It’s cold. The snow is falling, the wind is blowing, and the tractor won’t start. After you have finally finished thawing out frozen water tanks and struggling to feed hay, let’s be honest-you are too exhausted to even consider riding.
You start to feel guilty. That inner critic voice starts chiming in-how are you supposed to be ready for competitions this spring if you don’t practice consistently? Your horse will get fat and out of shape if you don’t ride. How are you supposed to achieve your goals and improve your horsemanship if you don’t put in the effort and ride?
Let’s put an end to that nagging voice, and show yourself some self-compassion.
The reality is that some days you simply can’t ride. Whether the weather makes it unsafe to ride, you are simply too tired from other obligations, or maybe you or your horse are even experiencing a lay off to recover from injury-whatever the reason, it is ok.
There are still things that you can do on days when you can’t ride to keep moving forward towards your horsemanship goals. One of the simplest and easiest is to practice the mental skill of visualization.
Visualization, also called imagery, is the process of creating a mental image of what you want to have happen. Visualization is a mental skill. It takes concentration and focus to create and control the images in your mind, such as rehearsing a maneuver. Through visualization you can program your mind and body for success. You are picturing in your mind’s eye the desired result.
Our mind is extremely powerful. So powerful in fact, that when we vividly imagine something, the same neurons are fired as when we actually are physically doing that task. For example, if you want to improve your ability to stay calm and relaxed when riding, you can visualize sitting up tall and confident in the saddle, with your chin up, taking deep breaths, with your shoulders back, hands soft on the reins, your seat deep and centered in the saddle, and your legs having gentle contact with your horse.
Now re-read that paragraph, and picture it in your mind. Did you sit up a little straighter? Did you take a deep breath? Did you feel your seat in the saddle? When we vividly imagine something it isn’t just a psychological response. Our brains use the same neurons during visualization as when you are physical doing the task, so we have a physical response as well. Think of visualization as doing mental reps. Now, for some people, visualization comes easily. For others, it takes practice. Here are some tips to make the most out of your visualization time so that you can improve your horsemanship.
1. Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably to practice your visualizations.
Again, visualization is a mental skill, one that takes concentration and focus to direct our minds to picture the desired result. Finding a quiet place with few distractions, especially when you are just beginning to practice visualization, will help you to stay focused. Sometimes it helps me to put on headphones and play calming or relaxing music.
2. Get specific.
Have a clear and specific idea for something that you want to visualize doing well with your horse. Whether you want to visualize being calm and confident in the saddle, or visualize staying in rhythm with your horse at the sitting trot, or collected lope departures, etc. Having a specific thing that you want to visualize will help you to stay focused, and will make your visualizations more effective.
3. Engage all of your senses in your visualizations.
While this mental practice is commonly called visualization, it is extremely helpful to include all of your senses in your visualizations. Obviously, see your horse, the trail, the judge standing in the arena. Hear the sound of your horse’s hoofbeats. Feel the side to side sway of your horse’s walk, the leather in your hands, the fluffiness of your horse’s coat. Smell that wonderful horse smell, the scent of fly spray. Engage all of your senses to make your visualizations as realistic as possible. Sometimes I will even bring my saddle into the house on a saddle stand, and hang the bridle on a chair in front of me, and practice my visualizations while sitting in the saddle and holding the reins!
4. Keep your visualization positive.
This can be difficult, especially if it is hard to keep focused. It is normal for our minds to wander, to shift to the “what ifs”, and drift off into the negative. We want to visualize the positive, the things that you want to have happen, not the negative! What you visualize you are programming your subconscious mind to actually do-and we do not want to program our minds negatively! So when you catch your thoughts drifting to the negative, to your horse misbehaving or things going poorly, you have two options.
Option one is to visualize a big red stop sign. Then start your visualization over, redirecting yourself to the positive things that you do want to have happen.
Option two is visualize what you can do to remedy the situation. For example, if your visualization has shifted to your horse spooking on the trail, then you can visualize whatever riding skills that you have to safely get through the situation, such as a one rein stop. Visualize yourself and your horse, using your skills to safely get through the situation, then make sure that you finish your visualization on a positive note, riding calmly and confidently.
5. Start and End your visualization with a square breathing exercise.
Practicing proper breathing-that is taking deep belly breaths-will not only help to relax you and clear your mind before and after your visualization, but will also help you in the saddle as well. I recommend that my clients practice square breathing-that is taking a breath in through their nose for the count of four, holding the breath for a count of four, breathing out slowly like you are blowing bubbles for the count of four, then again holding for the count of four. Repeat until you feel relaxed and calm.
So there you go-now on those days when you can’t ride, you can still make progress towards your goals through practicing the mental skill of visualization!