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.