Finding the Flow State
There is an ongoing joke in our house about what my husband calls “stable time.” There is the time I tell him that I will be coming in from the stable, and then there is the time I actually get to the house, which is usually more than a little bit later than I predicted. I am a chronically punctual person, so why does this happen? I think it has to do with a phenomenon called the “flow state.”
Often when I ride or groom the horses, I become completely unaware of the passage of time. I get lost in the wonderful moments of togetherness, or the delight in learning something new together. Most riders have experienced those rides when it feels like everything is coming together to create a beautiful experience. You and your horse are communicating so well that it seems as though you are moving as one, his gaits flow freely, and you move harmoniously with his movement. The rhythm feels wonderful, your breathing is calm and you understand what it is to truly work in partnership with an equine partner. And then you realize that the five minutes you thought just passed by were actually 35 minutes. Wow. What happened there?
This experience is what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state.” During the flow state you become so involved in an activity that “nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that you will do it even at great cost for the sheer sake of doing it.”* Flow is certainly not unique to horse people. Writers, scientists, athletes – people from all walks of life have experienced this phenomenon that some people refer to as “the zone.” Flow happens when you are using your skills to engage in a task that is challenging , but not so challenging that it is frustrating. To enter the flow state, you need:
- Skills to undertake the task. The task should challenge you just enough so that your skills may develop further by engaging in the task.
- A clearly defined, realistic goal of something you are trying to achieve.
- ·Focus on the goal without distractions. You will not likely enter the flow state if you stop your ride to chat to a spectator, take a phone call or take a selfie of you and your horse.
- IImmediate feedback that requires responses – in riding this feedback comes from the horse.
- Awareness of your emotions. You cannot achieve flow if you are experiencing negative emotions that diminish your focus.
Aside from the satisfaction and feelings of pleasure we get from entering the flow state, it can also lead to improved performance as we stretch ourselves gently to refine our skills to meet the challenge before us. I believe that the many times my riding students have had “aha!” moments have happened when they were in a flow state.
Take away message for equestrian educators
You can support your students in their quest to find a flow state by helping them set realistic short terms goals that help them on their journey to their long term goals. Short term goals should enable the student to use the skills they have TODAY (not the ones they wish they had today). Short term goals should offer a slight challenge to the student’s skills without causing frustration. It is surprising how many people are not good at setting incremental, realistic goals.
For example, in a quest to ride a proper shoulder in, a student may set themselves a goal of riding five steps of correct shoulder in. However, for someone just learning this skill, a more incremental and realistic goal might be to learn to feel with the seat every time the inside hind leg leaves the ground.
Until they can achieve this incremental goal, they will not achieve five steps of correct shoulder in and therefore will be frustrated. More on goal setting in future blog posts, but for the purpose of helping riders achieve the flow state, equestrian educators have a role to play in helping students set goals pitched perfectly at providing some challenge to the rider’s current skill level without over challenging them.
*Reference: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in Paine-Clemens, Bunny. (2015). Creative Synergy: Using At, Science and Philosophy to Self-Actualize Your Life,” 4th Dimension Press: VA.