by Tonya Johnston
Appeared in Eventing USA Magazine, September/October 2007

Riders frequently tell me that they use imagery to enhance their performance. However these same folks often (and unknowingly) leave out some of the most important facets of the skill having never truly learned the fundamentals. How about you?

Most people have heard about it, read about it, and will say they use it to prepare – but do you really know the primary benefit of all visualization? It’s to make your body and mind experience a sense of deja-vu when you perform; to feel as if you have done it all before so that you can relax, trust your skills, and do your best.

Riders frequently tell me that they use imagery to enhance their performance. However these same folks often (and unknowingly) leave out some of the most important facets of the skill having never truly learned the fundamentals. How about you? When was the last time you thought about your next event? Or imagined running your favorite cross country course? Considering how often you use your imagination to think about your riding, visualizing correctly has the potential to be very valuable.

In the many years that I have been consulting with athletes and riders, mental imagery is the one skill that I find to be the fundamental building block of all of the mental techniques. It is also the one that is easy to assume knowledge of, therefore missing out on the subtle yet powerful aspects of doing it correctly. Let’s start here with a review of the basics, and then we will address some of the finer points of visualizing effectively.

The Fundamentals

Visualization Defined


Visualization is the ability to create or recreate images (and feelings) in your mind’s eye. Utilizing the mind-body connection, this technique builds muscle memory and trains the body how to respond to the challenges posed in the visualization. Regardless of your level of riding skill, practicing mental imagery can make a big difference in how you learn, prepare and compete.

Have you ever watched a rider that you respected and then, with an image of her in your mind, tried to emulate the way she rode a dressage test? Or, have you ever remembered a time when you had a big success, and then recreated that experience in your mind? The ability to recreate these experiences by remembering the events and then creating a vivid picture of them is something every rider possesses.

In a similar manner, your mind can create or picture new events that have not happened yet. An example would be visualizing you and your horse navigating a new cross country course for the first time. By doing this, you develop a mental game plan and imagine yourself riding effectively as you tackle the demands of the track (you also build belief that you can succeed!).

Fundamental #1: Vivid Imagery


Use all of your senses when creating an image in your mind’s eye, allowing your body to respond to the situation as it will in real life. Studies have shown that we are actually producing very small muscle contractions similar to those involved in the activity as the image is experienced. Therefore, the more real the image, the more your body is able to learn.

In order to build vividness think about these questions as you create your imagery:

  • What do I see? Such as: colors, sizes and types of jumps, things inside the ring, outside the ring, cross country terrain, etc.
  • What do I feel? Relate this question to every part of your body – legs, hands, seat – as well as your emotions.
  • What do I hear? Such as: my horse’s feet on the grass, the buzz of the event, etc.
  • Smelling and tasting are less important but can have particular associations that are helpful.

Use an internal perspective when visualizing for maximum results. This refers to viewing through your own eyes as if you were actually on your horse. If you glance down you can see your horse’s mane, the backs of his ears, and when approaching a jump your perspective is similar as it will be in real life. This internal perspective allows your body to process the experience more effectively and trains your muscles to respond immediately to the images provided.

Fundamental #2: Control of Your Images


Create successful, positive outcomes for your imagery sessions. Once you have built a vivid image, you then need to be able to control what it does and what you focus on. Letting mistakes go unchecked can bring your worries to life, and train your body to respond to particular situations with fear and tension. If you do make mistakes, it is often the result of a bad habit (yours or your horse’s). Therefore, view errors in your visualizations as welcome opportunities to reprogram your response to the situation. Does your horse have a right drift? Visualize yourself anticipating and correcting the problem. Do you tip your upper body forward at the base of tall verticals? Imagine stretching tall as you leave the ground. Think of what action you need to take – with your position, track, pace, etc. – to get the job done well and resolve the issue. Take control of the imagery, ‘rewind’ the tape, and ride the element again with a positive result. Do not give up until you get it right.

Visualize in ‘real time’. There is much research with sports such as swimming, skiing, and running, that elite athletes are able to visualize each moment of a race down to the fraction of a second. Why is this important? Imagine you were about to visualize a stadium round. You had prepared appropriately for your imagery session: You were in a quiet location, you had taken some deep breaths, and I said, “Begin.” 28 seconds later you said, “I’m done.” 28 seconds? Did you calmly walk through the in-gate in your imagery? Did you ride through each corner of the ring, paying attention to your course plan? Did you finish and walk out of the arena with a positive emotional response, giving your horse a big pat on the neck? I think we would both agree, probably not. In order for your body to get the most out of visualization you must be realistic with your pace and timing, and create a truly life-like experience.

Tips for Building Control of Your Imagery

  1. Use video to jumpstart the visualization process (either of you riding or someone you admire). Watch sections of the video, pausing intermittently, and visualize the exact portions you have just seen.
  2. Visualize small sections of your test or course as you gain control of your images.
  3. Recreate successful moments by visualizing them soon after you finish your ride.

Fine Tuning Your Visualization

Most riders would agree that all of the skills we utilize for riding, be they physical or mental, could benefit from a tune-up now and again. For those of you who are interested in refining your imagery skills, here are some additional details that can be extremely valuable.

  1. Visualize at a variety of times and places, but try to have these factors present: be somewhere you will not be disturbed; take some relaxing and focusing breaths when you begin; try to visualize in moderation at competitions as it can be mentally tiring (better to do less repetitions very well, than a lot that is unfocused and wandering).
  2. Practice your imagery in a position similar to your position when you are riding. Sit with correct and tall posture (not leaning backwards against your chair), put both feet flat on the ground hip-width apart, and hold your hands lightly in your lap as if they were holding reins. This will help the appropriate muscle groups activate when they need to, keep you fresh and focused, and help you feel like you are in the driver’s seat of your imagery.
  3. Attach strong positive emotions to your imagery, particularly as you finish your ride. This process builds muscle memory that includes feelings of success, excitement and happiness. (For example, imagine yourself giving your horse a big pat on the neck as you cross the finish line, a smile on your face, feeling the exhilaration of a job well done.) Visualizing this way before you ride creates positive expectations that can greatly affect your attitude and decision-making on course.
  4. Integrate your performance goals into your visualizations (before you get there and at the show). Your visualizations can provide you with a way to take control and focus on the specific goals you want to accomplish during your rides. For example, if you have a goal of keeping your upper body tall at the base of all of your jumps, be sure to focus on adding that feel into your imagery sessions. You will then be training your body with each jump you visualize, helping you accomplish your goal once on course.
  5. Visualize sample courses and tests specific to the venue you will compete at before you go to the event.

The Optimal Idea

Mental preparation is a crucial part of competing. Within each level – from beginner novice on up to CCI – riders are fairly equal physically. Therefore, those who can handle the stress, pressure, and distractions of the event – while staying focused on their plan – are the ones who are successful. They prepare mentally as well as physically. They visualize, they accomplish their performance goals, and quite often, they win.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a sport psychology consultant who has specialized in working with equestrian athletes for the past 15 years. She teaches in the Sport Psychology master’s program at JFK University. Her website can be found at: Tonya welcomes your input, questions and comments at