Visualize This: Mentally rehearsing for improved show-ring performance

Is it possible to “think” your way to a better dressage score? Megan Rust shares a powerful technique she learned from her dressage instructor.

From Megan:

Recently I began to prepare my young Lusitano mare for her first dressage show, a schooling show in which we would ride Training Level, Test 3. My dressage instructor, Carol McArdle, gave me some suggestions on that, including one that she got at an eventing clinic. That particular tip improved her eventing competition performance so much that she was invited to train with the Olympic eventing team and was short listed for the Seoul Olympics and long listed for Barcelona.

This extremely effective tip involves visualization, an exercise used by many successful athletes from many, many sports. Carol began explaining visualization by telling me to take every movement on the test–for example, “C, track left, HXK, one loop”–and write it on one sheet of paper, ending up with a dozen pages or more, depending upon the length of the test. Then on each of the pages, write down what you need to do to perform that movement well.

In my case, I wrote down the first movement: “A, enter, working trot; X, halt, salute, proceed working trot.” Under the movement I wrote the steps I needed to take to get a good score for that movement. Since my mare likes to lean on her left shoulder, I wrote: “When approaching the arena entrance from the short side, look at C; as you enter fix your eyes on C to keep her straight; to keep her off her left shoulder, put weight in right stirrup, ask her to move toward her right shoulder with hands moving right; upon approach to X give demi arret (half halt in French), move her shoulder right, demi arret again, snort to ask for halt.” (She’s been taught that a snort means whoa; you can’t SAY whoa in a test.)

I did the same thing for all of the test movements, which gave me 13 pages to follow. Once I had the pages, Carol told me to memorize the pages. I was to do the whole test in my head, as many times as I could. When I was driving, when I was sitting on my sofa, before I went to bed. She said that the human brain cannot differentiate between physically doing something and just mentally doing something, so that visualizing the riding of the test is as good as actually riding it on your horse.

She said that you can also do the test by yourself on foot, maybe in the arena where you practice or another space. In my case, I “rode” the test in my living room and in the aisleway of my barn, walking to imitate the walk sequences, jogging to imitate trot sequences, and skipping to imitate canter sequences. Every night, as I fell asleep, I’d try to ride the test in my head at least twice.

I also practiced the test on my mare. I had heard that practicing the whole test makes your horse anticipate the moves–so don’t do the whole test, just pieces–but Carol said that if you are actually riding your horse, not just steering her, you should be able to guide her through the test the way YOU want.

By the time of the show, I was quite confident that my mare and I really had the test down, and would perform it well. Unfortunately, a strong fall wind storm arrived at the same time as the show, making the ferry trip across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in Washington State, much too scary for a youngster going to her first-ever show, so we scratched. But if we’d gotten to the show we would have nailed it!

Megan and Athene CDP. Copyright Megan Rust.

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