Visualization exercises for riders

How mental imagery can assist you in becoming a better and more relaxed rider.

Do you try too hard when you’re riding? Have you ever assumed the “perfect” position and had trouble holding it? Do you wish you had stronger muscles so you could keep your legs in position, your hands still, head up, back straight, elbows in — and then relax? It isn’t usually a happy or successful experience for either rider or horse. Using visualization techniques can be an easier and more effective way to find balance, position and harmony with your horse.

The benefits of visualization

Visualization has long been an important technique in sports psychology. Athletes participating in sports from Olympic diving to golf, skiing and major-league baseball often visualize the perfect performance to program their minds and bodies to do their best. Visualization can also help with achieving calm and focus, getting “in the zone”, and handling stress and performance anxiety.

This is very important for riders, because a horse will feel and react to your mental attitude as it’s expressed through physical tension. A tense rider cannot create a quiet relaxed horse.

Mental imagery works best when you are calm, focused and aware of your body. If you’re feeling scattered, rushed or critical, your mind and body go into defensive mode, causing tension, decreased awareness and the posture that riding instructors call “the fatal fetal crouch”. Visualization can help you get your mind and body into a better state.

The visualization exercises in this article are based on achieving skeletal alignment and balance (as Sally Swift said, “ride your bones”) instead of focusing on conscious muscle control. When people try to use specific muscles, they become stiff, like a dancer trying to place her feet in the right position instead of going with the music. And when a rider tries to “muscle” themselves into position, or a horse into obedience, it’s not pretty! It helps to have a mental picture of the bones and body parts you are trying to influence – if you’re not sure where your hip joints are, it’s hard to visualize ways to help them work better. A model skeleton or poster of the skeleton is a useful aid.

Awareness comes first

Begin at a halt or walk, taking time to become aware of the part of your body you want to focus on. Allow your horse to walk quietly while you explore your body. Ask yourself what you notice about that body part (for instance, your hip joints). How does it move – up and down, forward and back, in a rotary direction? Compare left and right sides; usually there’s a difference. Observe without judgment. If you find an error like tilting forward or a hollow back, don’t scold yourself. Instead, focus on how it feels and compare that with how it feels when it’s corrected.

Here are some specific images and visualizations to try. Do them first at the walk – the “slow motion laboratory” for feel and body learning – then take them into trot and canter when you’re ready.

All images courtesy of Susan E. Harris.

For balance:

  1. Think of your body hanging from a bungee cord from the center of your head up to the sky. Contrast this with sitting up as tall as you can, as if you could touch the ceiling with your head. Both make you tall; but which image lets you feel tall and relaxed?
  2. Tip forward onto the front of your seat, then backward onto your hip pockets. When you tip forward, where do you tighten to keep from falling forward? When you tip back, where’s the tension – in your chest, thighs, knees? Search for the “sweet spot” in the middle, where you don’t need muscle tension to keep your balance.

For straightness:

  1. If you were a giant Beanie Baby with 1,000 beans in your body, are your beans equal (exactly 500 on each side), or is one side heavier? As you inhale, lift only five to ten beans up from the heavy side; let them cross over, and as you exhale, let them trickle down into the other side. This is a subtle internal re-distribution of weight, instead of moving your shoulders or hips over.
  2. If one side feels tighter, shorter or stronger, try extending your arm up over your head, with palm inward, thumb backward; imagine energy running upward out your fingers and allow everything from the armpit down to “untie” and release downward.

Leg position:

  1. Imagine that your legs are so long that your feet drag flat on the ground; the dirt builds up in front of your feet, stretching your legs slightly backward, making long tracks in the dirt.
  2. Suppose your legs are made of heavy rope and your feet are cement blocks; let your heavy legs hang down into the stirrups.
  3. Think of a rubber band extending from each heel to the horse’s hock; as each hock goes backward, it draws your leg backward.
  4. Imagine that you have eyes on your knees, just below your kneecap. Let those eyes look forward and down; this takes your knees down and lower legs back.

Suppose your legs are made of heavy rope and your feet are cement blocks; let your heavy legs hang down into the stirrups.

Head position:

  1. Imagine that your head is a bowling ball balanced on the top of your spine; there’s a lot of skull behind your ears. Balance your brain!

Shoulder position:

  1. Let your collarbones grow long and wide, as if they’re making a big wide grin (the opposite of hunched, rounded shoulders pinched in front).
  2. Let your shoulder blades (two heavy triangular bones) hang down in back behind your rib cage; imagine little weights dangling from the bottom of each shoulder blade.
  3. Imagine a small balloon resting in each armpit, gently supporting your shoulder girdle to free your arms. (You can actually put a small balloon or a folded towel under each arm to get the feeling.)

Movement and energy:


  1. Imagine a moving belt (like a conveyer belt) going down your back, forward under the seat bones, up the front of your body, over your shoulders and down your back. This circle of energy engages with your horse’s forward movement from his hindquarters over his back.
  2. Think of your horse’s energy flowing through all the joints of your body like water. For calm and quiet, you want deep, slow-moving water; for energy, you want strong water power, as if it was roaring through a fire hose. You control the water – don’t let it splash out of control!
  3. In posting trot, imagine you can release a tennis ball from your center at the top of every post; it falls straight down between your feet.
  4. In canter, feel the upward motion in each stride, like the lift of a rocking horse. Ride the “ups”; rock your horse higher and balance on each “up” to improve balance and collection.
  5. Also in canter, imagine you’re riding a carousel horse. Let your hips and back follow the circular motion and don’t lean forward, or you’ll bump your nose on the merry-go-round pole!