Every New Year's Day, many equestrians practice an old tradition in hopes of bringing good luck: In preparation for the annual trimming, they carefully comb out the horses' tails, which are shortened a couple of inches before the animals are taken out to their paddocks.

Performing the ritual--which requires precision, a sharp pair of scissors and a steady hand--is one of many superstitious beliefs shared by riders.

Superstition and ritual play a large role in any highly competitive situation, and equestrians seem to have an extra strong sense of this particular folklore.

Perhaps the most widely recognized superstition held by riders is the curse of new equipment or clothing. Every rider knows it is bad luck to ride in any competition with tack or clothing that hasn't been used before. I actually have seen riders stomping a new shirt into the ground in hopes of it gaining "used" status before being wore during competition that day.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing about horses is trying to interview riders before a competition. Afraid of "jinxing" an upcoming ride, many riders refuse to be interviewed until the competition is completely over.

Along these same lines, there is a belief among Olympic equestrian candidates that has become common knowledge. Because of a strangely recurring phenomenon, during an Olympic selection year, if a rider has his or her picture on the cover of a certain popular horse magazine, the team dreams almost are certainly to be just that--a dream. Needless to say, many riders decline the opportunity to become cover rider for the magazine.

Many rituals often turn into psychological boosts for a rider. Always putting on the left riding boot first is a necessary ritual for some people, while others need to tack or groom their own horse to calm nerves.

Walking a course can be a soothing ritual in itself, and many riders can be found at daybreak, walking an impending course in solitude. Part of walking timber racecourses, to keep bad luck at bay, is never to walk around the jumps--a rider always must climb over each fence.

Sports psychologists encourage ritual for athletes. A unique ritual that I have encountered belongs to an unknown event rider.

Over a two-year period, almost every time I walked a cross-country course, there were goldfish-shaped crackers on top of every fence. Obviously, someone's lucky ritual was to place these crackers on the fences while they were walking the course. I believe the really daunting fences had multiple fish placed on them.

I'll never know whether this ritual brought luck to the rider; I do know it became my dog's lucky ritual to locate these crackers at each obstacle.

Even if luck and ritual seem to be silly superstitious beliefs, to most riders they are valued and valid confidence boosters. One of the most welcome phrases shared by riders under the pressure of competition is a hearty "good luck." With the beginning of a new year upon us, wishes of good luck seem especially appropriate for equestrians and all of their mounts.

Questions, comments or suggestions? E-mail Julie Gomena at jagomena@crosslink.net