What if I told you there was a way to improve your riding without actually riding? Of course, you would say. I read books and watch videos, I watch other riders and generally pack my brain full of all the information I can hopefully access when it counts. Then I go to the gym to make myself stronger and more supple, and I run/spin/swim/row/whatever to improve my fitness.
All very useful!
But what if I told you you could make a big improvement in your riding sitting in a chair with your eyes closed?
You’re there, right?
One of the most overlooked tools in the riders’ box is “mental rehearsal”. This is sometimes referred to as “visualisation” but in fact it encompasses using all your senses to create a “perfect practice” session, a winning competition rehearsal, or other successful “experience” to store away in your bank of good experiences and use to influence your future performance.
It can also be useful as a “problem solver” to help improve a position fault, or prepare yourself to ride a horse that you feel might push your abilities.
Basically you simply imagine doing it right! As you imagine yourself practising your chosen skill or event, take note not only of what you “see”, but conjure up the sounds, feelings, actions, and reactions of your perfect situation. Imagine your seat bones absorbing and shaping the movement of the horse’s back, how the reins feel in your hands when you compress the stride, how your position adjusts as your horse gallops xc. Try to “feel” how your body reacts to the horse. Hear hoof beats. If you’re doing it right you will a actually feel your muscles twitching, firing those neural pathways just as if you were there, riding, at that moment.
This is the secret. There have been a number of studies that suggest mental rehearsal is almost as effective as actual rehearsal in improving performance. Don’t believe me? Try this. . . Sit relaxed in a chair, eyes ahead. Now turn your head as far to the right as you can and take note of what you can see out of the corner of your eye. Turn your head straight again and now, without actually moving your head, “practice” turning it to the right a few more times. As you do, imagine how your muscles will feel, stretching out and allowing your head to turn smoothly just that bit further with each repetition. Imagine you’re an owl and, with a few repetitions, you can see virtually behind you!
Now turn your head again for real, measuring the turn by what you can see out of the corner of your eye.
You can turn your head further, can’t you? Too cool!
Of course, it’s also important to know what it is you want to practice. In the case of a test or a jumping round, that is relatively easy – you are looking to produce you best “at home” performance in a competition setting. It’s important to be relatively realistic in your practice – imagining jumping around Badminton when you are just starting out at BE90 won’t make you ready to do it tomorrow, no matter how many rehearsals you do! But if you are using mental rehearsal to problem solve, make position changes etc it’s important to know what you are trying to achieve. The easiest way is to mark the desired improvement in a lesson then reproduce it in your rehearsal. But even without that real life marker you can do a lot by transferring what you read and watch into your personal experience before you try it out on an actual horse. Imagine what it would feel like to stretch your legs down, to sit evenly, to follow the horse’s mouth over a fence. Set yourself a relatively simple task and then expand on it, imagining using the same skill at a faster pace or stringing a few fences together or otherwise upping the ante. Do it correctly EVERY time. If negative thoughts creep in, abort the mission and either take a break or go back to the stage at which you feel comfortable.
I personally find it very useful to work with an image of what I am trying to accomplish. Sometimes this is a mental image, for instance remembering a real life situation observing a rider I admire jumping a specific jump particularly well, but I find a static image even more useful. Some photos just have a great “feel” about them. I kept one for years of Mark Todd, a 3/4 front shot over a fence, framing his upper body and clearly showing his soft, elastic contact with the horse’s mouth. In the photo he is wearing a pair of light coloured gloves similar to a kind I like, which highlights his hands and adds to the familiar feel of it for me. The picture is, to me, how I want my hands/contact to be. Finding an image like that, one you can link to a particular feeling and call up at will, not only helps you invoke the skill you want but can be a useful mental distraction when you are getting overly focused and stressed about improving. Slap the photo – which you have practiced with in your mental rehearsal – up on your internal screen and concentrate on just doing *that*.
You can also tie your desired feeling to a word, although this is most easily done in a lesson situation where you can mark it using your instructor’s choice of words. But if that is not an option, think back to a situation where things just went right, everything flowed, and you got the desired response. Tie that to a short word or phrase, describing the feel of your mental image or what you want to accomplish – “go” for moving the horse sharply off the leg, or “soft” for a following hand, or “stay the same” to maintain a rhythmical canter to a fence. Again, “practice” using this skill in increasingly complex and testing situations, imaging the word/phrase and the desirable reaction in not just your own body, but the horse as well.
There you go, a whole schooling session without even leaving the comfort of your chair! Try to set apart a undisturbed time but even if you only have a few minutes in your day, you can sit quietly and practice a few transitions or a round of jumping or a few circles in your improved position.