At Heart—Helping You Live Life to the Fullest

Moments of Magic

Discover “flow” and take your riding enjoyment to the next level.

By Rachel Florman


“This is the best ride of my life,” you think. Or rather, that’s what you would think if you weren’t completely absorbed in the drum of hoofbeats, the cadence of your Paint Horse’s movements, and the cues you’re using to urge the dance forward.

It’s pure joy, a moment where nothing matters except one horse and one rider. It’s the kind of experience equestrians crave each time they saddle up.

These enchanting episodes are a collective experience shared by riders of all skill levels and disciplines. Though some might call it magic, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this sensation: it’s flow.

Optimal Experience

“Flow” is a term coined and brought to prominence by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. In his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly described the phenomenon as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Others might call it being “in the zone” or feeling “sucked in,” but the sense of full immersion in the present remains the same. Flow can be experienced in almost any activity including, of course, horseback riding.

Lorie Heggie, professor emeritus from Illinois State University, is a flow veteran and author of Flow, Centering and the Classroom: Wisdom from an Ancient Friend, which correlates horseback riding principles to the concept of flow and teaching. A former avid dressage rider, she says flow while horseback feels like a mental connection.

“Flow is being immersed in the moment, as if you’re without self. I recall riding my horse, ‘Sonja,’ and realizing it felt as if her feet were my feet,” Lorie said. “Other times, I felt like I could create an image in my mind of what I wanted us to do—stretch out more in her frame, for example—and she’d simply do it; we were so in the moment that it felt like we were in each other’s heads.”

Flow Factors

Activities that cause flow vary from person to person, but simply partaking in an enjoyable task does not guarantee this heightened state of immersion. Mihaly identified nine factors that all flow-inducing situations share; when all of these factors are present at once, magic occurs.

  • Challenge-Skill Balance
  • Action-Awareness Merger
  • Clear Goals
  • Unambiguous Feedback
  • Total Concentration
  • Sense of Control
  • Loss of Self-Consciousness
  • Transformation of Time
  • Autotelic Experience


When flow’s factors line up—your body synchronizes with your Paint, your focus dials in and you become lost in the moment—peak performance is delivered. These great rides refresh the spirit and provide a euphoria that lasts long after dismounting, bringing equestrians back to the barn for more.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2016 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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