Back in the old days, my friends and I used to spend a lot of time jumping bareback and riding long routines in two-point. Just about the time we had rinsed and wrapped the horses and flopped
against the arena fence in exhaustion, our trainers would walk past with a smile and say, “You kids won’t learn to ride by standing around.” We groaned at the joke, then shuffled off to tack up the next horse.
It’s true that no one learns to ride by standing around. But standing around imagining a ride is a little different. Nearly three decades of research prove that mental imagery raises confidence, improves focus, encourages consistency and aids motivation in a wide variety of sports. By strengthening neural networks in the brain, imagery also reinforces physical skill. This means that imagery can help you ride more effectively, which in turn enhances your horse’s performance. There’s no question about it any more: Imagery works.
When you ride, your brain cells fire in precise networks to cue detailed movements of your muscles and joints. When you merely imagine making those movements, the same cells still fire. Over time, this pattern of activation—whether it is linked to actual movement or imagined movement—causes the brain to enrich existing neurons and to recruit new ones for use in specialized skills like riding. You’re literally building an equestrian brain.
To give imagery a try, find a quiet, comfortable location where there are no interruptions. Aim for about three 10-minute sessions a week. The strong-est effects occur with intermediate to expert riders because they know what a successful ride looks and feels like. But beginning riders can benefit, too, if they have trainers who will verbalize or demonstrate exactly which moves to practice. Start by working on a given skill while you are mounted, then imagining it after you have put the horse away. At that time, the movements are still fresh in your mind. Later, when you have imagery down pat, you can use it at any time. While your horse is back in his stall munching his hay, you can up your game.
The best known form of mental imagery, visualization can be done from an external or internal point of view. First, choose a specific skill that you wish to improve. Let’s suppose you’re working on halts. Maybe your little stinker lurches to a ragged stop with all four legs akimbo, tugging on the reins and jerking you out of the saddle for a brief and ugly moment as his motion ends. Instead, you want him to glide to a halt with his body beneath him in one coherent package, his strides shortening in proportion to the number of steps you’ve allowed for the transition, and his head and neck relaxed in balance with his hindquarters.
This kind of halt isn’t just for fluffy show horses—no matter where you do it, a proper stop calms your horse and gathers his attention. It teaches him to mind your cues and to let you direct each part of his body. You’ll be happy he learned those lessons when you want to, oh say, keep him on the trail as a deer leaps from behind thick brush.
We use imagery in the same sequence as actuality: If mounted halts were the problem, we’d begin by solving them from the walk. Only when the walk-to-halt transition was perfected would we train the halt from a trot, lope, canter or gallop. Imagery works for any ridden skill; we’ll use the halt from a walk as our example.
To get under way, close your eyes and picture yourself sitting on the horse. It’s like watching yourself on television. Make the imaginary picture as vivid as possible by focusing on lots of details. What are you wearing? Are your boots dirty? Is your hair sticking out from under your helmet? Yeah, mine too. What tack is your horse wearing? Is his head a little high? Too low? Are his feet square?
Now look carefully at your form from a side view. Are you sitting in a balanced position with your upper body tall? Is your weight distributed from head to toe? Are your heels deep enough for a safe ride? You’re not looking to win an equitation class here. Instead, you want to achieve the position that is most secure for you, most comfortable for the horse, and most effective in achieving the desired result.
At first, it’s hard to hold an image in your mind. The picture tends to flicker in and out. Most minds would rather wander than imagine. Just stay calm, bring your brain back to the task, and continue to try until the 10 minutes is over. It takes several sessions to develop the ability to create a stable image, so don’t give up.
Once you can hold a steady image in mind—whether today or next week— move your perspective around to various vantage points. From the front, are your stirrups even? Are your shoulders and hips parallel to the ground? From the back, are your legs weighted equally? Are they following the horse’s body, so that your knees are neither pinched inward nor sagging outward? As you view the mental picture from all angles, correct any problems you see. The beauty of an image is that you can solve anything with your mind’s eye. Imaginary correction also improves your ability to recover from equestrian errors in real life.
OK, now cue the fantasy horse forward into a walk. Watch how your body changes to accommodate your horse’s walk, how your hips and arms move with him. After “riding” 15 or 20 steps, imagine watching yourself stop the horse. Inspect the image closely. What exactly are you doing, and how does it compare with what you should be doing? Are your elbows traveling back past your sides? Back up the image, and change that. Controlled halts aren’t about pulling on the reins. Are your calves closing gently against his sides when you ask for a halt? Good job. View this sequence repeatedly, fixing all the errors you notice. If you see no errors, that’s fine—just continue to watch successful walk-to-halt transitions in your mind. Work on this for a week or two, mentally in your quiet room and physically on your horse.
When you can pull up an external image easily and use it to maneuver your mental horse around, try changing your perspective to first person. Imagine the halt from a mounted perspective facing forward. You can’t see yourself in internal visualization, and your view of the horse is from above, just as it is when you ride. Begin as if you are standing still while on the horse. Because your vantage point is different, the features you imagine will differ, too. What are you looking at from your mounted position? The fence, the horizon? Are your horse’s ears pricked forward? Angled to the sides? Glance down: Is your saddle centered? Can you feel your horse’s sides with your lower legs?
Press your imaginary horse into a walk and notice the movement of his legs. Listen to the sound of his hoof beats as he walks. Sense the rhythm of his body as his shoulders and hindquarters move. Feel the air touch your face. Think of the natural movement in your legs, back and arms as you ride. Now, imagine halting exactly as you would like to do in real life: Close your calves, still the movement in your hamstrings, sit deeper in the saddle, pivot your hipbones back ever so slightly, tighten your lower abs, extend your collarbones to the sides, tip your chin a sixteenth of an inch down, and silence your hands. Feel your horse stop correctly. Congratulations!
You might notice that my suggestions are awfully specific regarding motor cues. That’s because the right details develop the right neural networks. Imagine the wrong details, and you’re enriching the wrong brain cells. We don’t want to strengthen a neural firing pattern for halts that trains your fanny to thump down on your horse’s back, your feet to swoop toward his head, and your arms to jerk backward on his mouth. Try to imagine movements accurately so that you don’t dig the groove of a bad habit into your cortex.
At this point in your imagery training, you might want to make an audio recording that will guide you through each session and prevent your mind from floating. A recording isn’t necessary, but it can help you to form an image without simultaneously thinking of what to imagine next. Narrate it in a quiet voice with content that is tailored to just one skill or brief routine per session, at least until you have mastered the knack of imagery. Personalize the recording for yourself and your horse, using details that are true to the two of you.
When external and internal visualization become easy, toss some kinesthetic imagery into your toolbox for an added boost. Here, you mimic the movements of your muscles and joints as if you were actually using them to execute a skill. You’ve probably seen downhill skiers stand at the top of a mountain bending their bodies around imaginary curves and crouching for steeper areas in preparation for a race. Riders can do the same, even if Lindsey Vonn gets all the TV time.
Launch your kinesthetic imagery by adding it to a practiced internal visualization. Let’s say you’ve conquered that mental walk-to-halt transition. This time, in reality, adopt a mounted position standing with your feet horse-width apart on the floor, knees bent to the same level as if in your stirrups, back straight, hands in place, eyes forward. Make the position as realistic as you can. Close your eyes and fire up your internal visualization. When you imagine your horse’s shoulders and hindquarters moving at the walk, let your body actually sway to that rhythm. Release your arms and hips to follow his motion. When it’s time to halt, don’t just imagine the pressure in your calves; contract them for real. Physically still the motion in the back of your thighs, lower your torso half an inch toward the floor (as if in a saddle), pivot the tangible bones in your hips. Carry out the routine that you have been imagining visually, but add the physical muscle movements and joint changes that are used when halting a real horse.
Kinesthetic imagery feels silly the first few times you do it, but just pull the blinds, lock the door and proceed. The best athletes in the world practice these movements. Sometimes they even do so on international television in front of millions of viewers. You’ll get better at it quickly, and the effects are positive enough to override any private embarrassment.
Over time, learn to make each movement as realistic as you can. Start at a pace that is slower than your horse actually moves, but as you get better, aim for imagery that occurs in real time, the same speed as in reality. When your mounted halts have improved from the walk, use the same mental techniques to practice them from other gaits, increasing the imagined speed to match.
Kinesthetic imagery is a powerful aid to performance: A 2013 study showed that it boosts the effect of internal visualization by 28 percent. Remember how visualization activates brain cells that represent the movements we make while riding? Kinesthetic imagery increases that activation to a level that is even closer to what our brains produce while executing those physical skills. We want to get the correct neurons to fire with visualization, then crank up the volume with kinesthetic imagery. The stronger the firing pattern, the better the result.
I’ve laid out a beginning imager’s plan that proceeds gradually using an example of only one equestrian skill. You can use the same process to improve extensions, collections, relaxations, sliding stops, transitions, spook management, trail performance, lateral work, spins, pace, flight—almost anything from creating the perfect piaffe to pulling logs over a bridge. Ramp up your technique to tackle more complex routines as you progress.
External visualization is best for improving form, something that all of us can develop to the benefit of our overall horsemanship. Internal visualization, paired with kinesthetic imagery, helps most for work that is done over a set course, like dressage tests, reining patterns, trail competitions or jumping rounds. It allows you to imagine exactly where to initiate change on a course. With practice, you will learn to ride an entire pattern in your mind, correcting errors and honing strategies at any point in the image. “Collect here, extend there, look for the tight rollback to the vertical, bend wide for the extra stride out of that corner….” Jumping will improve not only from imagining approaches, flights and landings, but also from picturing the turns and lines leading to various fences and the changes in canter quality that you must create along the way.
With practice, you can make imagery as complicated or as simple as you like, depending on your needs. Your riding confidence will grow with the knowledge that you have prepared specific techniques for successful outcomes. Your concentration will progress so that you can focus on your horse and ignore everything else around you. As a nice side effect, the practice of mental imagery improves attention in general, not just while you’re on a horse.
Imagery also amps up a rider’s consistency and reliability—traits that enhance the level of trust between horse and rider. Internal motivation swells because we invest extra time and effort riding mentally and want all the more to succeed. Finally, don’t forget that imagery strengthens physical skill by firing those brain cells in the right combinations more often.
So … whaddya standin’ around for? Go imagine something!
About the author: Janet L. Jones earned her PhD in cognitive science, the study of the human mind and brain. She won UCLA’s dissertation award for her research on brain processes. Now professor emerita, she has taught the psychology and neuroscience of memory, language, perception and thought for 23 years and is the author of three books. Jones began riding at age 7. She has competed in Western, English, reining, halter, hunter and jumper classes in five states and uses the principles of dressage with every horse. As a junior rider, Jones medal-qualified for the United States Equestrian Team program. She schooled and showed green hunters and jumpers at a large training stable for many years. Jones currently owns a 17.1-hand off-the-track Thoroughbred who makes every day interesting. Readers can reach her at [email protected]