Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Using the Astonishing Power of Visual Imagery

by Lori Albrough

I have this horse who is a real over-achiever. He’s like an intensity-junkie in a horse suit. He takes his work so seriously, only wanting to please his rider and be a good boy, that at times he can get tense just from trying so hard. This can show up in the walk, the hardest gait in which to maintain the necessary quality of relaxation.

Since I know this about him, in an important situation like a dressage test or a clinic, we can go into the walk with me thinking ahead, “I must have him relax. I need to be able to ride this walk. He’s gotta let me in there.” But with all these musts, needs, and gottas going on in my head, it’s not a wonder there’s tension!

So what’s a rider to do? We know relaxation is crucial, but as soon as you say, “He must relax”, relaxation becomes close to impossible.

In one of my lessons, my coach said, “Let’s come up with a visual for this. What is something that for you signifies looseness, flexibility, and the ability to be easily molded with no restrictions?”

I thought for an instant, “Gumby!” I said.

“Gumby, perfect. In your mind, make him Gumby.”

With the image of that ultimately flexible, easy-going, grinning green guy in my head, my horse’s walk instantly became loose, free, and unhurried. He easily allowed me to adjust his neck and move him off my inside leg without tension.

As we played with this imagery in the lesson, it became clear to me. In order to have him “be Gumby”, I myself had to “be Gumby”. No more left-brain logic firing non-stop instructions at my body. Just picture myself as Gumby: malleable, loose, living in the moment and happy to be there. The horse mirrors this body language and this vibe, and voilà, tension gone!

The power of imagery to instantly and effortlessly improve riding and position is nothing new. Sally Swift revolutionized rider training with her Centered Riding system. Her book, originally released in 1985, is full of visual images such as picturing yourself as a tree, with the trunk growing up tall and flexible, and the roots sinking down into the earth below the saddle.

But how often do we remember to use this powerful tool? Why not try it next time you’re stuck or frustrated? Take a break and mentally step away from the situation, and come up with a visual image that your subconscious can lock onto.

First, identify what you want (remember to always focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want.) For me, rather than saying I don’t want tension, we identified that I did want looseness, flexibility, and malleability. My mind immediately came up with Gumby, but yours might jump to something completely different, perhaps picturing the ease of a hot knife cutting through butter. Your own image will be more effective for your own self, because it will be more personal and meaningful.

Then, simply hold that visual image in your mind. Don’t get all left-brained and scrunchy-faced here. Just let yourself “be” that thing, or picture your horse “being” that thing. Play with being. Your body will naturally assume the position, poise, and muscle tone of the thing you are being. Just allow it to happen and notice the results.

If you lose the feeling later, you can use a buzz-word to instantly bring the image back into your mind. Now I just have to think the word “Gumby” and it encapsulates a great deal of meaning for my mind, my body, and ultimately, my horse.

Now, it’s your turn! Share with me what images you’ve come up with to help you with specific situations with your riding and position.


3 Responses to “Using the Astonishing Power of Visual Imagery”

  1. Debbie Gardner wrote:

    Hi Lori, I just love reading your articles! They are so helpful and fun to read! Reading your last article I felt a strong need to share my story.

    I was having a similar problem , but as I drive my horse, I am missing an important aid…. my legs.

    We (meaning ME!) were having problems doing straight SOFT halts for our CDE dressage test and on the cones course at this event I was attending, there was a rather long downhill portion with 3 sets of cones to go though. We had done the course the day before and I felt my horse was rushing and unbalanced though the downhill section and our halts were more like sliding stops! He was rushing and tense… and I was “trying” to keep him relaxed and SOFT…

    The next day we were waiting to go into the cones course when a Dressage instructor and Judge came over to me (He was there for the weekend giving lessons and coaching his students) and asked me how it was going and if I was ready to go on course. I replied I am ready, it’s going good… but I am really going to have to watch the downhill section of the course as its steep,and my horse felt unbalanced and rushy yesterday, it’s a wonder we didn’t knock any cones down! I was even leaning back in the cart hoping that would help…

    His advice to me was this:

    By leaning back in the cart, your back becomes stiff, so then so do your shoulders, arms and hands and that affects your horses balance and causes him to become tense… so he is not relaxed and then gets rushy.

    Try this. Drive like you would on the flat, straight back, balanced seat, flexible arms, and soft hands… NOW when you go downhill just bring your shoulders slightly back and your chest up and out… you will get an even, soft pressure and your horse with stay balanced and you will not be bracing with your body!

    Well we went out on the course, came to the downhill section, I did exactly as he had suggested, my horse went through the cones balanced and RELAXED!

    When I got home I tried this same method for our halts and IT WORKS! Nice, soft, straight, balanced, halts!

    My IMAGE to help me apply this new found aid is this…A DOVE TAKING FLIGHT!

    I love how this works and even better my horse LOVES IT TOO!!

    He is now relaxed and soft! Thanks for letting me share our story with you!

    – Deb from Armstrong B.C.

  2. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Awesome image Deb, great share!

  3. Reprogramming Your Mental Computer wrote:

    […] Lori Albrough on July 4th, 2012 A reader, Katie, wrote to me after she had read my Gumby article on using the power of visual imagery to help with your riding and training. Katie shared […]

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