So lately I’ve been playing around with visualization or “practicing in my head”. When I do an intense ride sometimes things flow naturally, one thing comes after another with ease and it’s almost like everything slows down. Other times I get in my head in a disruptive way and everything seems to go wrong one after another. I overthink, which there is no time for since everything moves rapidly and I throw myself off. Of course, I prefer when my riding flows with ease, so I’ve been contemplating what helps me get there. I’ve noticed whenever I’m able to visualize how I want the ride to go before I get out there it helps quite a bit. The other time I visualize my riding is when I have had a day of riding horse after horse and have hardly spent any time on my own two feet. When I close my eyes to sleep at the end of the day my mind automatically goes back to a place where I am still riding since that's where I’ve just spent most of my conscious hours. I’ve heard this is called the Tetris effect, which is where people spend so much time on an activity (such as an addictive video game like Tetris) it infiltrates their subconscious mind, affecting their mental images and dreams. This is very different because one does not choose to focus on anything in particular, the mind just naturally goes there. Even though I’m not focusing on it the times the Tetris effect influences me I tend to perform much better. Of course this is also because I’ve had the chance to ride and practice all day, but I think being in a mindset where even when you close your eyes you still feel it and see it is going to make you more successful at it. These two examples are quite different and only one is voluntary, but I really believe visualization as a whole helps me out. Because of this every night before I’ve fallen asleep for the past couple of weeks I’ve thought of something I want to get better at and “practiced in my head”. Finding my distance to a fence, for example. When you’re cantering towards a fence on a horse you want to be able to help them find the ideal take off spot which means you need to get a quality canter and then you may need to add energy, speed them up, slow them down, etc. as you get closer. I’m not very skilled at it and have only started working this recently when I was at Tamarack Hill Farm this Fall, so since I want to help “develop my eye” I’ll picture the feeling of riding towards fences and then seeing the ideal spot I’d like to take off.
I did my research to better understand why this helps me and it turns out there is something to it. Our brains are made up of Gray matter and White matter, Gray matter processes information and directs signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells, aka neurons. White Matter contains a mix of nerve fibers, aka axons and fatty tissue. Axons are long thin projections of neurons that conduct electrical impulses away from main body of neurons. Axons are covered in a Myelin sheath and every time you repeat a physical motion you build up this myelin sheath, the thicker it gets the faster your brain and muscles are able to communicate because it offers more ”insulation” around the axons for a more effective pathway. This is true “muscle memory”; your muscles are not what remember to react, it’s simply your axons working more effectively so your brain and muscles are able to communicate more quickly. The whole key is thickening that myelin sheath through activity because the thicker it is the faster your axons can transfer information. Here’s the thing, when you practice in your head you’re still thickening the Myelin sheath, as your brain still sends out subtle signals as if you were actually performing the action, and therefore helping your real life response times quicken. These signals are too weak to make your muscles contract, but it is as close as you can get to practicing without saddling a horse.
Of course, nothing beats going out and doing it, but being able to practice wherever you are and without putting yourself at any risk has its benefits! Especially If you’re like me and applying this to riding, because unlike other sports and activities where you can push yourself as hard as you possibly want you have the animal to think about too so you’ll hit a point where you may need to ease up for their sake. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else finds visualizing a stressful activity helpful, or have experienced the Tetris effect?
Engber, Daniel. “Will Practicing A Skill In Your Head Make You Better At It?” Popular Science, 2015, www.popsci.com/will-practicing-skill-your-head-make-you-better-it/.
Thibodeaux, Wanda. “Here's What Practicing Does to Your Brain (and How to Do It Right).” Inc.com, Inc., 13 Mar. 2017, www.inc.com/wanda-thibodeaux/heres-what-practicing-does-to-your-brain-and-how-to-do-it-right.html.