Whether you want to improve your confidence, a specific skill, or prepare for competition, using visualisation can greatly improve your results.

Visualisation, or imagery, works best when you use all of your senses and the emotions you want to feel to create or recreate an experience in your mind. What would you see, hear, smell, feel (physically and emotionally)?

If you’re a rider who struggles with your confidence, mastering a skill or doing well at competitions, you’ve learned to use visualisation in an unhelpful way. You imagine things going badly or replay past mistakes over and over in your mind. You focus on what you don’t want to happen.

Research has shown that the human brain cannot tell the difference between a real or an imagined event. So when you engage in vivid and absorbing mental imagery your brain interprets it as if the event is actually happening in real life.

Another advantage of using visualisation is that it allows you to run through a specific skill or situation (i.e. pattern, test, course or trail ride) multiple times in your mind and avoid drilling your horse.

If you’re using visualisation to improve a particular skill, it’s helpful if you know how the movement should feel when you’re visualising it. So, be sure to have a clear understanding of what is required to perform that skill (e.g. the aids and the correct sequence) and how your horse’s body should respond to your aids.

By practicing the physical feeling in your mental imagery, it helps you to do what you need to do more easily and automatically when you’re riding your horse.

For example, when learning how to ride a lead change, visualise where you’re going to use a half-halt, put your inside leg, your outside leg, and your weight. Practice the whole sequence from bringing your horse across the diagonal, adjusting your position, asking for the change, feeling your horse respond as he lifts his back and swaps leads. Practice it in your mind on both reins.

In the above situation, your horse would already know the aids and how to do lead changes. However, if you’re teaching your horse how to do lead changes, you need to think about breaking the movement down into small steps and visualise each of them in order.

  • How will you ask your horse?
  • Which aid?
  • When?
  • What is the ideal response to each aid on each step of the process?
  • What will your horse feel like as he responds?
  • How will you reward your horse’s effort?
  • How will you finish the movement?

You can also visualise your horse giving you an incorrect response and think about what you would do to correct it. The clearer you understand the process in your head when you’re not riding your horse, the more likely you are to be successful when on your horse.

Use your mental imagery to change anything that didn’t go as well as you would have liked in a previous ride. Imagine a positive version of the ride, correcting any mistakes and having a successful outcome.

If you’re having problems with your riding, you can use imagery to come up with solutions. Think through various options. Play each one out in your mind. Predict how your horse might respond to each one. Then decide which option would give you the best solution.

Using your imagination when you’re calm and relaxed gives you better insight into the problem and the possible solutions. For example, if you know your horse tends to drift left when approaching a fence, cut a particular corner in the arena, or spook at a certain spot on the trail, you can use imagery to rehearse how you’ll handle it. This creates a memory as if you’ve practiced it in real life, so you’re prepared to respond automatically to correct it if it happens.

You can do the same mental practice in the days or weeks before going to a horse show, clinic or trail ride. Use your imagination to create the scene in your mind, seeing what you will see, hearing what you will hear and feeling what you will feel.

Start by seeing it as if you’re watching yourself in a movie. Practice seeing it this way until the movie runs smoothly automatically without consciously thinking about what comes next.

Next, see it as if you are actually riding. Seeing it through your own eyes; feeling it in your own body. How will your body move? How does your horse’s body feel? The more real you can imagine this ‘mind movie’ to be, the more effective it will be.

Use your mental imagery to change anything that didn’t go as well as you would have liked in a previous ride. Imagine a positive version of the ride, correcting any mistakes and having a successful outcome.

Visualisation is a powerful tool for improving your riding. To get the most benefit from it, follow these four tips:

  • Practice regularly. Aim for 5 minutes/day
  • Make your imagery vivid. See, hear and feel it the way you want it to be.
  • Add cue words that remind you what to do i.e. breathe, lengthen leg, look up, sit up, etc.
  • See your mind movie in real time rather than in fast forward or slow motion.