Pressure - Holly Woodhead

Holly was born to ride, having two very well-known parents as world class dressage riders and trainers.

As a young rider, Holly achieved great success, however recently, she has openly shared how she struggled with self-pressure.

She tells her story about how pressure effected her performance and belief in her own self: 

how did you recognise you were struggling?

I have been incredibly fortunate within my career, growing up in such a horsey family definitely had its advantages. But with the highs, also came the lows.

This pressure I felt I put on myself.

Having had a lot of success at Pony, Junior and Young Rider level I set the bar high for my future. I was in a position where I was riding and competing too many horses, but when you need to make a business work it is something you have to do to pay the bills and you don’t want to let anyone down.

When I was younger, I felt I was pretty resilient, after a fall I would brush it off and keep going, as I got older, I found this harder.

I was riding owners’ horses and I wanted to do well for them. A couple of seasons ago I had a number of pretty nasty falls which really knocked me. I began to doubt myself and my ability and at times why I was doing what I was doing.



I tried to keep going and was almost living a double life. I would put on a front to do my job; in hindsight this was the worst thing I could have done.

During this time, I was unable to see that there were people around who could help me.

I felt alone and was just desperately trying to keep going.

Social media is a fantastic tool for any business, but it also comes with negativity, everything I was doing was being recorded and everyone could see it. This was something I found very hard.


How did you make a change?

I realised something had to change when I made a big leap with a yard move and it didn’t work out. I therefore took some time out. 

During this time, I realised all the people around me who could help and get me back on my feet. I very quickly realised that the only person who was doubting me was me!

I know to try to spend a lot of time reflecting on the positives even if I have had a bad days competing. The nature of our sport is such that we will all have bad days, but there is always something positive to take from it.

I spend a lot of time setting specific goals for both myself and my team of horses. I would advise all riders that taking a step back when things are tough is often the best thing to do;  it helps to put problems into perspective and allows you time to think them through and improve them.

The biggest thing I have learnt though is to talk, talking does not show weakness it shows strength.


What are your views on rider pressure?

As riders we all experience a huge number of pressures, we all have fears and worries and everyone that rides has someone to answer too, that can be an owner, a sponsor, a parent or even yourself. 

Often answering to yourself is the worst. 

It is so easy to be incredibly tough on yourself when days are not quite going to plan. 

A totally normal thing is to tell yourself you're useless; you're rubbish; and you should just give up.  BUT giving up won’t solve anything or make you feel any better. 


We all compete because we love the sport; the horses and that thrill of going cross country. 

So how do we deal with the pressures we put on ourselves or the pressures an outside person puts on us?

Over the past few years I have found pressure to be one of my biggest demons. But I didn’t get the pressure from owners or sponsors it was just pressure I was putting on myself. 

Yes, when an owner’s horse doesn’t go well of course they are going to be disappointed but they also know we are just humans and sport isn’t all about standing on a podium having won your class. The whole journey of owning an event horse is the ups and downs.

I would often tell myself that I wasn’t good enough and that when something went wrong it was all my fault. But having been through a lot of ups and downs over the past two years I have realised it wasn’t all my fault. 

Of course, sometimes I got it wrong but sometimes the horses got it wrong and sometimes it was just a bit of bad luck. Let’s face it in eventing you do need a bit of luck on your side. 


Your advice for self help when feeling under pressure?

My biggest answer to this is just by breathing normally, it may sound stupid but, when you're feel yourself getting worked up, nervous or upset just allow yourself a few minutes to breathe normally.

Look around you, take in the surroundings and always remember that there is another day. 

One thing I have learnt whilst competing, is that if you are not in the right mind set sometimes it is best to withdraw and save both yourself and your horse for another day.

Obviously, this is much easier if you’re riding for yourself and not for an owner, but the majority of owners would have far more respect for you if you were just honest and said today is not the day.  In the long run this could save a potential elimination and both you and the horse losing confidence.

After all a lot of riding is about confidence.

Take a step back, if you have had a rubbish run then there is no harm or embarrassment in stepping down a level or taking a weekend off from competing and going training instead. This, straight away takes the pressure off.

Doing this doesn’t make you rubbish or weak it just makes you sensible. Wouldn’t you far rather finish the day thinking ‘that felt great and we could have done the higher level’ rather than thinking ‘oh god I wish I had stepped down, what am I going to do now’.


What about social media

Take a break from social media, it is so easy to sit on the internet and look at how well everyone else appears to be doing, it is very important to remember that social media isn’t always the truth.

We all feel the need to justify our days and make them sound amazing even when in reality they really haven’t been. How often do you write a status saying everything is fine but in fact your feeling pretty rubbish? 

On these days when you have felt the pressure and things haven’t gone right, instead of going on your phone and beating yourself up, reach out to a friend or a trainer and just chat things through.


Does winning really matter?

We all love to win, we would be lying if we said we didn’t but not winning isn’t the end of the world. It is so easy for us to forget that.

Going into the ring thinking all that you want is to win, is not going to make it happen, in fact it will almost certainly stop it from happening. Winning comes from a bit of luck on the day and your preparation before. 

If you’re someone that gets nervous find a tactic at home with your trainer that helps calm your nerves then put it into practice at a small low key show and before you head to your main competition.  For me just going in the ring with a specific thing to focus on works, for example; Maintaining a forward bouncy canter, as soon as you concentrate on that you stop panicking when going into the fences, you allow them to just come to you.

Every horse and rider is different, which is what makes the sport so exciting, stop watching rider after rider in the ring and putting pressure on yourself.  Instead pick a couple of riders to watch so you can see how the course is riding and then walk away and distract yourself, then get on your horse and stick to your plan and forget about everyone around you.

They all have their own problems and worries and trust me even though you feel like people are watching and judging you, they are not!



Why or how do you think riders minds will help 

I feel that ‘Riders’ Minds’ will help others overcome tough times by letting them realise that EVERYONE at some point struggles, everyone has bad days, everyone feels that sometimes they want to give up.

But there is always a way to sort the problem and make things better.

Hearing real life stories from top riders I feel will make a huge difference to young riders who are starting their journey of developing their businesses.

Our sport is tough, it always will be, but together we can make it that bit easier. Riders Minds will provide a platform for riders to go to, it will be a place they can pick up tips and a place that they can talk.

As riders we naturally put on a front, but if you fell off and broke your arm you would reach out for help, it should be no different if you are struggling mentally.


Holly's Top Tip

IT IS OK NOT TO BE OK - Reach out for help, keep your friends, supporters and family close.

No matter how bad the day has been there will always be another day and there is always a way to fix the problem.