Many riders now use visualisation tactics to improve their confidence; for instance by imagining a whole round going perfectly, you can create a ‘memory’ of having ridden it well, indistinguishable from a genuine memory. But I wonder how many riders ever play around with increasing the pressure on themselves while they are riding, so that they will cope better when the chips really are down?
At the Hartpury Eventing Conference this Spring we saw an amazing demonstration of just how visualised pressure can affect even a top rider.
In the SJ demo phase, all the riders jumped two rounds. The stand-out first round, for a lot of us (including the top riders who were watching from the restaurant area, where I was) was Tim Price’s with Wesko. The course was big and pretty difficult, approx 1.25-1.30 if I remember correctly, and they jumped an absolutely foot-perfect round the first time.
Then the coach (I think it was Liam Moggan) told him to jump the course again, but, as he turned to jump the final 2 fences (a good distance on a curving line of, iirc, about 5 strides, which he had done absolutely impeccably the first time), he was told to imagine that he was in the lead at a 4* event, and that these were the last 2 fences, to clinch the win.
What happened next almost had to be seen to be believed. He rode another perfect round… up until that turn, the exact point where he’d been told to really put the mental pressure on himself. At that point, he promptly seemed to get taken over by someone else… because he suddenly kicked on and took the curving line arrow-straight, hugely angling the last fence. They left it up, but it definitely wasn’t quite the smooth performance they’d managed the first time!
Tim pulled up and rode back to the middle of the arena, at which point the trainer said that if he was his jockey, he’d probably be yanking him off the horse for doing that!
It was a real eye-opener, and showed just how and why riders of the experience of William Fox-Pitt manage to stay ice-cool even under huge pressure… they have been there before, it is not a new feeling, so they generally cope well with it. Perhaps this simple but very telling exercise contributed to Tim’s 4* win in Luhmühlen on Wesko later in the year… who knows?!
It’s definitely worth doing at home, on your own. I’ve had a play around with it and it’s an interesting feeling. Imagining your worst critics are watching you school is another… it’s good to get used to that feeling, so that you won’t be flustered at a competition with loads of people watching, some of them critically. All good experience to make things easier when the pressure really is on.