photo of defensive cross country seat over fence
by Lesley Stevenson
There was once an interesting controlled study of basketball players, conducted by Dr. Blaslotto at the University of Chicago, where he split the players into three groups and tested each group on how many free throws they could make. After that, the first group spent a set amount of hours a day practicing free throws. The second group spent that time visualizing themselves performing that perfect free throw. And the third group did nothing - sat around and watched TV.
After 30 days, he tested them again. He found that the first group had improved by 24%. And the second group had amazingly improved by 23%, without even touching a basketball! The third group had not improved at all, which was expected.
Visualization proved to be nearly as effective at improving skills as actual physical practice!
So how can we utilize this technique to improve riding performance?
You must visualize yourself performing that perfect jump or trot lengthening in the first person, rather than as if you were watching yourself performing in third person as if you were watching a movie. You need to involve sight, sound, and feeling to really gain the benefits from visualization.
If you would like to improve the way that you go with your horse over jumps, close your eyes and imagine over and over you and your horse cantering to an oxer, staying relaxed and supple in the final strides and on takeoff. And feeling how smoothly your body follows the horse's motion during the jump. Feel yourself landing into your heels and immediately looking at the next jump.
If there is a jump on your cross country course that you are worried about - say it's a big jump with a sizable drop on the landing side - as you go through your course in your head, when you come to that jump imagine yourself riding your horse positively forward. And imagine yourself getting into the defensive cross country seat in the air with your weight solidly down in your heels and your feet forward. Picture yourself letting the reins slip through your fingers as necessary to give your horse freedom to use his head and neck on the drop. And then picture yourself smoothly gathering your reins on landing from the drop.
If you mentally practice jumping your bogey jump perfectly, over and over, you will commit the perfect execution of that jump into your subconscious. And then as long as you have the skills to actually do what you have been imagining (meaning that you are truly qualified for the level of competition that you are at), your subconscious will tend to take over and allow you to do the jump just like you have imagined - IF you relax and let it happen!
You can also improve a skill by acting "as if" you have it already. For example, when I was young and learning how to sit my bouncy horse's trot, nothing that anyone said to me was helping. Teachers would describe how to sit the trot, I would read books on the subject, and try things out. And I was still bouncing. What worked for me was to watch a really good rider sitting a very bouncy horse's trot, and to NOT overanalyze it. I just got on and pretended I was that rider. And it worked! I wasn't immediately perfect of course, but that was the beginning of me finding the feeling of how I needed to move to "ride the wave" of the motion in the sitting trot.
Visualization can be a very powerful and useful tool. You might be suprised at how much your performance improves when you take the time to imagine yourself riding that perfect course or dressage test.