I’m Jacques Malone, a mental performance coach, and I specialise in sports psychology, working with riders to improve their mental game in and out of the saddle.

At this time of year the phone calls start. It is normally one of two issues. We are heading to an RDS qualifier and I need help, or we have just been to a qualifier and it didn’t go to plan.

What tends to happen to a lot of us when we’re heading to a big event such as a qualifier, a premier or a final (insert any of those words into the title of a class to cause havoc), is our brains start to go into panic mode.

I have constantly had the conversation in the last weeks, does your horse or pony know the difference between going out to training, jumping a league show or jumping at a qualifier? No, of course they don’t. So we need to be really careful that we don’t change how we ride, how we prepare and how we compete, just because the word qualifier is in the title.

Natural preparation

Pre-competition jitters? Totally normal! Rather than battling those nerves, embrace them. That buzz of energy isn’t fear - it’s your body’s natural preparation for competition. Recognise it, but don’t let it take centre stage. Feel that adrenaline rush as a sign that you’re primed and ready to perform. By viewing your nerves positively, you acknowledge that your body is gearing up to give its best. So, next time you feel those butterflies, welcome them - they’re just part of the ride!

Design a training programme that mimics competition conditions. Practice is most effective when it replicates the environment and challenges you will face during actual competitions. Expecting to jump three rounds? Have you trained this at home? By training under similar conditions, you and your horse will become more accustomed to the pressures and demands of the event, enhancing your performance when it matters most.

Stress and anxiety

On the day, preparation is key to staying calm under pressure. Arrive at the event early to avoid feeling rushed, as this can ramp up stress and anxiety. Give yourself plenty of time for a thorough warm-up, ensuring both you and your horse are ready. Familiarise yourself with the venue, including its layout and the day’s schedule. Knowing where you need to be and when helps to reduce uncertainty and keeps your mind focused. With these steps, you’ll be better equipped to handle the pressures of competition with confidence and ease.

Take a few minutes to practice visualisation before you compete. Find a quiet corner, close your eyes and take deep, slow breaths. Imagine yourself performing perfectly, executing every move with precision and confidence. This mental rehearsal helps condition your mind for success. While it’s important to stay flexible and adapt to any unexpected elements during the event, having a clear strategy of how you want to perform will give you a solid foundation to work from. Visualisation, combined with a calm mind and a clear plan, can significantly enhance your performance.

Stay present

Focus on the process rather than the outcome. Stay present in the moment and avoid thinking too far ahead or fixating on the finish. If negative thoughts creep in, stop and centre yourself by focusing on your breathing. Concentrating on your breathing rhythm will naturally bring you back to the present. By keeping your mind on the aids and maintaining a steady breath, you’ll stay calm and composed throughout your competition.

Force a smile. Really. If you are struggling with negative thoughts and can’t break out of the cycle, simply force yourself to smile, even if only for a few seconds. This simple action will have a positive effect in a split second. Perhaps that is all the time you need to relax back into your performance.

Perform like you don’t care about the outcome. If you find yourself caught up in negative thoughts and find that you suddenly expect the worst it will be impossible to perform at your best. If you begin to perform like you don’t care about the outcome, you may relax and enjoy the event for what it is – another show in your life. Not the most important event of your life.

Lastly remember to breathe. What is the first thing most riders do when under any stress or pressure when riding be it at home or in a competition? Well done if you said we hold our breath! Of course we breathe automatically, if we didn’t, we’d be dead.

Proper oxygenation fuels muscles, enabling strong physical aids. It supports coordination and balance, manages stress by regulating cortisol and other hormones and is crucial for brain function, helping riders stay focused, alert, and mentally sharp.

So make an effort to breathe in the pocket, before you start the course and bonus points if you can consciously take a breath at multiple points in the round.

Most importantly, go out and enjoy it!