Present Focus: Sports Psychology for Riders

One of the most powerful mental tools in sports psychology is present focus. Present focus means you are completely in the moment, and it’s the key concept behind being “in the zone”.

Present focus is a powerful tool for riders. It allows you to fully focus on one task, and it helps to eliminate anticipation in your horse. Here’s how it works:

When you focus on a certain task, even if you are not doing that task, your brain sends signals to the muscles involved in doing that task. If EMG sensors were placed on your leg muscles and you sat in a chair and imagined riding your horse, the machine would light up as impulses are sent from your brain to your legs.

This concept is powerful—it’s what makes visualization such a valuable tool for athletes. You can practice correctly in your mind, and have your brain program your muscles to perform the correct action.

The reverse is also true: if you are thinking ahead too far in your riding, your brain will be sending these impulses to your muscles, and your horse will read those tiny changes, causing him to anticipate the next maneuver. It’s how your horse seems able to “read your mind” at times.

Your horse might break gait at the top of a circle because you thought about stopping at the center. Or, even though you are sending him forward with your seat and legs, he slows down in his approach to a sliding stop because your mental focus has shifted from “rundown” to “stop” too soon. He reads the mixed messages your body is sending.

Or, you might be thinking about something that has already happened—bad rate to the previous barrel, for example– and suddenly your horse’s rate is off again.

The best starting place to learn present focus is through controlled breathing. Practice breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Breathe into your abdomen, allowing your lower lungs to fully inflate.

Focus on one thing, either an object in the room, or an imaginary object. Continue to breathe deeply and remain focused on this object for as long as possible. If your attention wanders, simply redirect it back where it belongs. Make a note of how long you are able to focus before other thoughts invade. This gives you a starting point to work from.

During your next ride, focus on your breathing and attention in the same way. This will help you create many different speeds and gears in your mind, so that you can adjust to any level of competition easily.