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!