At every show, as the class draws near, we get the call: “Competitors can now walk the course.” For some this is like turning a computer on, making a morning brew, tidying a desk – just a task to do before the work commences but for others it is a gut wrenching call that symbolises the competition drawing nearer and is the opportunity to see what you are going to have to face and the chance to know if you are prepared for it.
The power of a good coursewalk should not be underestimated – there is a reason that people don’t just look at a plan of the course, it’s simply not enough. Walk the lines you are going to take – notice the ground, the lighting and any potential distractions. Pick focal points to help you ride the best line – to the bin and then turn or round the wall and then it’s three strides. Don’t over complicate it though – as with everything, keep it simple and your mind clear and calm. Directions are to help guide you rather than overwhelm you with information.
But an important thing to note is that the mind doesn’t take in the negative form. If I said ‘don’t think about cats’ – your mind creates an image of a cat. Guaranteed. So what do you think will be in your head if someone says ‘don’t hit fence 4’ or ‘don’t go too fast round to the stile.”? Always talk in the positive – “Rythmical clear round’, ‘ impulsion round the corner and sit up to the stile.” It may sound a little airy fairy but it can make a fundamental difference when you go into the ring.
Nasty people exist and live to say things to shake you up – “Have you seen fence 10? It’s huge!” Or “Didn’t you have a fall at a water jump last week? There is a massive one today.” You have to have an armour to stop these comments effecting you – that’s unsportsmanlike behaviour but it happens. However, don’t invite these people into the ring with you. Do you think Jessica Ennis has people around her saying things like ‘Careful you don’t trip on the last hurdle.” You are a competitor, you are there to do a job – surround yourself with the people who help you to do it best. If your mum is nervous and likely to say things that will worry you, have her lead your horse around instead. If your non-horsey boyfriend is there to ‘support’ you but is likely to say “goodness I didn’t realise the jumps were as big as this”, send him to the catering tent to grab you a bottle of water.
But also beware of the expert – the professional, the past owner, the top rider – they may be fantastic at what they do, fearless in competition, always heading the line up – but they may be the worst influence possible to be with just before you compete. If they don’t understand you, they shouldn’t be in the ring with you. I have seen people pay professionals to walk the course with them only to have what they say totally confuse them and put them off (to be honest I have done it myself!) I recently overheard a professional describe a fence as ‘the first big spread’ and ‘not one to get wrong’ – the two small 12 year olds walking with him hung on his every word and the two small 12 year olds rode like demons to it. One fell off and one knocked it down. He may be a great rider but I think the little jockeys may have been better off without these seeds being planted just before they jumped.
The person walking beside you should give you guidance about the course but most importantly get you in the right frame of mind. They shouldn’t talk about past mistakes, things that could go wrong or things to scare you, but just focus you on thinking about jumping a fantastic clear round and nothing else. This is an important time when it comes to mental state so pick the person to leave you raring to go and kick some butt – not raring to go home and cry in a corner!
Before your next show, step back and think about how you walk the course, who you walk it with and the mental images you leave with. Willie Nelson said “Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”