I’ve been riding horses and competing at horse shows for nearly two decades, having begun as an adult with all the baggage children don’t have when they learn to ride. Horses have taught me many life lessons and in particular, several that apply to presentations.

1. Embrace the preparation

There’s nothing like preparation to increase your confidence level. Making sure the saddle, bridle and other horse equipment are in good working order and fit well is comparable to thinking through your presentation and what you will need to deliver it properly. Will there be a podium? How large will the presentation space be? Or, if you’re presenting online, how familiar are you with the technical aspects of your chosen platform?

If you are writing your presentation – or having someone write it for you – do you prefer a narrative that you’ll memorize, or bullet points to prompt what you’ll say? Whichever method you prefer, it’s important that your presentation is crafted as a story – with a beginning, middle and end – and action or emotion that rises to a climax to keep your audience interested, much like a novel.

2. Practice, practice, practice

Competing in horse shows is all about cueing the horse as imperceptibly as possible to execute a specific maneuver at a specific time. Judges give top honors to the horse and rider partnerships that appear most effortless in their movements. The only way to achieve precision and grace is to practice relentlessly.

The same goes for presentations. Once you have your written script, you can’t practice your delivery too much. Mark it up with cue points such as specific words or phrase endings so you can flow seamlessly from one thought to the next. When you think you’ve practiced enough, run through it several more times. Like the horse show judges, your audience members are looking for precise, smooth delivery and they will reward you with their attention.

3. Win the head game

Showing horses, like any competition, is won or lost in the rider’s mind. Even the most skillful rider and horse combination can place out of the ribbons if anxiety interferes. And at horse shows, it’s not only the rider’s nerves that are in play. Horses are extremely intuitive and if a rider feels butterflies, his or her horse immediately reflects that lack of confidence.

Before making a presentation, it’s normal to experience a bout of nerves. The more prepared and practiced you are as a presenter, the more confident you will feel going into your talk. In addition, you can try visualizing your calm, competent delivery. Sometimes repeating a mantra like, “I know my speech and I’m fully prepared to knock my audience’s socks off,” will help. You choose the words that help build your confidence. (When I was first competing, my mantra was, “I will stay in the saddle …” and it worked.)

4. Focus on the moment

Like most animals, horses are fully present and in the moment, meaning they’re not worried about what’s going to happen next. Their full attention is on what is right in front of them. In this regard, they teach us an important lesson. When you ride a 1,300-pound animal, you must be focused on the moment you’re in, or you could wind up on the ground, hurting. It’s like being in a zone with the horse, where there’s no room for thoughts about anything other than rhythm and movement.

Striving for such a zone will greatly assist your delivery. When you begin to talk, let there be no “what ifs” in your mind. You have something to say that your audience needs to hear. Concentrate on your words and the importance of what you’re saying, and let your enthusiasm come through. This focus will help increase your audience’s engagement, just like it helps a rider get into the zone with his or her horse.

5. Don’t forget to breathe

Holding your breath is like holding in toxic thoughts – it never turns out well. Many of us don’t realize we’re holding our breath at times of potential anxiety. It’s an instinctive reflex. When a rider holds his or her breath while on horseback, the horse feels it and begins to reflect the anxiety, but the rider also tends to lose rhythm. In extreme cases, such as going over jumps, breath-holding can make the rider light headed and unbalanced. Again, the result can be a sudden connection with the ground.

When you present, be conscious of the rhythm of your speech as well as your breathing. Some deep, calming breaths before you begin can help with lingering anxiety. While you’re talking, punctuate your natural pauses with a breath. It doesn’t have to be exaggerated, but remembering to inhale and exhale will reduce your nervousness and improve the cadence of your speech.

People who ride horses have only the illusion of control. In reality, they’re partnering with an animal that chooses to cooperate. However, there are many aspects of the rider’s side of the partnership that can be controlled. If you work on the areas that you can control, your presentation will undoubtedly unfold well.

– Mary Ann DeMuth