I found Danielle Pooles a little over two years ago via her business facebook page Dressage Plus. At the time I was struggling with my competition nerves and a lack of belief in my own abilities as a rider. It was after reading a story Danielle posted about her own struggles with competition nerves that I started to think that she might be able to help me. Without a competition on that weekend I could feel the tension and stress rising. With a quick message to Danielle a team lunch time on Friday I had booked in my first session for that evening and I haven’t looked back since! I thought it was high time that I get to know a bit more about Danielle’s history.
Danielle told me, “My competition nerves made me feel like I was failing in a massive way. After competing Pretzel for years and having so many ‘bad; experiences in the warm ups and test, I had labelled myself as a ‘nervous rider’, and with young horses ready to go out competing, I was very worried that I was going to create the same bad habits with them.”
Danielle sought out performance coaching as a key to overcoming these nerves. The success she experienced lead her to study and ultimately begin working as a performance coach.
What was it that drew to you horses as a child?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure what drew me to horses as a child. I come from a non-horsey family, but have always had an obsession with any animal, especially horses. My Grandparents tell me that as a young child I used to love going next door to pat the horses our neighbours owned, and I remember getting to ride my Grandad’s friend’s camel when we got to visit, and how much I loved that.
When I was about 7 or 8 years old I used to give one of my sisters riding lessons on a couple of tyre swings my Dad made for us. We would go out and brush the ‘ponies’ and then we would both ride the swings together, me pretending I was on a horse.
After what felt like years of begging my Dad for a pony, he finally gave in and we purchased our first family pony! A 3-year-old just broken grey gelding called Minky. Perfect match for a very, very green family!
He was of course very naughty, lots of forward issues at the start, but we all loved him & I had a lot of success on him at Pony Club once I learnt how to ride! As cheeky as he was, I think it was the challenge of growing, doing new things and the friendship we made that sparked a big love for riding and competing.
Tell us about Pretzel your first Prix St George horse?
Pretzel was a Clydie x TB, luckily for me he was built a lot more like a Thoroughbred, so he was quite agile and athletic, but had the cute face, and that floppy, relaxed bottom lip of a Clydie. We purchased Pretzel as a green 6 year old, when I was 13 years old.
As soon as I turned 14 years old I became an EA (Equestrian Australia) member with Pretzel (that was the rule back then, you had to be 14 to join!), and over about 9 years we moved up through the EA levels from Prelim to competing Prix St George. It was a very fun and rewarding journey, however it definitely didn’t come without challenges! The higher we moved up the levels, and the more difficult the movements, the more Pretzel disagreed with being a dressage horse!
I was a very driven teenager, and put a lot of pressure on myself and because I didn’t know how to control or ‘let go’ of that pressure it come through in my riding, especially out at competitions. So, there were a lot of tense warm ups and tests back with Pretzel!
After many years of friendship and growing together I sadly sold Pretzel on to a young family to learn on and so he could enjoy his last few years with less pressure to perform at the higher levels.
As much as there were some very average tests we rode, filled with tension, I have to say Pretzel gave me some massive learnings. To start with I was able to learn and train all of the Grand Prix movements on him, (except passage, we never tackled this one!). Pretzel also gave me massive insights into myself as a rider and what areas I really had to work on to become a better leader and rider for my horses.
What is it about dressage that drives you to continue training and to compete?
Growing is one of my values that drives me the most, so I think it is the constant growth, and challenges that riding, and in particular, Dressage throws at us that drives me to continue training and competing.
I love the feeling I get when my horse is in perfect balance, and it feels so easy and fun, like I could ask for any movement and we could achieve anything. The times when I am able to just think what it is I want to do and my horse just responds perfectly.
For me my riding success is when I am so focused in on my mare, Rondo, that I don’t notice anything else going on around me, no negative thoughts, no distractions, no sense of time, just riding in the moment! It is my favourite type of meditation, and gives me such a big sense of success.
You have your own experience with competition nerves, tell us about that?
I sure do! My own experience with nerves is what drives me to keep learning all I can about different ways we can reduce and manage nerves and fears in our riding, and life outside of riding. I know what it feels like to be so nervous in the lead up to a competition that you can’t even enjoy your week before, or to have such negative self-talk in a warm up that you question why you are even there!
It’s not a nice feeling at all. We put so many hours and so much money into riding, to then spend a competition day so nervous that we can’t even ride affectively, that just doesn’t make sense to me! If I am putting in the hours and going to riding lessons, I want to make sure I know how to manage my mind when I’m under pressure, so I have the best possible chance of succeeding on competition day.
And, to be clear, my definition of success at a competition, is to feel relaxed and calm over the day, be excited to get on and into the arena, plus improve on my ability to ride in the moment and stay focused while I’m in the warm up and in the test arena. This also includes improving on particular movements I have been practising, however for me it is so important that I am concentrating on staying in the moment, because if we ride in the moment we cannot experience any negative thoughts, doubts, or ‘what if’s’ that can pop up so easily at a competition.
Mum’s are often the unsung hero’s. You’ve mentioned in your video Series ‘Unstoppable Equestrian’ that your mum used to talk you through your nerves, how did she do this?
My Mum defiantly is my unsung hero, and in my teenage years my safety blanket when I was having a bad warm up or competition day.
It was always a massive relief knowing Mum was there at the side of the warm up to help me if Pretzel was misbehaving and I was getting nervous. Although Mum hadn’t had years of riding experience, she always knew how to help relax me and change my focus onto something more positive. Mum would simply stand on the side lines or in the middle of a circle and keep talking to me about non horse related stuff until my mind and body started to relax and my horse started to behave again.
She is always my positive, uplifting voice, when I am harsh on myself, and she truly believes in me, which really helps me when I am doubting myself and my ability’s.
How did your current mare Rondo come into your life?
Rondo was a very special horse to come into my life, it wasn’t your normal find a horse and purchase it situation. In my last year of being on the Victorian Young Riders Dressage Squad I was awarded a 3-month-old foal, specifically bread by Judy & Colin Gronn from Ashleigh Stud, and International Horse Breeders, to donate to the YR Squad to be awarded to a rider to help them in their riding success.
This was one of the most exciting and special things that has happened in my life. The foal I was awarded was a beautiful Warmblood colt, called Ashlegh Donal, unfortunately Ash was put to sleep a couple of years ago due to an injury.
My connection with Ashleigh Stud opened up some amazing opportunities for me, while I was waiting for Ash to grow up I was worked with Judy & Colin in training some of their young Dressage and Show Jumping horses. I was then in a position where I was able to take Rondo on as an unbroken 3-year-old, and the rest is history!!
What advice would you have for riders who experience competition nerves which are negatively impacting their riding?
Firstly, you’re not alone, and there is plenty of help and support out there for you to be able to overcome these competition nerves. More importantly, the journey you will move through to improve your confidence, relaxation and leadership will not only improve your enjoyment and success out competing, but more importantly, improve all of the other areas of your life as well!
Once you have decided that you are not willing to continue to show up at competitions and experience so much nervous energy that you can’t ride as well as you do at home, then I would suggest finding a coach to work with. It could be a riding instructor that can help you and support you with different exercises and tools to help you out competing. Or, you might want to find a specialised coach that focuses specifically on improving the mindset and body language.
My biggest advice is to make sure you find someone to work with that supports you and is the right fit for your personality. And embrace the journey you are about to go on, of personal growth and more enjoyment with your horse!
If people would like to work with you how can they get in touch?
The best way is via Facebook messenger, through my page Dressage Plus, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I also post a weekly video on my Unstoppable Equestrian Blog, where I share mindset and body language tools and Dressage tips. You can sign up to receive these videos emailed directly to you on the link below.
I hope you enjoyed getting to know more about Danielle and her riding journey.