In The Saddle

What is NLP and how can it help you regain riding confidence?

By Tracey Cole NLP

If you’ve ever Googled ‘rider confidence’ there’s a high chance that you’ve seen references to NLP (neurolinguistic programming)...

It’s a set of psychological tools that produce fast and effective changes, including bringing about more confidence, self-belief and dispelling negative triggers.

NLP gives you the freedom to control your emotions and control your actions. It’s about having the ability to be empowered to be your best. It’s not new; it’s actually a collection of the very best parts of behavioural and cognitive psychology carefully blended to provide us with proven means of mastering how we think.

Practitioners know that the one thing that separates a successful rider from a less successful one, is their mindset. And the way the mind thinks can be changed using strategies that are easy and quick to learn. It’s a fallacy to think that confidence, once eroded, takes a long time to recover. The mind can work at lightning speed, given the right cues. By using language and visualisations that the mind understands, we gain access to our thought processes and think our way back to success!

How to train mentally: the power of visualisation

Have you ever noticed an accomplished sports person prior to their competition? Not necessarily a professional, sometimes amateurs convey that same enviable air of quiet determination and poise. Whilst warming up, such competitors remain within their own calm bubble; others step aside to let them pass, they’re the ones watching everything around them and concentrating more on others than themselves. I remember watching a friend compete in a one-day event and warming up, Oliver Townend was also in the collecting ring. When I mentioned this to my friend later, she said she hadn’t seen him! There were only three people in this small ring, how could she not have noticed?! Because she was in the zone, her mind was in deep concentration to ready herself and her horse perfectly for the show-jumping.

Mental rehearsal

Visualisations are vital! Mental rehearsals are more powerful than most people believe and also achieve far better for results. (Read more about Olympians using visualisation and watch the video from Emily Cook, the USA freestyle ski-jumper at Why does this work? The unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between a real and imagined event, they are both the same. If you can visuaiise what you want to happen 10 times before you actually do it, the mind thinks that you’ve done it successfully 10 times, so number 11 should be no different! Lots of people do struggle, however with visualisation and that’s perfectly normal. Here are a few tips to help you master it with ease:

1. Choose a time of day to spend 5-10 minutes visualising, be consistent and do it at the same time each day.

2. Focus on the perfect ride, focus on what you want to happen. The mind can become confused about what you want if you add in complications.

3. Imagine actually doing the ride, rather than watching yourself. Again, this packs more of a punch with your unconscious mind. Watching yourself could be beneficial if you’re imagining something less than perfect, so that you can learn from it.

4. If you’re image is not photographically perfect, that’s fine. Remember to add other sensory information such as sounds, touch, feelings and inner positive thoughts. This gives your visualisation more impact.

‘Hakalau’ or peripheral vision technique

Having a quiet mind that allows us to be centred and direct our attention to the task at hand. It stills us, slows the breathing and relaxes overly tense muscles, a state of being that would create a peaceful calm in both body and mind. This enables us to be at our best, whatever we’re doing or striving for.

Here’s the technique, it’s simple and fast.

1. Pick a spot above your eye line in front of you. Keep focussing on that spot, taking in all the colours, textures, light/shadow and really focussing in. Keep going for about 20 seconds.

2. Now allow your vision to extend slightly, so that you are looking at the spot and about 30cm either side, slowly take your vision out a little more and more until you can’t focus on the spot, but you can see your hands if you stretch your arms out level with your shoulders.

3. Now stretch your vision even wider. Stretch your awareness in your imagination to as far around you as you can. Now you’re in peripheral vision.

If you start to think about anything else, including fears or other negative thoughts, you will probably drop out of peripheral vision; your eyes focus as you consider such thoughts or feelings. Try it!

Now, take your time and bring your vision back to peripheral. You’ll start to relax a little more and push those negative thoughts away. Your mind cannot hold peripheral vision and negativity at the same time. Each time you start to feel those unhelpful thoughts, quickly go into peripheral vision to dispel them. As you become adept, you’ll be able to use it in the very first flurry of doubts or nerves, then, unconsciously, you’ll do it before they even surface. Practise often to become accustomed to using the technique!

Bringing it together

For your visualisations to work optimally, try this combined approach:

1. Find somewhere quiet to relax your mind and body. Try a free relaxation from or listen to some relaxing music. Allow yourself this time for self-care.

2. Get into Hakalau or peripheral vision and allow your mind and body to relax.

3. Start by visualising your peak performance; as you become more accustomed to visualising, you can expand the visualisation to include the warm-up and whole ride, but for starters, just the peak of your ride.

4. Take any learnings that your mind gives you, any insights that occur to you.

5. Come back into the room!

Clients have noticed how useful these techniques are in sport:

· Dressage and flatwork – you can get a really good perspective of the arena and anticipate movements with more time and more accuracy

· Show-jumping and cross-country – having a broader vision allows you to see the next jump and possibly the next, your lines become more exact, turns more effective

· Polo – have greater awareness of the field, your team mates and opposition riders, see the play unfolding more quickly

· Hacking and trail riding – use as a calming aid to calm to rider and the horse; enjoy the views, don’t focus on the horse’s ears/head or the obstacle you don’t want to pass. Connect with the horse more.

· Rugby, cricket, football, tennis – having peripheral vision gives you greater awareness of play and vital milliseconds to react

Dr Tracey Cole is a Trainer and Master Coach of NLP, Hypnosis and Time Line Therapy®. Her new book, The Confident Rider Mindset is available now on Amazon. She helps, supports, teaches and trains equestrians and coaches from around the world on how to maximise confidence and ways to use the mind to enhance performance. If you’d like to know more about how NLP and other mind techniques can help your riding, please get in touch.

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