Mental Muscle Memory

Do you consider showing cutting horses a sport, in the same category as football, baseball, and golf? According to Wikipedia, “Cutting is a sport born of necessity and dates back to a time when ranchers in the American West hired cowboys to work and sort through herds of cattle out on the open range, separating those in need of branding or doctoring.” Today the NCHA holds over 2,000 shows every year with total prize money exceeding $36 million. Therefore if cutting is a sport, consequently the rider is an athlete. With these two fundamentals established, we can begin to explore how mental training for athletes can give us a competitive advantage in the show pen.

Cutting, like most sports, is based on the science of preparation and execution. We send our horses to a trainer to prepare them for a show. We spend hours taking lessons with a trainer to prepare ourselves for a show. As Non Pro, Amateur, and Youth riders, we learn to make smooth cuts, drive up, use our feet, sit on our pockets, and crave the stop….and above all DON’T LEAN! When we arrive at the show, we are physically prepared to execute a winning run…..but are we mentally prepared?

Let me ask you this, what percentage of cutting is mental? To answer this question, try this exercise adapted from Gary Mack and David Cassteven’s book Mind Gym. Close your eyes and image yourself and your horse marking a 76 at an NCHA show. Imagine riding to the herd. Who are your herd holders? Who is turning back for you? Imagine making your first cut. What does the cow look like? Do you get it cut in the center of the pen? Does that cow take you to the walls, showing off your horse’s incredible stop, before you break it down in the middle? Imagine going back into the herd for your second cut. Will this be your deep cut? Did you cut a baldy or a mott? Did you trap it in the middle of the pen and allow your horse to get a little fancy? Now for your third cut. Do you chip one off and trot up to it? Throw your hand down and work that cow until the buzzer. Imagine how you feel when the score is announced, 76! Can you feel your heart swell up as you pat your horse and thank your help?

Let that scene slowly fade out. Now imagine marking a 60 (everyone has done it). Think of the show you were at when you lost a cow, didn’t get cut, hot quit, switched, held on too long, blew a stirrup. Think of how fast and out of control your run felt. Did it feel like no matter how great your lessons had gone, everything just fell apart in the show pen? Let that memory fade out and come back to the present. Now, let’s assume that your horse was in the same condition during both runs. What percentage of the difference between the two runs was related to your physical skills or abilities? What percentage was mental. Now consider this, is improving your mental skills equally as important as improving your physical skills?annie

According to Your Thoughts Can Release Abilities beyond Normal Limits, written by Ozgun Atasoy and published by Scientific American, “There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.” The writer follows the research studies of psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan, who determined that “People have significant psychological resources to improve their well-being and performance, but these resources often go unused and could be better harnessed.”

It is widely accepted by sports psychologists, coaches, and athletes that mental training will enhance performance, increase your competitive advantage, and add to satisfaction. Learning to use mental imagery, goal setting, self-talk/confidence, relaxation, and focus requires time and effort. The desired result is to develop a kind of mental muscle memory. As cutter, we work hard to develop our physical muscle memory to help us ride with the appropriate timing and feel. I challenge you to start developing your mental muscle memory to help you conquer anxiety, let go of negative thoughts, be in the moment, become more competitive, and unconditionally enjoy this incredible sport.

Mindful Cutting will help you develop your mental muscle memory. Every Wednesday we will learn to apply a different element of mental training for the cutting pen, featuring input from top NCHA trainers. Improving your confidence, focus, motivation, awareness, and composure under pressure through mental training, will allow you to excel by choice, not by chance.

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*Photo Credit: Michelle DeWitt – Along 4 the Ride Photography


2 thoughts on “Mental Muscle Memory

  • You are so right! I’m always terrified to blow it again on my grey, and inevitably I do! At practice we are spot on but once entering the show pen I blank, throwing my mental ability out the window. Yet on my new horse I can remember the run, the cows, their color, where I got them from (deep, shallow, etc).
    My point being, the mental game is so very important. Great read.


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