The Mental Game Of Riding

Originally published at Horse Listening.

As one peruses books, articles or videos about riding, or observes lessons and clinics, it is easy to get swept into the notion that riding is a very technical sport. Much of the instruction is focused on the physical aspects of riding — what are the aids for a shoulder-in, and where should the horses’ feet track during shoulder-in? Exactly where should our heels be, and what is the proper angle in the elbow joint?

And yet, some riders with very unorthodox techniques (remember Annete Lewis, Ann Moore, Harry deLeyer, or the Flying Australians Kevin Bacon and Jeff McVean?) were very successful in the show ring in showjumping and various other disciplines. If technical perfection is essential for success, what explains the success of riders whose technique leaves a lot to be desired?

Of course, who’s to know how much more successful those unorthodox riders would have been if they also rode technically correctly, but there was obviously something else there that made them winners. And that is their psychological makeup, intense focus, great sense of rhythm, eye for a distance, and mental preparation for the riding at the top levels.

Back in their day, there was very little focus on the mental aspect of riding. Students were expected to be brave, and those who were not, quit riding. But in the 1980s, with the publication of books by Sally Swift (Centered Riding) and Mary Wanless (The Natural Rider), much changed. Today, the top riders have not only their technical coaches, but also have mental coaches or sports psychologists on their teams.

As a riding instructor (and sometimes a rider myself), I try to put a lot of focus on the psychological aspects of riding. Heels will eventually go down. But even a rider with perfect position can be completely ineffective if the mental preparation is not implemented.

Angels and Tigers

In her book, The Natural Rider, Mary Wanless says that a rider has to be a perfect cross between an angel and a tiger. What does that mean?

Illustration by Dorit Eliyahu. Visit her site here

A rider who is being an angel is the one who is primarily concerned about the well-being and happiness of the horse, making sure that everything is OK and that everyone’s having fun. A tiger, on the other hand, is the natural predator of large herbivores like a horse. A rider who is a tiger is the one who leaves no question in the horse’s mind that it is the human who is making decisions and that the horse is expected to do what the rider is asking. This mental state also requires courage — it is not for the faint of heart to confront a huge animal and tell it what to do or else.

A rider who is 100% angel will be ineffective — the horse will go grazing in the corner. A rider who is 100% tiger is abusive — the horse will get scared. A good rider is an even mix of both, and also has developed an instinct as to when to turn on the angel and when to switch on the tiger part of riding, when to go for the gold in the cross-country phase of an Olympic eventing competition, and when to, perhaps the next moment, pull up as the horse is feeling “off”. A rider who is a good angel-tiger mix will be trusted by the horse to provide structure and guidance and to always be fair.

At this day and age, almost all of the students I get in our riding school are 100% angels. They are girls who love ponies and who have never had to really be strong and brave before. Much of my instruction is an effort to build and wake up the inner tiger. No rush — this takes years, but it can be done. Just gently pushing the envelope, asking the student to do something just barely outside the comfort zone, praising the courage, praising the determination to get a reluctant horse to do something, then doing something similar again and again in many (but not all) lessons over a long period of time.

How Much Practice?

There are sayings, attributed to many different sources, that many have heard (not just in riding circles but everywhere), that “practice makes perfect” and “no, only perfect practice makes perfect”. Also, there is the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for one to become good at a particular skill, a thoroughly debunked pop-psychology myth.

In light of our discussion above, what is it that becomes perfect with practice, the physical/technical aspects, or the mental ones? Of course, they are intertwined. Becoming technically more proficient allows one to get more daring, to try to go higher. With riders, just like with horses, confidence comes from repeatedly being able to do something successfully.

So, this means that one has to repeat things over and over again. But just doing it mindlessly is not enough. One has to be focused, and one needs continuous feedback from a coach.

When a body starts doing a novel motor pattern, the brain starts making new connections (synapses) to build new circuits. If the motor pattern isn’t repeated, these connections remain weak and start disconnecting in about 5–7 days. The student who takes lessons only once a week (or even less frequently) is essentially riding the first lesson multiple times, starting to build circuits over and over again each time. But if there is a second lesson earlier than next week, then the connections get stronger and cannot disconnect so soon. Kids who ride twice a week progress ten times faster than kids who ride once a week. Adding the third, fourth, fifth ride a week helps some, but the effect is not nearly as dramatic as moving from one to two per week. This is why summer camps are a great way to start one’s kid’s riding career.

What practice does is keep strengthening the neural connections. This is usually called “muscle memory” although it is stored in the nervous system, not in the muscles (but the term is too ingrained to change now, so we’ll go with it). Doing 10,000 hours of repetition will certainly strengthen these neural circuits, but it will not make you a master. For mastery, one needs to keep refining those circuits. When one just starts learning, one makes mistakes or does stuff imperfectly, thus forming connections that lead to imperfect future movement. What training does is prune those imperfect connections and replace them with better ones. This is where the feedback from the coach (as well as mirrors, photos, videos, etc.) are really important.

Most of our students do not own horses, and certainly do not have one at home. The only time they are on a horse is during the lesson. This is equivalent to taking violin lessons but not having a violin at home to practice on. As constant feedback from the coach is essential for mastery, riding just in lessons is not so bad. But building neural circuits requires repetition. Strengthening the relevant muscles requires repetition. Confidence requires repetition of success. Thus I often give my students five (or ten or fifty) minutes of “free practice” during the lesson, usually at the end, so they can just repeat repeat repeat.

This is most important for complete beginners who just need to post on the rail forever in order to build muscles, balance and coordination, and where coaching cannot help much. Later on, they start half-leasing or leasing (and some buying) horses so they can do a lot of practicing on their own between the lessons. For many students, due to finances or parental attitude, leasing or buying has to wait a very long time. In the meantime, lessons are all they can get, so these need to be used both for learning new stuff and for repetitive practice of the old stuff until it becomes instinctual, “muscle memory” stuff.

I’m Singing In The Reins

One aspect of being a “tiger” in riding is courage. One result of constant repetition is the ability to build muscle memory. Once muscle memory is built, it is possible NOT to pay attention to every detail and to let your body just do it. If your mind is free to not focus on details (and this can be good, as it prevents paralysis by analysis or The Centipede’s Dilemma), it is free to focus on <gasp> fear!

One thing a coach can do is refocus you on the details, but then you can start over-analyzing and making yourself ride worse! So what else can you do to take your mind off of fear AND away from details? Well, you can sing!

If you sing out loud, not just that your mind will be distracted from fear and from over-analysis, but it will also have physical effects on you. Singing triggers the release of endorphins (which make you happy) and oxytocin (which make your trust your horse — or coach — more). If you sing, you have to keep breathing. And if you are breathing, it is very difficult to become tense. So you will relax, and the horse will feel your relaxation, which will make the horses happier and more confident so the horse is less likely to do something that scares you.

Also, many horses seem to respond to song. It seems to be soothing, Perhaps they can feel from the song that the rider is relaxed and in a good state of mind and that there are no crouching tigers in the bushes or hidden dragons inside of that oxer. Which then feeds back to the rider — as nothing bad happens, this adds to one’s confidence and reduces future fear, allowing one to nurture the inner tiger.

What shall you sing? If the task is easy (trotting around) and fear is great (oh no, he will explode!), choose a song that requires more thinking about the lyrics. If the task is harder (jumping an entire course, which I have been known to ask students to do) and fear is not so big, more just tension, pick a song that is easy, lyrics that do not take much thought.

Many instructors of kids know this, and use simple songs in their lessons. Perfect song with a trot rhythm is the Alphabet Song, which is exactly the same tune as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (as well as a few other similar tunes, including Baa Baa Black Sheep).

Canter is harder to choose the song for, as a speedy little pony is different from a big galumphing warmblood.

Is singing embarrassing? Some students/kids think so and don’t want to do it. But once they see and hear me do it when I ride, they realize it is OK, just a regular part of riding, so they belt out the tune in their next lesson.

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Bora Zivkovic started riding in Serbia in the early 1970s, starting out in dressage, then switching to showjumping as well as riding racehorses and studying veterinary medicine. When he moved to the USA in 1991, he switched to the Hunter Seat, then did graduate work in animal physiology and behavior. He currently works as a riding instructor at Hidden Springs Stables, as well as a Biology 101 college professor, in the Triangle area of North Carolina, USA.