Can you see yourself getting better?

Using visualization to improve our training sessions

In the pursuit of training our minds to be better equestrians, visualization is a powerful tool available to us for free. When I was first introduced to the concept as a teenager in the 1980’s I certainly was not aware of any research on the subject, it was simply presented to me as a way to communicate with my horse. My mom had attended a class on animal communication and from that point forward she was the designated horse whisperer at shows. Before every class she would go up to each of the horses and have a “conversation” with them. At some point she shared with me that horses speak in a visual language and you just send them mental images of your ideal outcome. Simply put, if you want your horse to stop pawing send him a picture of him standing with all four feet on the ground. 

For decades I just did it and never really gave it much thought. First, I used it to improve my riding by pretending to be Judy Whitney, the horsewoman I admired most. I spent countless hours daydreaming that I was her, riding my favorite show horses, thinking about what it must have felt like to be on their backs, guiding them around the ring, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feeling of all that power under me. I walked through the halls in my high school improving my posture by imagining I was riding my horse between classes. During my corporate career every time I had an office with a window I would spend hour upon hour daydreaming about riding my horse in the hills just outside my window. I just loved horses and thought about them all the time. My dreams were very detailed, I wrote and stared in numerous movies of my own making and no matter what happened I handled it and had the fairy tale ending of my dreams.

After reading that last paragraph it sounds like I really spent a lot my life with my head in the clouds. I would likely be very embarrassed to tell anyone any of this except since then I learned about the research of Sue McPherson and Anders Ericsson. When Sue McPherson began studying the differences in the thought processes of novice and advanced tennis players. She found that novice players did not generate solutions (actions) while the experts were constantly running scenarios and finding tactical solutions as they played the game and in between sets. She found that the experts generated specialized cognitive processes to develop, monitor, and regulate their condition profiles and action plans during competition. For us lay people that means they were always thinking about the outcomes of their actions and coming up with different ways to solve their problems in real time all without consciously thinking about it. They were developing their muscle memory.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson has made a career of studying how masters of their craft think differently than their peers. In his research he has found that experts go through the actions to see how different scenarios will play out. They utilize very in-depth, extremely detailed representations* and can manipulate the vision to see what would happen in each scenario. The experts are able to accurately predict the answer to what if. Experts in their fields tend to strategize more than their average peers as they think through the different scenarios.

Ericsson considers the ability to manipulate the image the key to improving performance. Replaying an incident is somewhat effective in achieving improvement but you need to have the ability to layout different ideas and determine with accuracy what would have happened I had done x, y, or z. The big question he asks is to what extend does visualization play in improving your performance. He finds that anyone at any level can use it but the key is getting the feedback on how appropriate your reaction is and then getting information on how you could improve your performance.

Chess players train with a computer system that will run all the possible moves at any given time to come up with the best one to make in each turn, it is even adjusted to each person’s playing level so that the person is not overwhelmed by moves that are beyond their skill level. Professional soccer players use a video system where the player watches their game and at a critical moment the screen blocks out all but the player’s image and then the player works with their coach to recreate the scene and then come up with different outcomes. It is all very detailed down to where the other players are on the field and even what they they are wearing. It is interesting to note that any video can be used, it doesn’t have to be that of the actual player, rather it is the exercise of going through what the player would do with the ball at any given time that elicits the greatest gains.

How can you use this information to achieve better outcomes when you ride? The first thing is to make sure that you are getting quality feedback by getting the highest quality instruction you can find. In this day and age you are lucky that you can attend clinics with top riders and trainers in any discipline, you just have to search on the internet to find out when and where they are happening. I have even seen online horse shows where the judge sends you feedback about your ride. Everyone has a video camera on their phone so there is no excuse to not video your lessons and competitions. It is essential that you take the time review your videos and make an honest assessment of your ride, analyze your problem spots (I’m sure your trainer or instructor will make that part easy for you) and finally work out a variety of solutions when you are not on the horse.

When I was younger my parents would lug a huge camcorder out and video each of my lessons. I can recall watching those videos as soon as I got home from the barn and not only could I see what my instructors were talking about but I felt it as well. When I watched the videos it took my mind right back to that lesson and I swear I could feel what the horse was doing under me as I watched the images on the screen. I could feel myself making the corrections in my head and body as they were being called for by my trainer. All these years later I still find it helpful to watch videos of horses I am showing or training. I have years worth of videos and sometimes I will pull out an old one just to see how I would do things differently now.

I would love to hear from you in our private Facebook community at https://www.facebook.com/groups/mindsetequitation

Get started on your path with our FREE goal setting course, Making Strides.

 * I want to note that representations is the specific word Ericsson uses instead of visualization.

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Published by TheMindfulEquestrian

Horse lover helping horse lovers.

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