Part 4: The Highs and Lows of Riding | What Your Instructor Can’t Teach You About Riding In Harmony


We have put in the work during the previous stages of Struggle and Release, diligently building the skills towards reaching our goal and giving our brain the time it needs to process them. So what next?

PHASE THREE- FLOW Now we flow. In part one we discussed that this is where the magic happens and we find that deeper connection with both ourselves and our horses. Through flow state, we build the bridge between species and create harmony with our equine partners.

In order to trigger flow, we need to challenge our our established skills and lean into that challenge without backing down. Sound a little intimidating? Good! Step out of your comfort zone and accept that a bit of pressure initiates a heightened experience. A spike in adrenaline along with other neurochemicals create a biological cocktail that sets you up for flow.

Flow State is meaningful in part because the way that it makes us feel. The hallmarks of peak experiences are increased Focus, Learning, Awareness, Bonding, and Motivation, which are a product of our brain’s biological cocktail.

The five key neurochemical components and what they control within the context of Flow1.


  • Dopamine - engagement, excitement, creativity, curiosity

  • Norepinephrine - arousal, attention, neural efficiency, emotional control. Speeds heart, muscle tension, respiration, boosts energy

  • Endorphins - relieve pain, keeping us undeterred from painful feedback

  • Anandamide - amplifies mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels and airways

  • Serotonin - helps us cope with adversity

Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman establishes additional conditions to trigger flow state beyond those set forth by Csikszentmihalyi,2.

  • High perceived challenge

  • High perceived skills

  • Knowing what to do

  • Knowing how to do it

  • Knowing how well we are doing

  • Knowing where to go

  • Freedom from distraction

For equestrians, the conditions could be the result of combining established skills into a dressage test or jump course, competing in a show, riding a more advanced horse, tackling an intimidating combination. These conditions are unique to each rider, horse and situation.

When enough of these criteria are in place, flow can occur. It takes engagement, challenge, skill, personal accountability, and oftentimes sometimes courage. When it all comes together though, it feels like magic.

PHASE FOUR-RECOVERY

Coming down from a flow state, your body will recover need to from the effort of producing the neurochemicals. Experiencing an emotional low is typical. In contrast to flow state, this can present as more intense feelings of self doubt or criticism. You may feel as if the last peak experience was a finite and unrepeatable. You may question if the experience was as good as it seemed at the time.These feelings are a normal and predictable part of the cycle of flow state.

Getting bogged down in these feelings is easy, particularly if we fall victim to believing they will never end. Instead, repurpose the negative emotions into reflection points to guide your next steps.

We equestrians often try to muscle our way through life. We push a little harder, walk it off, work through it, and ignore discomfort. The tendency to deny ourselves the opportunity to recover prolongs the recovery process and creates a more grueling experience than necessary.

To improve performance, we need to build both physical and mental recovery into our routine as a way to help us come back stronger. Approaching recovery from a proactive frame of mind, makes it much easier to navigate.

Now that you have an overview of the phases of Flow State and how it happens, can you identify experiences of Flow with your horse?

Going forward we encourage you to keep track of moments that make you feel alive and connected in your partnership. Tracking how you move into or out of the experience of flow state with your horse offers valuable insight into what works for you so that you can create more!

Stay tuned for more posts on topics that will help guide you on your journey toward creating a better partnership with your horse through flow state and bringing your best to every ride.

1,2 Kotler, Steven. The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

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