How a Smile Can Make You Ride Better

Emotional energy can have a big effect on how you ride. Linda Tellington-Jones elaborates in this excerpt from her book Dressage With Mind, Body & Soul.

Photo by Barbara Schnell

Coherence is defined as a logical, orderly, and aesthetically consistent relationship of parts. Understanding how the mental and emotional energy, emanated and controlled by your heart, can become coherent, and learning to manage this energy can be a powerful force in your work with horses. It’s called “heart rhythm coherence.” Positive emotional states produce coherence within human systems, and this in turn can drastically improve your effectiveness when addressing tasks, large and small.

Most of us have experienced this on more than one occasion: perhaps your child gives you a hug and a kiss before he or she goes off to school, or your significant other reminds you how much he or she loves you before you hop in the car to go to the barn. Your positive emotional state, in this case the result of an exposure to love and caring, makes the mundane magical and the difficult a little easier. You may find yourself humming while you warm up your horse, perhaps with more patience than usual, and the movements you’ve struggled to grasp until now suddenly seem to come more easily.

According to the Institute of HeartMath (a recognized global leader in researching emotional physiology, stress management, the physiology of heart-brain research, and how students learn —, research has shown that “sustained positive emotions lead to a highly efficient and regenerative functional mode associated with increased coherence in heart rhythm patterns and greater harmony among physiological systems.” In other words, when you handle your horse or ride him with positive emotions weighting the scale, your body will react to his movement and the demands of your schooling figure or test more smoothly, cohesively, and in a more skilled manner than it will when you are anxious or angry, for example. And, even better, research has also shown that human beings can regulate their own heart rhythm coherence by actively generating positive feelings and intentions. You can achieve a higher performance state by “thinking good thoughts.”

How do you replace negative emotional patterns with positive ones? I have a few easy exercises that I regularly use to remind myself to think positively and find heart coherence, whether at home or in the barn.

  • Reserve a time each day to recall three things for which you are thankful — big or small. Make them specific: rain in a hot dry climate, a loved one’s health, your dog’s eager greeting at the end of a long day. I like to say, “Hold your thanks in your heart and mind” for a few moments (dwell on what it is you are thankful for, think about it, and appreciate it), and note how you feel physically as you do so. Later, if you sense that negativity is gaining ground — perhaps you are angered by a barnmate’s lack of cleanliness — you can remember this feeling and summon it.
  • Choose a new, positive response to an old and hurtful pattern. Instead of feeling impatient in traffic during your commute to the barn, consider it “slack time,” and use the extra moments of quiet to run through your test in your mind. Instead of feeling frustrated by your horse’s inattention in the ring, think of it as evidence of his interest in his surroundings and his spark for life, which can translate to animation and impulsion in another riding situation.
  • Smile. That’s right. As trite as it sounds and as hokey as you may feel, riding with a smile on your lips translates into general positivity and suppleness in your body while dissipating stress and/or worry. I learned this trick from my mother, the late Marion Hood. When I was young and catch-riding in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, my mother used to stand along the fence line of the show ring, and every time I passed her she’d say, “Smile, Dear!” This simple reminder helped keep me relaxed in competition, and reminded me that I was there because I loved horses and riding was (and is) fun!
    In addition, there are physiological reasons for smiling when you are riding. Eckart Meyners, a specialist in riding and kinetics for more than 30 years who often presents on behalf of the German National Equestrian Federation (FN), says that when you smile you “activate muscle chains running from your face through your neck area, and your pelvis all the way to your feet. A rider who is smiling will naturally follow the horse’s movement with her body” (Rider Fitness: Body & Brain, Trafalgar Square Books, 2011).

An excerpt from Dressage with Mind, Body & Soul by Linda Tellington-Jones with Rebecca M. Didier, reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

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