Visualization as a method of teaching and self-improvement is not a new concept. Sport psychologists have been promoting visualization exercises to improve athlete performance for a long time. I remember reading over 20 years ago about a study done on two basketball teams of fairly even ability. One team practiced shooting baskets normally, and the second team only practiced through visualization. At the end of the experiment, the “visualizing” team had a very slight performance edge, as they had only “practiced” good shots.

The concept of the visualization exercises listed here is to let you use your brain to regulate how you ride. Some of these are my own, some come from Mary Wanless, Ginny Leng, Mark Todd, Bruce Davidson, and others. I have always found them powerful riding and teaching aids, and I use them myself every day that I ride.

Why it Works

Each of these exercises allows the rider to have complete and accurate feedback about some part of their balance, performance, and position in the saddle. It may not initially affect the horse in the way that is expected, but if the exercise is adhered to, then the eventual result will definitely be a classical balance of horse and rider. A horse that is consistently ridden from the same correct, balanced position in the saddle is going to adjust its way of going to carry the rider in that consistent correct place. Therefore, just by sitting correctly, you are already “schooling” your horse.

Proper muscling and conditioning can only come on a horse that is using its muscles to carry a balanced rider in the correct place on its back. A well-fitting saddle is a must; the saddle is your interface, and a balanced seat is totally dependant on a well-balanced saddle.

Here is a small selection of the dozens of exercises I have collected over the years.

Core Strength and a Centered Position

In all three of the following core muscle exercises, the improvement is brought about by the rider’s awareness of how the horse is carrying them in the saddle. By achieving core strength and using it to keep the horse adjusted to carry them in the right place, the rider is able to maintain more control from the saddle and less from the bit.

Magic Smoke

The horse disappears in a puff of smoke and you drop through the horse to the ground. When you land, you must be balanced over your feet, neither toppling backwards nor forwards. This might seem like a simple concept, but it’s probably the single most powerful visualization I know. If you truly align yourself in the saddle, over your feet, over the ground, you will have the basis of a balanced seat. The classical straight line from ear-shoulder-hip-heel will be in alignment.

Shut your eyes. Your brain has been centring you over your feet since you learned to walk; however, chances are that your brain has learned to accept a different balance when you have four feet. Shutting your eyes will let you focus on feeling where you are over the ground, instead of where your brain expects you to be “over the horse.”

The Dinner Plate

Imagine you are sitting on a dinner plate that is balanced on a juggler’s stick at the circus. Your job is to balance your core muscles so as to keep the dinner plate level. Do not let it tilt forward, backwards, or sideways. In rising and sitting trot, walk, and canter – whenever your butt is in the tack, your dinner plate should feel level.

The Globe

Now you are sitting on a great big ball, a globe, with the North Pole right at the very top. You have to always be centred over the North Pole and use your core to try to hold the ball from wobbling and rolling as you bounce it forward. (The ball always progresses in a series of bounces and never rolls forward.)

More Effective Riding

The Cycle of Energy

This one gets the most laughs when I explain it – and the most excitement from my riders when they feel the results. Again, it’s simple and even beginners can feel it immediately. When it “feels right” it will be right.

Your horse is spit into two halves like an Easter egg. The halves are hollow and have tubing running through them, much like plastic hamster cage tubing. This tubing runs through both you and your horse, and there is separate tubing on each side. For instance, on the right side of the horse:

The plan is to send a flow of energy through the pipes from your calf, which packs it in there, to your elbow, which feels it there at the end of the cycle. Each “puff of energy” from each calf should be just the right amount of power; however, when there is not enough flow in the tubing, your leg will have to work a little extra to get the flow going. When there is an overflow of energy rushing along the tubes, then it can spill out the hole at the back of the elbow and into the boot directly below it. Then the calf does not have to send so much energy for the next stride, because it can use up the overflow that fell into the boot from the elbow.

First you have to get the flow going; just getting it to reach the elbow on each side is the initial challenge. Legs send energy backwards, where it has to go around the horse’s back end before it goes forwards under the saddle and up the neck. Then you have to balance the flow so that the two sides synchronize with each other, and finally you have to be in charge of the pumphouse. Once you have both sides flowing, you need to be sure that the energy pumps around the cycle in a steady, even, rhythmic flow.

The Sandwich Board

Getting chucked around in sitting trot? Try this: You are wearing a sandwich board advertising Sam’s Dry Cleaning and you walk up and down the sidewalk. Your board has shoulder straps and snug side straps to keep it in place. Someone comes along and cuts the shoulder straps; what must you do with your body to keep the sandwich boards from falling? Your side straps are still done up, so you have to press your body outwards into the two boards to use the side straps to keep the boards from falling. It’s the same push that solidifies your seat on the horse, giving you the freedom to drop your legs into the correct position where you can use them securely and correctly.

The Two-by-Four

Do you always end up tipping forward? Imagine you have a two-by-four between your belly button and the front of the wither where the breastplate or martingale strap sits. Your job is to keep it there by the push of your belly button against the horse’s neck. Upward transitions, changes of rein, and lateral movements tend to be moments when this particular visualization goes awry. This also helps keep the horse in front of your leg, stopping you from being thrown back by the movement of the horse and maintaining your inner push to the front.

Target: Straightness

The Barrel

You are sitting on a barrel floating in water with a little outboard engine behind, and as you turn and circle you must not get dumped off to the side. It’s incredibly easy to feel whether you are right or wrong but it can take a lot of care and patience to fix it.

This one is to firm up your circles and bring the inside hind a little more underneath the horse. This is a straightness exercise, and straightness is something we work on continuously as the horse progresses in its training. The tighter the circles and turns, the more the horse’s suppleness and straightness are tested and the more the barrel will want to roll. When the horse is truly supple on the turn, the barrel will not roll.

Boadicea’s Chariot

Split your horse into two: from the spine out to your right leg is the right horse and from the spine out to your left leg is the left horse. This is your “team.” Now put yourself behind them in your chariot. You have your right leg to “whip” the right horse and your left leg to whip the left horse. Your job is to make sure that both horses pull the chariot evenly, having their chests evenly pushing onto the chest bar of the harness, especially around circles, corners and turns. I use this all the time – it lets me know which hind leg I should be chasing and where I am going crooked. I especially like it for shoulder-in, where I keep both “horses” forward and even against the chest bar while I ask them both to do shoulder in as a team. Be careful you keep your balance (Magic Smoke, Dinner Plate or Globe) while you do it.

These exercises are tried and tested on literally hundreds of horse-and-rider combinations. The difficult part is remembering to think about them consistently enough for them to take effect. Have fun!