You’ve just finished up another weekend show circuit, and you’re starting wonder if it’s all worth it. We’ve all been there. This was the weekend you needed to win your class to clinch the year-end award or get your remaining qualifying points. Or maybe it was just the weekend where you felt like everything was finally coming together.
You warmed up great, but your horse got distracted by a child in the stands and stumbled while jogging into your pleasure class. You immediately obsessed over the bad first impression you left with the judge. So much so that you let him lose his cadence and break gait during the first canter pass. When the class reversed, you overrode him in an effort to prevent the same mistake, and he tensed up and worried through the rest of the class.
You have a good horse. You’re committed and disciplined when it comes to your lessons. You put in the hours in the saddle, keep the vet and chiropractor appointments, maybe even go without that new outfit so your horse can have the best farrier. So it’s that much harder to deal with setbacks like these that seem out of your control. What you may have overlooked is your own mental training.
Most elite athletes report having a structured, routine mental training program that they rely on to give them an edge. In fact, they report that their mental preparation is often the deciding factor in the outcome of a competition.
For these athletes, the cornerstone of this preparation is visualization. This process is much more than wishful daydreaming about blue ribbons. Think back to a time when you were angry or worried. Maybe you had an argument with your spouse or a friend, and later you replayed the incident in your mind. You thought of all the things you should have said, and before you knew it, your fists and jaw were clenched and your blood pressure was sky high. You re-lived the argument in your mind, and your body reacted just as if it were really happening. You visualized.
Now think back to your class. It would be easy to re-live it from a negative standpoint. As humans, we seemed wired to do that. Positive visualization is a way to rewrite the script, and send new signals from your brain to your body. You can’t have a physical do-over of the class, but you can have as many mental do-overs as you want. In fact, you can take this seemingly negative experience and turn it into a positive model for how your next class will go.
In Peak Performance Coaching, we have a saying: “Do see what you do want. Don’t see what you don’t want.” When you create your mental replay, erase the mistakes. If your horse shied or stumbled, correct him calmly and proceed with your ride. Edit out your own tension and loss of focus. See your horse immediately refocusing on you and having a good class.
Here are three fundamental guidelines for effective visualization:
1. Breathing: You’ll want to find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down with your eye closed. Begin with ten deep breaths. These breaths should be deep and come from your abdomen. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Clear your mind.
2. Senses: Recreate your class or event in as much detail as possible. Smell the fly spray and horse sweat. Hear the loudspeakers. See the in gate. Feel the reins in your hands.
3. Pacing: This one is important. Don’t rush. Ride each step of your class. Biofeedback research has shown that in order establish the correct neural pathways in your brain, your mental rehearsal must proceed at the same pace that your actual performance would.
As you can see, visualization is a much more focused and detailed process than daydreaming, or even simple “positive thinking”. It can become a powerful tool that you use take your riding to the next level.