Monday, Jun. 10, 2024

Visualization And The Hunter Round

For me, the worst part of a horse show is organizing my brain before I go in the ring. I can deal with the warm-up areas, full of hazards such as tight-lipped pros on six-figure hunters, bratty kids on jet-propelled ponies, and white-faced adults on kindly, been-there-done-that saints.
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For me, the worst part of a horse show is organizing my brain before I go in the ring. I can deal with the warm-up areas, full of hazards such as tight-lipped pros on six-figure hunters, bratty kids on jet-propelled ponies, and white-faced adults on kindly, been-there-done-that saints.

I can study the course diagram with a professorial detachment and analyze the hell out of it. But as I wait at the in-gate, my nerves take control and I gray out. My brain leaves on vacation, and all the lessons my long-suffering trainer has given me fly out the window. (In a moment of extreme frustration after a particularly hellacious round, my usually kindly trainer said that I looked like a monkey on a pogo stick.)

I’ve tried various remedies, such as my sister-in-law’s Valium, my Dad’s Jack Daniel’s, my godmother’s meditation routine, all to no avail. However, aware of my plight, a friend gave me an article on sports psychology, and in it I came across the concept of “visualization.” Now, ordinarily I’m not into pop psych–my version of “I’m OK, you’re OK” is more like, “suck it up and get over yourself”–but this seemed interesting. The theory is that one imagines a perfect round, jump by jump, line by line, rehearses it in one’s mind, and is thus able to replicate that performance in the ring.

I started my mental practice early in the morning. I went down to the ring and concentrated on my course. Single off the left, down the outside five-stride, up the diagonal to the single oxer, and down the four to the two coming home.

“Let’s see. Walk in confidently, stride out at the trot, and pick up a steady canter out of the turn. Press up a bit to the single (keep my eyes up), and move him away from my leg in the corner to get the change. Poetry in motion. Soften into the five-stride, sit deep in the middle to either slow or go, and keep my eyes UP, focus on something like the billboard at the jumper ring. Get the change, and don’let him stall out by the in-gate.

“Relax on the long approach to the diagonal and just let the jump come to me. Reorganize on the turn, and get straight for the last line. Remember he knows perfectly well where home is, so steady in the four to the two. Finish out the line, make a graceful circle, come down to a flashy trot, drop reins, big pat for my partner, and exit, smiling.” Piece of cake, I say to my trainer as I go over it with him, and he nods wearily.

Lunch comes and goes, and I review my course in my mind, talking out the approaches and steps. However, butterflies begin to disagree with the ham sandwich in my stomach, as I try to concentrate on the Plan. My trainer mutters gloomily to my horse, “I hate it when she gets that deer-in-the-headlights look.” And my horse rolls his eyes and sighs. Well, wouldn’t you know it, my mind didn’t exactly follow its prescribed route–it went completely off the rails, actually. And as for my trainer, his thoughts ranged from the sacred to the profane.

Me: OK, then. Show off his trot in the opening circle–rats, that circle looked more like an eggplant dropped off the back of a vegetable truck, but no matter, I’m on my way to the first jump.

Trainer: I hope I have enough cigarettes for this.

Me: The Plan calls for me to ‘press up a bit’ for the first jump? come on boy, help me out here and at least pick up a canter?

Trainer: Have I sent her a bill lately?

Me: Bit of a scramble, but we’re over. Uh oh, is he on the wrong lead? Now what? Oh yeah, ‘move him over?’

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Trainer: Don’t yank his head that way, no horse can get his balance if he’s twisted up like a pretzel!

Me: Excellent! Don’t quite know how that change happened, but we’re cookin’ now.

Trainer: And may God rain blessings upon that horse.

Me: Back to the Plan–‘feel your rhythm and decide whether to move up, steady, or stay the same down the line.’
Hmmm, can’t decide?boy, my trainer looks silly with all that frantic hand waving!

Trainer: She’s gonna die.

Me: WHAT A GOOD BOY! Wonder how many strides we did?

Trainer: If I pull down the brim of my hat, maybe no one will realize I’m watching this round.

Me: Jeez, that single oxer is a long way off. I could knit a sweater in the time it’ll take to get there. Maybe if I hurry up, I can get it over with faster.

Trainer: If I told her she looked good in white, do you suppose she’d take up tennis instead?

Me: WHEE! That was cool! Little long, though, better reel him in a tad?

Trainer: No wonder many trainers rely on controlled substances to get through the day.

Me: Where on earth am I now?

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Trainer: Maybe I should explore the job opportunities in dog training.

Me: OK, back on track—we’re bowling merrily along toward the four to the two. The Plan says ‘focus on the billboard,’ what’s it say? Something about insurance?

Trainer: Oh God.

Me: We seem to be going awfully fast here-cutting that corner was a mistake, too?

Trainer: She was a nice lady. She gave good presents at Christmas.

Me: I don’t seem to be in charge here, maybe I’ll just shut my eyes and grab mane.

Trainer: Come on horse, do your stuff and save her life!

Me: Hah! Made it! Too pooped for a final circle, though, gotta just stagger toward the gate.

Trainer: Can I open my eyes yet?

Me: OK, let’s look at my next course. What do you think? Visualize or just fly by the seat of my pants?

Trainer (to groom): Hon, could you run get me another pack of cigarettes?

As my trainer pointed out, my performance bore no relationship to my Plan. (Actually, he didn’t say anything for a minute or so, he just walked in little circles with his hands steeped in an attitude of prayer.) When he, my horse, and I had pulled ourselves together, we all agreed that there was room for improvement in the execution of my vision. Actually, we decided it was all a crock anyway, and I went back to my harum-scarum ways. My trainer blames me for his gray hair, but I think it looks good on him.

So much for my experiment with visualization. I was offered another opportunity to practice it, however. Recently I hurt my back, and the doctor prescribed an MRI. The doctor explained the procedure–I would be in a clanging, hammering, metal and plastic straight jacket, with the ceiling one inch from my face, for half an hour. I said I was extremely claustrophobic. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry. There is a technique that I teach all my patients, called visualization. Imagine yourself on the beach, staring up into a vast blue sky, with little puffy clouds floating lazily by?”

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