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Seeing is Believing
How your imagination can help you to relax, grow in confidence and learn new skills.
Our imagination is a very powerful tool which we can learn to use to help us in all sorts of life areas. We can learn to use mental imagery or the ability to create or recreate an experience in the mind.
Most of us do this many times each day either consciously or unconsciously. Think back to an occasion where you have been daydreaming and remember just how vivid the experience was, possibly to the extent that you felt you were right there in that imagined moment. Then think of a time where you may have experienced anxiety and remember how your imagination ran away with you creating all sorts of unwanted scenarios which compounded your experience of all those unpleasant anxiety sensations to the extent that you believed that what you had imagined would actually happen.
When we are using our imaginations we experience the greatest effect if we involve all of the senses. So it is much more than “visualisation”, or seeing things, it is hearing, feeling, smelling and perhaps tasting too. When we create scenes in our minds the stronger and more vivid we make the whole sensory experience then the more powerful the results.
Here are some simple, horse related, mental imagery ideas to get you in the mood and show you how you can use all of your senses. Feel and imagine every detail of the following:
- The colour of your horse’s coat with the sun shining on it.
- Putting your hand under a horse’s mane on a cold day.
- The smell of new leather.
- The soft sound of a horse’s “nicker” as it greets you in the morning.
- The smell of fresh hay.
- The smell of a dirty stable (yuk!)
- The sensation as you ease yourself into the saddle and take up the reins
- The image of your horse’s ears as they listen to you.
- The footfall of your horse as you walk on a hard surface.
- The feeling as you dismount after an enjoyable ride.
All of the above are likely to be familiar to riders and easy to recall or imagine using all of your senses.
There are three main uses for mental imagery which I would like to talk to you about: relaxation, confidence boosting and skill enhancement and these can be used in any life area, not just horse related activities.
Mental imagery is a wonderful tool to use for simple relaxation perhaps to calm down, to focus, to aid sleep or help you to rest, to escape or have some time out.
Many of us have a favourite place, or perhaps a safe place, which we can develop to aid relaxation. This might be a place in nature, a favourite holiday location, a beautiful beach or perhaps soaking in a warm bath. You will have your own place.
So a simple technique to practice is to find somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed for a short while (phone off!) and make yourself comfortable. Then take some deep relaxing breaths in a ratio of 1:2 ie the out breath should be twice the length of the in breath and you are breathing in calmness and out tension. Personally, I like the ratio of breathing in to the count of 3 and out to the count of 6 but it’s best to find your own count.
Once you are physically relaxed then you can mentally relax using the imagery. So make your scene as real as possible using all of your senses so that it almost feels as though you are really there experiencing that special place. Nobody else is allowed to join you there unless you specifically choose to invite them. Practice this frequently until you have a tool which you can use effectively to help you to relax when you need to.
This is probably the mental imagery technique which I use most often with clients and it can make an enormous difference to the experience of riding horses (or mules or donkeys!).
When we are feeling anxious about riding, or any aspect of our lives, then it is likely that we are practicing negative mental rehearsal where our imagination is conjuring up a negative situation which just adds to our anxiety and can prevent us from enjoying our riding. I’m sure you can all remember a situation where your imagination has run away with you and created a mental disaster movie!!!
Given that our brains are super clever at believing what we tell them then we need to find a way to change that story into something much more helpful and to train our brains to focus on what we actually want to happen rather on what we do not want to happen.
Mental activity strengthens the neural pathways in your brain associated with those things you focus on with your thoughts and feelings. So, if you learn to focus on helpful thoughts and feelings then you will strengthen the helpful pathways and vice versa.
Two simple confidence boosting techniques which you can practice are:
- Firstly to make yourself comfy as above and allow your mind to bring into focus a super positive past experience. Perhaps a wonderful ride from the past where everything just felt right, you were having fun, feeling focussed in the moment and felt at one with the horse you were riding. ( if you haven’t been fortunate enough to have had such an experience on horseback yet then think of another life area where you had your ‘perfect day”).
- Allow the sensations associated with your memory to grow strong and vivid, feeling that you are truly immersed in that memory.
- Then imagine gathering all of those sensations together and store them inside of you and keep them there.
- The next step is to think of a challenging future situation (start the exercise with something just a little bit challenging until you are familiar with the ideas) but tackle this future challenge with all of the positivity and strength associated with your wonderful memory and notice how that challenge has already become a little bit easier to deal with.
- Practice this regularly, the more you practice any new skill the easier it becomes.
The second useful technique is to help you to get rid of an unwanted image:
- If you find that you have intrusive, unhelpful thoughts and images then simply telling them to go away won’t help. Instead, you need a way of replacing them with something more helpful.
- So, practice with something relatively easy and unchallenging.
- For example, imagine an image (and all of its’ associated sensory information) of a dirty stable.
- Then SWIPE IT AWAY as you would swipe past a photo on a smart phone or tablet. You might like to link this action with a word or phrase such as “STOP”.
- Next replace that unwanted imagery with all that is associated with a clean and sweet smelling stable.
- Build this method up until you can replace unwanted riding imagery with wanted outcomes and feelings.
- Practice, practice, practice!
When you are in training or learning a new skill then mentally rehearsing the technique is hugely valuable. This is something which is practised throughout the sporting world and there is much evidence which shows that the brain cannot tell the difference between something real and imagined so that what you practice mentally is setting up the same neural pathways as if you were practicing in reality. So that when you come to actually performing the skill it’s almost as though you have already done it.
In mentally rehearsing skills we can practice from an associated point of view i.e. seeing and feeling things through our own eyes and senses as though we were actually there. This can be very real and powerful.
Alternatively, some people find it easier to mentally rehearse from a dissociated point of view i.e. feeling that we are watching ourselves performing an activity on a screen. This can be a useful method to use if you are wishing to imagine what a judge might be seeing or to imagine what picture you are presenting to any onlookers.
So next time you are having any riding coaching or lessons make sure that you take note of all of the aspects of what you are learning, how the horse feels, what you are seeing, the actual movements you are making and then you can continue to mentally practice this new skill after your lesson is finished and note how much easier you find it next time.
All of the above ideas and methods need to be practiced regularly until they become second nature so give them a go without delay!
This article, written by myself, was first published in Horsemanship Magazine.