Improve Your Ride with Visualization: How to Create an Effective Mental Movie

By, Liz Piacentini

For many riders, sending in a horse show entry can trigger all kinds of worrisome thoughts. What if I forget my dressage test? What if I go off course? What if my horse has a melt down? Yup, that was me. Then I discovered a creative way to remember my dressage tests, improve my focus and boost my confidence. I put my imagination to work and practiced visualization. By mentally rehearsing my rides before show day, I learned how to strengthen my mental toughness and improve performance.

Strengthen Your Mindset and Your Muscles

At first, when bad weather or work-related responsibilities kept me out of the saddle, I visualized. I could always find 10-minutes to unwind after a hectic day and rehearse a great ride. The more I practiced, the more calm, confident, motivated and prepared I became. Visualization shifted my thoughts from dreaming up what-if’s to focusing on whatto-do.

Image Rider looking between horse's ears

Can visualization really improve performance? Yes!

Mental riding rehearsals have an amazing impact on what happens between our ears. Our brain can’t tell the difference between riding a real shoulder-in or one that’s imagined. Research shows that the more we repeat an action (real or imagined), the more we develop our brain’s neural pathways that trigger the action. The result: enhanced motor skill coordination and improved muscle memory – key ingredients for better performance in the saddle.

Getting Started

An easy way to start visualizing is to think of yourself as the director of your own mental movie. Practice! The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.

How to Create an Effective Mental Movie:

  1. Learn Your Lines: Select a Skill or Pattern – Determine the combination of fences you need to practice. Review your dressage test, reining pattern or vaulting routine. Get familiar with the flow of a specific movement or ride.
  1. Set the Stage: Get On-location – Find a comfortable place that’s free from distractions. Experiment with what works best. Sit on a chair in riding position or lie down for a more meditative experience. Either way, start with several deep, calming breaths to help you focus. 
  1. Imagine the Scene: Use Vivid Detail – Bring your mental picture to life by imagining all the sights, sounds and sensations of your ride. What color shirt are you wearing? Is his mane braided or blowing in the breeze? Do you smell fly spray? What is the texture of the reins? Do you hear an announcer or judge’s bell? Include specifics of the grounds. Are there white flower boxes or orange stadium fences? Visit a new venue before the show and notice the surroundings. If you can’t get there in person, check out the photos on their website.
  1. Support Your Co-Star – Consider your horse’s perspective! Scan your mental movie set for scenery your horse may find challenging. Your young horse might need more leg when you ask him to trot down centerline towards a Judge sitting under a beach umbrella. Anticipate challenges AND mentally rehearse successfully resolutions.
  1. Action! Film a Successful Performance – Watch your ride correctly unfold as if you were looking between your horse’s ears. Often called an Internal Riding Rehearsal, use this perspective to experience your ride as if you’re in the saddle. Strive for accuracy! You want to strengthen the right neural pathways and develop correct muscle memory.

Meme: Visualize the ride you want. See it, feel it, believe it.

  1. Use Slow Mo to Practice Difficult Movements – Was there a scene when you felt totally uncoordinated? Maybe you’re struggling with leg yields. Give your brain a refresher on the correct sequence of aids. Watch lesson videos or read pages from your riding journal that detail your trainer’s insights. Recreate the positive experience and feelings you had during a lesson in your mind.
  1. Add a Special Effect: Emotion – What do you need to FEEL in order to ride at your best? Raise your chin and open your shoulders to spark feelings of confidence. Take a deep breath and loosen your jaw to release tension. Imagine yourself sitting tall in the saddle with a calm and confident posture. 
  1. Change Camera Angles: Get Creative! – Watch yourself from an outsider’s perspective: through the eyes of a spectator, looking down from above, or through the eyes of the Judge. An External Riding Rehearsal draws your attention to the accuracy of your position or the movements of the horse. For example, would a spectator see your lower leg securely at the girth as your soar over a blue oxer, or has it slipped back? Would the Judge see a straight horse trotting down centerline, or one that’s drifting left?

Switch it up! Great movie directors change camera angles to enhance a scene and so can you. Let’s say you’re jumping a 3’ course. Start by looking between your horse’s ears as you rhythmically approach the first vertical. Then, switch to an external perspective as you jump the fence. Watch yourself maintain an ideal jumping position. Now, go back to your internal perspective as you align your horse with the center of the next fence and apply a half halt.

  1. Cut! Take 2: Re-shoot the Bloopers – Did your mind wander off course? Oops! Give yourself a mental half-halt and pick up where you left off. Loose a stirrup? Feel your boot slipping back into the stirrup while you calmly stay on course.

What if you imagined a spook that made your heart race? Time for a mental do-over with a positive ending. Riding rehearsals allow you to practice resolving challenges in the safety of your mind’s eye. If a spook happens during your actual ride, you’ll be more likely to maintain composure and apply an effective response. 

  1. Show Day! Replay your Highlight Reel – Mentally see yourself having a flawless ride. Keep your focus on the task at hand by continuing to visualize what to do and how to feel in order to ride at your best. 

Meme: The Secret of Achievement

Timeline Tips:

  • Start visualizing 3 weeks before a competition: 10-minutes of effective visualization 4-times a week is better than 1-hour the day before. It takes effective repetition to strengthen the neural pathways that lead to better coordination and muscle memory.
  • One Week Before: Watch daily re-runs of you and your horse performing at your full potential. Your brain should be so familiar with your mental movie that it’s imprinted in your mind as the new norm.
  • Two Days Before: Change your thinking from “me” to “we”. Describe the details of your movie to your horse. While grooming, use your finger to trace your test or course on his shoulder. “We turn left and maintain a forward rhythm through the corner…”
  • On Show Day: Focus on one test or course at a time. Reassure yourselves – we’ve got this!

Put your imagination to work. Create a mental movie before your next big ride to boost your confidence, focus and performance. Mentally plan your ride, then go ride your plan!

Enjoy the journey!


Make Good Mistakes: Uncover the Lessons in Every Ride

By, Liz Piacentini

Image Quote, Sometimes we win, sometimes we learnSometimes we win and sometimes we learn. That saying rang true for me on one particular show day.

It was a chilly Spring morning that welcomed Lyrical and I to our first dressage show of the season. We finished our first test with big smiles, good-boy pats and respectable scores. Soon enough, the judge’s bell rang again and we trotted down centerline for our second ride. Little did I realize, I was about to experience a “sometimes we learn” moment.

I started off feeling pretty good. We finished our trot work and walk stretch with good basics and reasonable accuracy. Next came our canter work. We completed a nice 20-meter circle, continued down the diagonal, and promptly trotted at X. Whew! The hardest part was over.

Then it happened. Our right lead canter transition felt a bit sticky, so I gave Lyrical a quick tap with the whip. Off he went like a shot! I was so startled – my eyes must have grown to three times their normal size. My steady-eddy, obedient horse was now zipping down the long side like a freight train. The flying changes he added weren’t even part of the required movements.

Somehow, I turned him onto the outline of a squashed circle at E. I think we were three quarters of the way around when I managed to bring him to a trot. Yes, we were supposed to still be cantering, but I desperately felt the need to regain my composure and breathe again.

By the time we energetically trotted past the Judge at C, I had completed several deep, centering breaths. It was time to let go of what happened and focus on the next element of the test – the trot stretchy circle. The good news was that all this forward energy helped us develop an exceptional stretchy circle! As I gathered up the reins, I was even smiling inside over how springy and fluid it felt.

We managed to recover and ended squarely on a positive note at X.  I gave my final salute with a big sigh of relief.

Image of show ribbons

What was my big lesson learned?  Every ride provides plenty of subtle learning moments, but this test taught me one big lesson:

School with the same tack and equipment you’ll use at the show –  At home, I carried a well-loved dressage whip that was always hanging by the mounting block. It was one of several older whips available for boarders. For the show, however, I decided to bring my new whip with the fancy handle.

It turns out that I was the one who had startled him! While the bling may have looked fancy, the new whip was much stiffer. The longer length meant it reached a different part his flank. In reality, the same “tap” with the new whip delivered a more dramatic result – to say the least.

I could have easily discovered this, if I had schooled with the new whip in advance. From now on, I’ll be sure to test out anything new before a show!

What were my positive moments?  Despite my mistake, I left the show with an unexpected observation of what did work. Yes, our forward trot stretchy circle provided an excellent opportunity to experience a great technical moment – (and earn an 8)! But, it was my mental preparation that surprised me the most.

The Value of Visualization – During the weeks before the show, I visualized my rides each evening. I mentally rehearsed the movements and became really comfortable with the flow of the tests. I knew them so well that even when we suddenly went stampeding down the long side, I found myself circling at the correct letter – or at least somewhat close to it.

Often when we experience the unexpected, we become forgetful. We risk drawing a blank during our dressage test or jumping round. This ride taught me the value of visualization, a skill that proved to be much more than an effective way to remember my tests. What amazed me was how well I remembered them – even when the unexpected happened. I may have been caught off guard, but I stayed on track.

Meme Made a Mistake? Make it a good mistake. Learn from it

Coach Daniel Stewart has a wonderful term for being able to learn from our mistakes. He calls it having “mistakability”. We all make mistakes. Yet, it’s often how we respond to them that determines our resiliency and long-term progress.

Good mistakes are the ones we own and learn from.  They’re the ones we reflect upon and determine what specific actions we can do to prevent them from happening in the future. They help us become stronger and more adaptable under pressure.

Bad mistakes are the ones we fail to learn from.  We make excuses. We blame the weather, the footing, the Judge’s mood, or whatever else seems convenient.  We may even get “franky”, (frustrated and cranky), after making a mistake instead of focusing on a solution.

When I look back on that Spring show, I don’t even remember my first test, despite the fact that we placed well. My second test, however, won’t be forgotten any time soon. I learned a valuable lesson from my mistake, and I remembered to look for the good in every ride.

As a new season begins, I remind myself there is no perfect ride. Mistakes happen, but they can be our best teachers. Out of mistakes we can learn how to make our next ride a little bit better than the last. So, off we go. It’s time to uncover more valuable lessons from this season’s challenges and good mistakes.

Enjoy the journey!