serious back injury. My personal journey is a warts and all diary, the good and the improving moments. I'm not going to suggest it’s a non censored version of life, but I try my best to show the fuller picture from all angles (and that has not always been easy as when you’re a coach and you are putting yourself out there and things aren’t quite 100% the world can be a little unkind). However it is important to highlight that in most occasions a picture is a image of a moment in time, what may have been a ‘got it’ moment, the will most definitely be some ‘lost it’ moments before or even after this vice-versa. Social media and pictures a snap shots of what’s happening and we are ALL on a journey.

To re use the quote "In a world where you can be anything; be kind"

Showing/ competing tips to reduce nerves,

  • Practice, Practice Practice, and I don t mean ride the dressage test until both you and horse are bored stiff, I mean rehearse the processes, loading, packing up, warming up, elements of the ridden work so that they feel more regular, to you both.

  • Preparation, have everything boxed and bagged ready the day before, some venues will let you lunge the horse prior to getting on (please check as not all allow this).

  • Drink Water, keep yourself hydrated, dressed in your bets showing gear, even on cool day can be warm, so drink lots of water.

  • Support – as a coach I offer a showing/ event support to come along and support riders pre the class, test, or round. – Ensure those around you in a positive mid set, avoid grouping lots of nervous horses and riders – we need a steady Eddie companion as much as our horses do.

  • Remind yourself this is a pleasure activity and enjoyable! Look how far you have come, many riders would never enter or take their horse out (this is absolutely fine if you have no desire to), you have already made huge steps to do this

  • Ensure you are well rested and have had a good night's sleep the night before.

  • There lots of calming options available for our horses and us,

As a coach, I have, over time developed many techniques to help with confidence issues, and nervousness. Developing your technical ability as a rider is as much about creating a positive horse and rider interaction, better application of the aid, correct biomechanics, as it is about creating a positive mindset about the experience for both horse and rider after all for so many of us horses are our sanity and relaxation. To stress a plan for progress doesn’t have to include competing and showing, personal goals for you are just as important if not more so that anything else, you are your own journey set your goals for you. In a coaching sessions with me we work on an individual personalised set of goals and they are bespoke to you and your journey.

Don’t forget horse time isn’t just riding time – on a day when my head is busy and full, sometimes a long groom and some Alfie cuddles is just what's needed.

For any coaching enquiries please get in touch

For now ‘NJoy your horse and your riding.

Speak soon.


I want to highlight this post is not a replacement for professional support, if you suffer from anxiety, and panic attacks you should seek professional medical support on this in conjunction with you equestrian coaching.

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