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The Practice of Visualization

Up your show game with quick, out-of-the-saddle mental training.

Article by Gilead (Gil) Friedman, with Alexis Bennett

Courtesy of the NRHA Reiner Magazine - May 2023

mental athletics
Visualizing what you will see and do from the moment you walk in the show pen to the end of your run will prepare you for success.

Performance is reliant on the relationship between the mind and body. How your mind works under pressure is how you can expect your body to compete. To gain an edge, strengthen that mind-body connection and prepare your mind for peak performance.

One way to develop that connection is through visualization. Visualization is an imagery exercise that’s widely used in competitive mental training to improve performance.

NRHA Professional Gilead Friedman, owner of Mental Athletics, employs visualization to supplement reiners’ riding and help them influence their actions in the show pen to perform to the best of their ability. Using visualization and the following exercises, you will develop automaticity that can make success more likely, even in times of stress.

Operating in Autopilot

When you go to a horse show, there is usually some element of driving. It might be a half-hour; it might be several hours. Aside from checking your GPS occasionally to make sure you’re on the right track, you can usually navigate traffic, stop, accelerate and pass other cars with little to no thinking involved. This is likely because you have so much experience driving that you are able to execute the physical actions without expending a great deal of mental energy. Skill becomes automatic when it’s practiced.

Automaticity is the essence of performance. A skilled horseman, hockey player or tennis player practices the skills required for their sport so when they are in the context of the competitive environment, those skills just happen. They don’t have to think about reading the situation and reacting; they just do.

You must develop that automatic action for your riding to master aspects of competition, such as timing and precision. Friedman shared that in the mental sports arena, practice is often described as developing “sports automatic action” because in practice, you prepare yourself for automatic execution. Like driving, the more you practice, the more comfortable and skilled you become at automatic execution.

Develop Automaticity

You and your horse practice discipline-related maneuvers weekly, if not daily. You do this to develop skill in the art of riding. Unfortunately, in horse sports (and reining in particular), you are limited in your ability to practice the exact sequence of maneuvers lest you burn out your horse or cause them to develop anticipatory behaviors.

You can’t repeatedly drill the same pattern the way a hockey player can drill the same shot over and over again. So, what can you do to take advantage of sports automatic action without repetition? Visualization.

As the competitor within your competitor-athlete duo, you can prepare yourself mentally for the pattern that you are going to perform without causing any harm to your horse. It gets you ready for the heat of the moment within the unique limitations of reining. While most people already visualize some aspects of riding the pattern before they show — often during their drive — they often do so with a lack of intention, which translates into the inability to turn on autopilot

Mental Athletics
Developing the same level of automaticity that you have when driving for when you’re in the saddle requires practice. To ensure your repetitions are intentional, work on thoughtful visualization rather than daydreaming about your run on the road while driving to the show

Visualization Takes Practice

To execute your ideal run, you must see it first. The way to see it before you do it is to imagine it and experience it through your visualization. As you mentally experience it, you can make the physical performance more automatic.

Like all skills, visualization takes practice, and the more you do it, the better you will get. Friedman recommended completing a visualization exercise using these simple steps and a few personal rules at least once per day in the five to six days leading up to your event.

Step 1: Find a quiet place. Visualization is all about getting yourself into a meditative state. This can be difficult enough without additional distractions, so find a place to practice that’s free from people, animals and other disruptions.

Step 2: Sit while you practice. This is about practicing the mental aspects of performance, but try to closely mimic the seated position in a saddle, as well. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and back upright with your hands in front of you, gently resting on your legs.

Step 3: Begin with your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing first. Take a deep, slow inhale and long exhale. Do this three times, and then count down slowly from five to one. When you hit one, imagine that you are entering the show pen.

Step 4: Take it step by step. Imagine your pattern maneuver by maneuver. The more detail you can imagine, the better. If you know the arena, imagine that arena. Aim to include every act of the pattern. For example, as you walk through the gate, pick up your eyes. If you do a vocal cue as you switch leads, do the vocal cue in the visualization. If you plan to pause between maneuvers to settle, imagine yourself taking that pause. Ride from the first second you will enter the arena to the last. At the end, pause and relax your body. Pet or thank your horse if that’s what you do.

Step 5: Come back from meditation. Count yourself back from your visualization from one to five, and then open your eyes. This finalizes the practice and leaves a feeling of closure or acknowledgement

peak performance mindset
Practice visualization in a distraction-free place, mimicking the athletic position you’re in when riding as closely as you can. Your back should be straight, and your hips should be underneath your shoulders

Rules of Practice

This visualization practice is straightforward, but there are a couple of rules Friedman recommended riders follow to keep their mental well-being in check and to get the most from the exercise.

Rule 1: There is no such thing as a bad visualization. This isn’t the time to start criticizing and critiquing yourself. This is practice. If you forgot something midpattern or visualize it differently than you’d like, such as not pausing between maneuvers, that’s fine. Stop, go back to that point mentally, and then resume. If you get confused or lose focus, great. That is exactly what this practice is for! It gives you the opportunity to practice recentering and refocusing in a low-stakes environment so when it’s for real, the steps are automatic.

Rule 2: Never, ever quit a visualization in the middle. If you decide to start, finish. Quitting in the middle mentally is the equivalent of throwing your hands up in the middle of a ride at a show and exiting the arena. You may instead choose to school, practice one movement until you like it, or take a minute to refocus and finish, but you should always finish what you’ve started.

Rule 3: Practice time should meet or exceed the pattern. If you expect your pattern to take four to five minutes, your visualization practice should be at least that long. If it’s too short, it’s not detailed enough, and you probably aren’t working through things. If it’s longer, that’s great. Know, too, that every practice leading up to the event might not be the same length.

A final note about visualization and practicing your mental game — assume your horse will act predictably. In other sports, athletes practice perfect shots and difficult shots, and while you should, too, you don’t want to practice as if the wheels have come off. If you know your horse struggles with a lead, anticipate and set up for that, knowing it’s a challenge to be prepared for rather than assuming you’re going to have to school and correct.

“Coach yourself to be the best that you can be so your best becomes your automatic action,” Friedman said

gilead friedman

Mental Athletics

Gilead “Gil” Friedman of Mental Athletics specializes in the mental game that accompanies competition.

The NRHA Professional, who grew up riding performance horses, worked with NRHA Professionals Dan Huss and Bob LaPorta in the United States.

Now based out of the KPH Performance Horses facility in Kfar Netter, Israel, he works in person and virtually with trainers, non pros and amateurs worldwide, sharing his firsthand knowledge of performance psychology to help riders step up their mental strength in a competitive environment. Learn more at

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