Equestrian Anxiety: Is it all in your head?

Posted on August 8, 2022 by Categories: News

Of course, for most of us, it’s a combination of two types of performance anxiety. And for this, I’m not only talking about competition riders, but anyone who has a form of anxiety whatever riding they are doing.

The two types are called somatic and cognitive anxiety, sometimes referred to as somatic and cognitive arousal, which sounds better than an anxiety.

Somatic arousal is the physical sensations you feel at times of being on heightened alert. Cognitive is the inner voice, the ‘chimp’ or self-talk.

Both can be dealt with using specific NLP techniques.


The triggers for each type of arousal can be different, as can the length of time before the ride; they can, in some riders, have different effects on your performance.


The explanation lies in whether the rider is a professional, career rider or a recreational or amateur equestrian.


  • In the professionals, it seems that there is less somatic arousal, which means that fine motor skills are maintained
  • In amateurs, somatic arousal is more of a problem, which means that motor skills may be compromised (jelly legs, stiff hands anyone?)

Cognitive arousal is also different in professionals and amateurs.

  • In professionals, self-confidence is usually higher (in that these riders care less about coping with a highly strung horse or fear the size of a course of jumps far less).
  • This works hand in hand with having less negative inner chatter (cognitive arousal)
  • Where cognitive arousal is present, professionals turn it around and use it as a motivator. They have more self-belief and so are better equipped to do this.
  • In some professionals who do have problematic cognitive arousal, how much it affects their rider can depend on the discipline (see below).
  • In amateurs, self-confidence is often lower, they also experience more negative self-talk and more cognitive arousal
  • If self-confidence and self-belief are low, they cannot counteract the cognitive arousal

One means of starting to reframe your cognitive arousal is to think about how you label your horse’s behaviour. It’s been found that those intrusive thoughts can be slowed, quietened, even switch off if the rider describes their horse differently. (Now, I’ve ridden those horses that you don’t know what they’ll do at any given moment. That was before I learnt any NLP. So, be honest about whether your horse really does have negative traits or it’s a what-if.)


If you define your horse as temperamental, unpredictable, excitable, unfocussed etc., then re-label this. That’s because a negative label, especially if untrue for most of the time, increases cognitive arousal and then, often somatic arousal too!


What about the discipline/activity you want to pursue?


Think about whether your riding requires intricate precision, such as dressage or whether you need precision, but that you can rectify a mistake or mis-stride more easily and still do well (e.g., show-jumping).


The more precision needed and the more you need to remember (dressage tests are a good example), anything that affects your thinking will decrease performance.


If you have to memorise less and use instincts more, cognitive arousal can have less of an effect on the overall performance and result. In professional show-jumpers, cognitive arousal whether present or absent made little difference to rider performance.


Some riders do like to have some somatic arousal when they ride! These are usually those who enjoy the sensations that adrenaline affords. In those cases, the riders don’t identify the increased heart-rate and butterflies in the stomach with anxiety. Instead, they have a natural or coached disposition towards terming it excitement.


This can then work in their favour, if monitored and controlled, when they need higher energy (e.g., for jumping, xc, jump-offs).


If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating area of sports psychology, have a look at:



Or, book a free complimentary chat on Zoom to find out what NLP can do for your riding anxiety! Click here. 

You might also like to read more about rider anxiety, here are some previous blogs:


What you don’t know about riding anxiety that may be stopping your progress and enjoyment

It’s not all fight or flight for riders! Drop the stress response!

Mental toughness – 5 ways to get it fast!