Top 5 Visualization Techniques to Improve Your Riding at Any Level

Photo by Marie Cobb Photo by Marie Cobb

I’m a big time ball of nerves when it comes to showing. As much as I love going to shows and flaunting my studly horse, it usually ends up being a weekend of fluctuating emotions, constant panic attacks, and a lot of food aversion. The weekends tend to go a little something like this:

  • I arrive at the show grounds and feel like a kid in a candy store. I tell myself that I can do this and that everything will be ok.
  • I warm up for dressage, start off well, then I slowly convince myself that I’ve forgotten my entire test and that I’ll just have to make it up as I go along. The judge will hate me, I’m a terrible rider, what even is a 20 meter circle??
  • I survive dressage and get ready for cross country where I know I’ll have fun (the only part of the weekend where I breathe).
  • I immediately panic about my stadium round for the next 24 hours. Dinner may or may not go down smoothly. Nightmares are bound to occur.
  • I hyperventilate the morning of stadium, throughout tacking up, and for most of the warm up. Then, when I enter the ring, I cut off all oxygen to my body and decide breathing is no longer important.

Let’s face it. This method of showing is more stressful than fun. And I knew I had to change something. I’m a big believer in positive thinking, meditation, visualization etc., and with these tools I’ve managed to keep my nerves under control by doing a few simple things.

1. Envision the way you ride before the weekend even starts. That means before you even see the course layouts, envision yourself breathing rhythmically, sitting up correctly, and “being one with your horse.” Just because you don’t know what the course looks like yet doesn’t mean you can’t envision yourself riding well. You don’t even have to picture any jumps at all, just focus on your breathing pattern, how relaxed you want to feel, and how in tune you want your horse to be.

2. Replace the word “nervous” with the word “excited.” Instead of telling people you have butterflies because you’re nervous, tell them it’s because you’re excited. Excitement has a positive connotation, and the more you say it, the more you’ll believe it. I thought this was a dumb trick that wouldn’t work but it’s one of the top techniques I use to get rid of my show nerves.

3. Picture every hoof print you’ll be making that weekend once you’ve seen the course maps. And I mean every. Single. Hoof print. I sometimes block out an entire hour before I go to bed for just this. Picture your horse forward and ready to work. Picture how responsive he or she will be in the warm up. Then picture your dressage test ridden perfectly over and over again. How you want to feel before, during, and after the test.

Move on to cross country where you should envision what each fence looks like, how you’re going to ride to it, how happy you’ll feel flying over it, and how focused on the next jump you’ll be once you’ve crossed over it. Also think of where your eyes will be focused as you come up to each fence (when I walk my course, I pick an object past the jump to focus on in order to keep my eyes up. I also take a picture of each jump using my Coursewalk app so that I can visualize the object over and over again the night before).

Then for your stadium round, do the same thing. How forward will your horse be? What distance do you want to the fence? Also picture yourself and your position. I tend to lean forward when I’m nervous, so when I envision my course, I’m sitting wayyyy back. You should run all of these mental movies over and over again until you’re almost sick of it. You want it to feel like second nature to you so that when you’re on course and nervous, your body will mimic what you pictured earlier when you were in a low stress environment.

4. Think about what could go right, not what could go wrong. Don’t allow yourself to think about anything negative, including the way you word things. So instead of saying “I’m not going to get any bad distances,” say, “I’m going to get all great distances.” When you phrase it the first way and mention the bad distances, you tend to picture what a bad distance looks like without even realizing it. You’re giving thought to something negative.

Another example is instead of saying, “I’m not going to be nervous,” say, “I’m going to be excited!” (See what I did there?) It’s all about the thoughts you create around the show. Make everything as positive as possible to ease your nerves and gain some confidence!

5. Picture yourself with the blue ribbon. Think of what it would feel like to hold it in your hands. Think of how happy you’ll be when the announcer calls your name for first place and you get to take your victory lap. Think of all the pictures you’ll force your pony to take with the ribbon on his bridle, halter, mane, tail, hoof, etc. Think of all the Instagram filters you’ll get to use with said pictures! Visualize anything and everything about winning that blue ribbon. You’ve earned it.

These five visualization techniques have improved my riding and my showing tremendously. At the very first show Reef and I entered, I used all of these techniques, ate every meal like a regular person, breathed in the ring, and ended up in first place! I hope these tips help improve your riding as well as your show fears!

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