Practice Makes Perfect; Using Visualisation

You are probably familiar with the phrase ‘Practise makes perfect’. It isn’t always exactly true, especially when it comes to riding, because of the subjectivity involved when it comes to competition. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for perfection in whatever area we chose to work on.

When it comes to any skill, the more the components are worked on and improved, the better the overall skill competence becomes. This is I hope, fairly obvious. There is one major caveat; that the component parts are practised correctly. This is because as we use our bodies in movement patterns, over time as we repeat those patterns, the motor pathways from the brain become ever more trained, tuned, quicker and efficient. I have talked before about how you want your core muscles to work automatically, and the same is almost true when it comes to skills. If you are able to place arms, legs and seat automatically when you apply the aids for example, then those aids will happen more quickly and efficiently, more subtly, and with much less brain effort.

It takes many hours – Andrew Nicholson says in this weeks’ Horse and Hound that work is more important than talent – to be able to ride like most professionals. Of course, provided you are riding correctly and therefore laying down correct neural pathways, the more horses you ride, the more opportunities you have to ‘perfect’ your skills, and the quicker you will ride at the level you want.

There is, however, a method you can use that will help lay down the same neural pathways and thus improve your ridden skills, even when you are not riding. This is a technique known as visualisation, and it is something I have used in the past with great success.

Essentially visualisation is where you practise a movement or procedure mentally – making sure each step or component is performed correctly – to improve the physical performance. An Australian Psychologist called Alan Richardson did just this with basketball players. He divided them into 3 groups; those that did only physical practise, those that did only visualisation, and those that did neither. At the end of the experiment, the group that only did visualisation practise improved almost as much as the group that only did physical practise. The group that didn’t practise did not improve.

The important thing with visualisation is that you need to be ‘in’ yourself. That is, you cannot just be a 3rd party observing, you have to be inside yourself as if you were doing the exact movement, ‘seeing’ the outcome. You can see how essential this is for something such as basketball where shooting for a goal needs hand-eye coordination. It might seem less obvious for riding, but if you think about it, you need to be able to focus on exactly where you are going – ie what you are seeing – whilst still carrying out all the physical actions that you need to do to safely and successfully complete your hack/test/jumping round.

I find it most useful for learning dressage tests, and I have 2 stages.

1st I learn the test movements. Then I start to visualise myself riding the test, and this is where I start to be ‘in’ myself. I sit with my eyes closed, in quiet, and I ride the test in my mind. If I know the venue, I imagine I am in the arena and my view is exactly the same as I will have when I ride the actual test.

The 2nd step is to add in HOW I am going to ride the test. This isn’t just the transitions etc, it’s the half halts, the timing of the aids, postural reminders, bad habit reminders (eg soft left hand), prevention actions (eg if I know specific movements the horse find hard and that I need to prepare carefully for). Whatever it is, I build it in to my learning, so that in the end, I have ridden the test many times, as perfectly as I can.

Of course, horses are totally unpredictable, but that doesn’t matter. Even if only 5% of what I have added in in top of learning the movements actually comes to fruition, that test is 5% better than it would have been.

The best example I have for this is the 1st time Baz and I went to the regionals. It was Novice restricted and all I aimed for was to come somewhere above the bottom. I learnt that test so well, I knew every second of how I would ride it – although I didn’t know the venue – and although it didn’t all go quite as planned, we wound up 2nd out of 38 and qualified for the Nationals. It is a tactic I’ve used ever since, and although the higher up the levels I’ve gone the harder it has got because the tests are so full of movements there is hardly time to think about what I am doing, it has made such a difference. It means that the rider part is built in to the test, and I’m not needing to think about ‘me’ as a separate part because it’s all continuous.

It takes time to get good at, but it is so worth it. You can use it to plan all your specific rider prompts in:

  • If you tend to tip sideways over a fence, you would build in a prompt to fold straight forwards
  • If your lower leg comes back over a fence, prompt yourself to keep the leg forward
  • If you know you look down in a test, prompt yourself to look ahead
  • If you know you tend to slump in sitting trot, prompt yourself to keep your shoulders back and down
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  • If you hold your breath, prompt in some breathing

The list can go on – although probably best not to try to make in overly complicated! – and it makes your plan totally individual. Give it a go and see what you can do with it.