California Riding Magazine • February, 2013

Horsey Humor:
Mental Riding

by Bob Goddard

So, you've lost a few pounds, you've strengthened your core, you've built up your endurance and you've learned to stretch properly. Despite all you've done, you still have a nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you're missing something. That's because you forgot about your brain.


The Great Book of Horse Knowledge, a repository of equestrian wisdom and assorted informational tidbits, warns "Riders who neglect the mental aspect of horsemanship are heading for a whole lot of disappointment." The Great Book explains that "negative thoughts lead to negative emotions" and "when a horse senses a surge of negative emotions emanating from a rider it confirms what all horses instinctively know: the human race is hopelessly psychotic."

Obviously, this leaves the horse less than confident over the rider's ability to be in charge of things. If a rider can't control himself, how is he going to manage 1200 pounds of muscle and legs? By default, this puts the horse in charge.

As much as we love and admire these animals, there is a preponderance of evidence suggesting that in times of stress and uncertainty, the horse does not think ahead. Nor does he consider what's best for the team as a whole. Yes, he is sensitive to your mental/emotional state, but he is not your therapist. This means when a horse takes action such as bucking, rearing, shying or refusing, he is attempting to solve his problem, not yours. If you find yourself on the ground, the problem – from the horse's perspective – was you. Having taken care of his problem, he is free to go on with his day.

The Great Book contends that all this unhappiness could be avoided if riders paid more attention to their mental state. A positive state of mind helps the rider become relaxed, alert and confident. And it gives the horse one less thing to worry about.

One way to achieve a positive state of mind is to consciously replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Thoughts. This requires tapping into the power of positive affirmation statements, such as "What a nice day, I'm glad I'm not dead," and "I'm in control, I have a good horse and I will have a great ride today and I hope I said that right."

The Great Book cautions that it is not enough to simply replace a negative word with a positive word. "I'm afraid I'll fall off today," in the original isn't very inspiring, but it's obviously better than "I'm positive I'll fall off today," even though you're replacing "afraid" with "positive." Furthermore, it is important to understand that "positive" is not always congruent with "factual." For example, "There is a possibility I may fall off today" is an honest, factual statement. "There is a possibility I may not fall off today" is equally factual, but when you really look at it, is much less positive.

Positive Thoughts can also come from practicing mental imagery. For example, by imagining the Best Ride Ever – even if you've never had one - your brain can trick the body into thinking this is actually happening. The body picks up on the positive vibe of this Wonderful Ride and communicates this to the horse. Not a shred of it has to be true, because your body is pathetically easy to fool. So it's okay to make it all up.

We've all engaged in this form of mind/body trickery from time to time in other venues, so it's not all that mysterious. The point is, the more you can con your body into buying the deception, the better you will ride. From this we can conclude that good riding is based on self-delusion.
You don't have to be crazy to ride horses, but it helps. Don't worry, your horse already knows.