Think of a time when you were completely immersed in what you were doing. You lost track of time and you had no awareness of other thoughts or sensations, just the activity you were immersed in.
For many equestrians, this feeling is of one of the greatest thrills of riding – getting lost in the connection with the horse and the physical challenge of riding astride a moving animal.
This state, where time slows and nothing matters except what you are currently doing, can seem elusive to find, but it’s what keeps us returning to riding, even through the challenges and frustrations of learning.
This state is called Flow, and science actually knows quite a lot about it, from what happens in our brain when we are in the state to the conditions that create it.
What is Flow?
Flow is a term that was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He used the term to describe that state of mind of total focus and attention, but without cognitive effort.
Subjects of Csikszentmihalyi’s research described this state as being pulled along, “as if in a flow of water”, causing him to choose the term “flow” for this physiological state.
He used the term flow because in this state, every decision, action, and mental state seems to lead seamlessly to the next.
We find the state of flow when we reach the right intersection between the level of challenge of a task and our ability to complete it.
When we are working on a task that is too easy, where the challenge is low and our ability is high, we can do that task and still have plenty of mental processing left over for other activities, emotions, or thoughts. We won’t reach flow and may feel apathetic, bored, or simply relaxed, depending on our degree of ability for the task.
On the other hand, if we’re working on a task that is too challenging for our abilities, we will feel worried, anxious, or overly alert, but also not in flow.
In flow, we are focused and happy. We have the abilities required to complete the task, but need to employ our full abilities, meaning all our mental effort is directed to the task at hand.
Flow is at the edge of our comfort zones, push too far and you may feel anxiety creeping in. Drop back and as the task becomes too easy, you may relax, but your inner critic can start back up again.
The sweet spot is right on the edge, where you know you can do it, but it takes all your skill.
How Flow Affects the Brain
When in flow, the activity of the brain essentially becomes streamlined for rapid decision making. Mental processes that would limit this are shut down. This includes areas of the pre-frontal cortex, so certain forms of cognitive thinking will no longer occur, including, most importantly, the “inner critic”. This is the self-conscious voice in our heads that criticizes and second guesses decisions.
Brainwaves shift from the normal waking beta range into alpha/theta, the ranges also associated with meditation and light sleep. (Kotler)
This state of the brain during flow increases our ability to think laterally, connecting ideas that previously seemed separate. During flow, concepts or skills that were elusive before may suddenly make sense and be available.
Flow pulls us out of over thinking and puts us in the moment – fully present, fully aware, fully connected to what we are doing.
Why is this State so Important?
Flow is an essential human experience.
It taps into our potential and pushes us to expand, to work at our limits.
Flow increases our creativity and allows us to connect ideas we may not have been able to make sense of before.
People who regularly experience flow report greater satisfaction with their lives. (Rogatko)
But finding flow is not easy, it requires the choice to pursue something difficult, and then to work at the edge of that difficult task, “giving it all you’ve got”.
Flow can be experienced in many different activities, from cognitive tasks such as writing, having a lively discussion with a friend, or creating art, to very physical tasks – running a difficult trail, dancing, or of course, riding.
So what does this mean for us as riders?
When you are riding or are with your horse, notice your state of mind. Are you engaged? Are you giving it all you’ve got in that moment?
This doesn’t necessarily mean rocketing around the arena at top speed to work at the edge of your skills… it may be simple groundwork, but where you choose to challenge yourself in that activity… staying focused on “what do you feel”, “what do you notice”, and “what can you change”?
When we immerse ourselves in any activity we will perform better, we will enjoy it more, and of course, we will be better partners for our horses.
Now I’d love to hear from you, when is a time that you feel in flow riding? What made it happen?
Leave a comment below!
Viktor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp and authored the book – Man's Search for Meaning, once said “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
Abuhamdeh, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2012). The importance of challenge for the enjoyment
of intrinsically motivated, goal-directed activities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(3), 317-330.
Rogatko, T. P. (2009). The influence of flow on positive affect in college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(2), 133-148.
Kotler, Steven. The Rise of Superman, Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Seattle: Amazon Publishing, 2014.
This all makes such good sense while we move through our days in Flow. Seeing the graphic chart would make a great Tee Shirt display. Or better yet, embroidered on a saddle pad:)
A couple of weeks ago, my horse, Knockout, and I moved a cow with an injured foot up from the back pasture to the arena, where we penned her.
That’s the first time I’ve tried cutting and moving a cow from horseback. It was very cool!
Yes, “flow” would be a good word.
I was very focused on the cow, anticipating her next move, and blocking her from running off. At the same time, I was very focused on my horse. The whole way felt like walking a tight-rope in terms of finding and keeping the cow’s balance point of forward motion while blocking her from turning off.
At the same time, I was constantly feeling the right balance of directing my horse versus letting him figure it out for himself. This is new for him too, but he was pretty quick to catch onto what we were doing, and responses were quicker if they didn’t have to filter through my own reaction and cue time.
It really felt like we were working as a team to perform a task that was challenging for both of us.
It was FUN! 🙂
Joe, I have only ridden a horse on a cow one time but your description evoked my feeling on that day as well. I had every ounce of consciousness focused on the one cow in a crowd of bovines and somehow my horse was channeling my focus without me consciously micromanaging her; even so I could feel my body making adjustments so I was not a passive passenger. She had never worked on cows either but certainly had cow breeding.
It’s a pretty amazing feeling, isn’t it? And you described it well! Thanks!
This article is true, when I’m anxious about cantering , I stiffen , lose my connection with the rhythms of the horse however when I’m cantering on a smoother horse it’s so exhilarating
I think I most often experience flow when my “pony” is “naughty” – I react (more or less correctly) to the disobedience, correct it and afterwards, possibly, have a minor “meltdown”. I have to admit my major riding “issue” is getting bogged down by “what-ifs” rather than staying in the actual now. I did have some extended moments of what might have been “flow”recently at a cow working lesson (I generally ride dressage and trail ride/drive), “driving” a cow through some patterns where I was sufficiently focused on the exercise/big picture that I was able to just ride and not worry about anything but the goal of the moment (getting the cow to go where I needed it to go – even when the cow was not cooperating)
Wonderful blog, makes great sense, and some of it new thinking for me. Flow is a wonderful place to be.
Callie. I read the book “Flow” several years ago. I am always amazed by your curiosity and problem solving abilities.
This is an interesting concept that I never thought about referring to riding but you did !!!!!
I learn so much from you !!
Love that you did a blog on Flow and the research by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. I just took a Positive Leadership course with the University for Peace in San Jose and one of our topics was on Flow. I wish I could say that I’m always in flow while riding/training… but when I’m there, it is oh so sweet!
Thanks Callie! See you soon 🙂
I read “mans search for meaning ” many years and loved it. A beautiful soul. As for flow, when I am on the back of a horse, it is the “only” time that I am not thinking of something else, or worrying about anything. Besides loving the physics of the horse, the privilege of their allowing us to ride them and all the wonderful people one meets along the way….what could be better?
Nice, Callie. I think you find the flow many ways, many times.
Hi Callie, I’m a Vinyasa Flow yoga instructor as well as juggling a career, young kids, transitioning to a new country, etc. Oh, life! I find it absolutely essential to find my flow in order to keep my sanity. There are so many parallels with practicing yoga and with riding that I often compare the two, especially when considering meditative aspects, following/managing the breath, maintaining a relaxed-but-alert composure, and honoring the edge without totally beating myself up. This was a great read, and a wonderful reminder of my intentions.
I like that expression following your breath. The once or twice that I had that feeling of flow was in the swimming pool practicing my front crawl.Following your breath is certainly what gets you there.
The only flow I’ve experienced with my horse is in ground work.
Sadly not in my riding yet. I feel I’m too focused to let things flow in and out and around me when im riding. Focus between what im doing and what the horse is doing, as well as figuring out if there is something else i should be doing instead is OVERTHINKING, no flow here. Oh well, time may bring it on.
Give it time Karen, I’m sure you’ll find ‘flow’ in the saddle soon 🙂
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Just today I rode part of my ride in “flow.” I love the times I reach “flow” when I work with my horse. At those times our groundwork or ride feels like we are one. I find I’m on a “high” for the rest of my day. My goal now whenever I go to a show is to find our “flow,” simply for the joy it gives me.
That is a great goal to have at a horse show, it is so easy to get wrapped up in so many different emotions that we can feel from being at a horse show!
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
2weeks should I had the opportunity to spend time with Brandi Lyons (John Lyons’ daughter) learning a new method to get a horse to lay down. She said it takes a lot of patience. We were so focused (and so close) that we had no idea 2 1/2 hours had passed!
By the way… it was a lot of fun spending time with Brandi. She has an approach, and way of working with horses that is very similar to Callie’s.
This applied to me today but not with riding. I was going to do body work on one of my horses and neither of us was ‘in the moment’ if you will. A couple steps back and deep breaths and I don’t know where the next two hours went but I was totally connected/focused mentally and my horse has never been so quiet. Something special happened.
Wonderful analysis! In fact, it made me cry. I am a wheelchair user, but was a very healthy and active person before I became sick many years ago. However, I have rediscovered riding, something I was good at in my youth, a long time before I became ill. I love my horses and I am almost addicted to riding! Reading your blog, I suddenly understood why this is so: I feel flow (often) when I am trail-riding. I feel alive when I am out in nature with my four-legged friends and I experience moments when I am totally emerged, feeling absolutely in tune with them. They are my legs and we are one, being a part of the awesome landscape surrounding us…
Frauke, flow probably has even more meaning for you! Thank you for sharing your story 🙂
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
[But finding flow is not easy, it requires the choice to pursue something difficult, and then to work at the edge of that difficult task, “giving it all you’ve got”.]
I describe flow as when doing a task that challenges me, for example approaching a jump for the first time, as I ride up to the jump I am anxious but focused on the task… this is where the ‘flow’ is a bit slower but still moving forward. Once I go over the jump (goal accomplished) the ‘flow’ moves faster (adrenaline rush) and now I want to do it again…that’s when I am in ‘flow’…one with the jump. I find that the more times I feel flow, the more progress I make it my riding, which, in turn builds my confidence.
Many years ago, when learning to ride hunter-style, I was being taught the concept to putting a horse “on the bit.” I thought I understood the concept theoretically, but I was at a total loss at how to know when I had achieved this mystical state, despite my trainer’s best efforts. One day, I was riding an off-the-track Thoroughbred in one of the smaller outdoor riding arenas, which happened to be right next to a country road. I was focusing on keeping steady contact with my horse’s mouth with both reins, which was hard for me to do because my seat wasn’t very steady or relaxed, so I was totally immersed in that task. Right then, a very noisy truck with a loud muffler drove by on the road, maybe ten feet away from us- we were trotting right by the fence line. The horse I was riding had previously bolted when confronted with traffic noises. However, I apparently had him “on the bit” because, although his body gave a huge start and he jumped into the air about six inches, in the next stride he had settled right back down to a trot without bolting, throwing up his head, or otherwise reacting. We went right on with what we were doing as if nothing had happened. I was in the “flow” of focusing on the task of getting him on the bit, so I didn’t tense up (or even notice) the truck myself. In that instant, I understood that “on the bit” meant having steady, sympathetic contact with a horse’s mouth with communication flowing both ways. To my horse, being on the bit was a security blanket whenever something scary happened–being on the bit meant that he trusted me to keep him from harm. I don’t know whether I ever would have understood the concept of being “on the bit” had I had not being in the “flow” of striving to maintain a steady contact with the reins at that precise moment.
There are times when I’ve felt FLOW with my horse & I wonder how did we get here? ! The fact of the matter is we were in total relaxation! Once it was when I was fooling around at the end of riding and decided to try a simple lead change at the canter, I felt like I was riding a dolphin in the ocean waves! Another time it was the last class of a schooling show after a morning of distractions & frustration on both of our parts. I realized we were tired and relaxed & we got out of each others way! Oh, how wonderful when it does happen!!
Thank you for sharing this information,I have always wanted and is always trying to express what I’m feeling when riding to friends and family but not been able to articulate it in a way that makes sense to them , this article you just just wrote just ticked all the box’s, that is exactly what I feel , many of times
Thank you now I have words for the connection
That’s exactly what I thought when I read this article, too. I’ve found it difficult to articulate to friends why I enjoy riding (and I’ve only been riding since February). Riding is the only thing I’ve done where I’ve felt this way.
Excellent article Callie!!
I have experienced “flow” many times since childhood, mostly doing artwork, math, or some other mental exercise. I never thought I could accomplish this state when with my horse. This article is inspiring. To reach flow is now my goal.
Awesome Connie! Glad to hear that this has inspired a new goal for you 🙂
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
I love doing liberty work with my big boy. I have been able to get him to follow me in and out a weaving pattern with very deep curves and bends. I could tell he was enjoying it and we kept adding a little change here and there and it was so much fun and I felt so connected with him.
While for me the what Ifs sometimes ruin the pleasure of writing I have experienced flow when guiding my horse without reins only with my body and legs I was so concentrated on transmitting my thoughts of where to go to the horse without my hands that I wasn’t aware of anything else and I was having a wonderful time. I was talking to him the whole time so he could tell by my voice if he was doing it right or not but I was also laughing at how clumsy we were together. It was fun For both of us I believe.
Excellent information… and great correlation with the Brain connection. Explains a lot as to
whey and how that feeling works… well done! Loved it.
Reading your description of flow l have experienced this when totally immersed in a picture I’m drawing,time disappeared and it’s not until someone makes you jump or you finish that you realize what’s happened. Now l have a name for it. Thank you. Now l would lime to achieve this with my riding though my pony makes this very difficult. My ability is questionable but l keep trying. We may have experienced it a couple of times just hanging out in the field but l doubt it in riding yet. At least now l have a name for what we are looking for which makes it a whole lot easier. . Many thanks l love reading your articles.
I enjoyed this article. I first learned about “Flow” when I was studying to become a Montessori teacher. It was always such a joy to see young children experiencing flow. In my life, my horse time is one of the most frequent times where I experience it. Maybe that’s part of the reason horse time is so important to me.
Children seem to not have as much difficulty as adults do in finding flow, possibly because our adult minds tend to get clouded by all the distractions and responsibilities that come with life!
-Julia, HorseClass Community Manager
Flow I lost it bout 13 years ago when the horse I was riding barrels with slide. we was making the last barrel he slide towards the barrel and I fell off he landed on me We rode out of the arena .I was Heart broken I had let him down. for yrs we have rode together.. 2 years went by and I seen him again it was a special moment I knew he remembered right away.. he was hesitate at 1st.. It did us some good. 4 years ago I have acquired 2 boys and we been working on it for 4 yrs now it takes time..