Effective riders start with a plan and are able to adapt it in the moment while on course. They partner a clear vision with the mental skills to adjust to whatever unexpected or unwanted events that unfold. And you can, too.
As with physical skills, mental strength and resilience can be fostered and developed with regular practice. Mindfulness is a potent tool to address the distractions that cause us to lose focus and get flustered during our ride. Practice these three mindfulness skills to gain clarity and confidence on course.
Getting distracted when our course isn’t riding as expected is a common experience for riders. These distractions take us out of the present moment, which decreases our ability to adapt and respond in real time to challenges. Utilizing the Sensing In exercise both on and off your horse can help keep your attention in the present and reduce anxiety.
Sensing In is the practice of using your surroundings and your senses to bring you into the present moment. It’s best to start practicing Sensing In out of the saddle, and then progress to using it whenever you need, including on course. Develop the ability to sense into your environment by practicing the following exercise, preferably out in nature, for as little as three minutes a day.
- Take a deep breath and notice what you see. Notice the shapes, colours, shades and movement.
- Begin to allow the sounds to land in your ear. Notice the layers, the sounds that are close and those in the distance.
- As you inhale, notice the smells. Pay attention to the temperature sensation as the air enters then exits your nostrils.
- Notice the temperature sensations on your skin, perhaps a cool breeze or the soft warmth of the sun. Feel the connection points of your feet on the earth, or in the stirrups.
For many riders, a limited amount of time in the saddle can feel like an obstacle that’s hard to circumvent. However, because the human body does not distinguish between an event that is experienced and an event that is imagined vividly, we can utilize visualization to help improve our performance.
Visualization helps create neurological patterns that then lead to muscular response. With repeated and deliberate visualization, we can strengthen the associated pattern in the nervous system, which makes the imagined responses more likely to occur in the actual situation.
Follow these steps as part of a daily visualization practice.
- Close your eyes in a quiet place and take a few deep breaths.
- Begin to visualize a course or a specific skill you’re working on unfolding positively.
- Use as much detail as possible, utilizing the senses.
- If a “mistake” happens, back up and visualize again.
- Visualize by either watching yourself (as in a movie) or by watching what you would see (a through a window).
- If you have trouble with visualization, watch a short video of you or someone you admire doing the activity you are focusing on. After watching the video, close your eyes and practice replaying it in your mind.
The Body Scan
When we are experiencing stress or anxiety, there is a tendency to disconnect from our body. By avoiding uncomfortable bodily sensations, we end up diluting our ability to clearly communicate with our horse. A Body Scan will help you drop into your body, which is your primary communication system with your horse. This quick felt sense exercise can be used anywhere, and is a great way to power up your visualization practice.
In addition to the exercise below, there are many quick ways to implement a Body Scan. Taking a moment throughout your day to notice the contact points of your body with the ground, a chair or the saddle can help calm the nervous system. Meanwhile, noticing your body sensations during your visualization practice can increase the impact and prime you for success.
- Find a comfortable place to stand.
- Take a deep breath, close your eyes or soften your gaze to the ground, and notice your feet on the earth below you.
- Starting at the top of your head, notice what it is like to be in your body.
- Notice temperature sensations, areas of comfort or discomfort, areas of tightness or relaxation. Remember there is no need to change anything, simply sense into what is.
- Taking your time, scan all the way through your body, simply noticing what shows up.
- As you arrive at your feet, feel how they connect you to the earth, take a deep breath and open your eyes.
No matter your experience level, it’s normal to have habits, belief systems and reactions that get in your way. However, although these experiences are normal it doesn’t mean they need to continue to hold you back. As with the physical aspects of riding, you can strengthen your mental game through regular practice of these, and other, mindfulness and mental performance skills. It’s okay to keep it simple; try spending as little as five minutes a day on one of these practices.