Experimenting, making mistakes, and learning

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 1.05.06 PMSome days it feels like I am banging my head against an immovable brick wall of lack of progress in my riding. But continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is foolish, fruitless, or just plain nuts. Something’s gotta give.

I ask, “How can I change the equation here? What’s not working? What needs to be different? What experiment or exercise can I try?”

Sometimes just hitting pause for a moment and letting my horse walk around on a loose rein while I ponder the mysteries of training gives me enough mental space to figure out the problem and solve it.  How about if I try it this way? (Nope). This way? (Ugg). How about this? Yes! Often I can solve things myself based on experience, past lessons and study (reading/watching videos), but when I need more help, I ask for it.

Giving myself (and my horse) the freedom to experiment and sometimes look awkward, silly, or unbalanced is essential to learning. If we do not try and sometimes fail, if we worry too much about always getting it right, we are still automatons who growth and joy are stifled.

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Of course we all need trainers and eyes on the ground as well as our own commonsense and experimentation. None of us is sufficient unto herself. Even professionals need lessons occasionally, and those of us who are amateurs generally need them more often. A lot more often. Whether we profit from what we learn when facing trials and tribulations in our riding – and they will come, I promise you – depends on our mindset. I ran across a fascinating article on learning mindsets which very much applies to riders:

 In her influential research, (Carol) Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.  http://www.wired.com/2011/10/why-do-some-people-learn-faster-2/

I’ve been in both camps: despising myself as the worst rider of all time, hopeless, just give it up and find some other way to spend my money (and imagine how much money I’d have if I gave it up!), or thinking, o.k., I’ll work harder and smarter and we’ll get there!

Many riders divide themselves into the talented or the not-talented category, which is a FALSE DICHOTOMY. They think you’re either born with it, or you’re not. Not so: riding is not inborn, it is taught.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 3.33.09 PM

Edward Gal and Totilas. Not many riders have his physique (look at those long, draped legs). And not many horses are Totilas, either. Well, we can’t all be at the top of the bell shaped curve.


Now it is true that some people have more advantages for riding than others: long legs, shorter torso, slim elegant body, blah, blah, blah. And of course learning to ride as a child is an advantage. But everyone improves by applying themselves body, mind and soul to this impossibly engrossing task – rather, passion! – of moving in harmony with your horse. And no one gets there without hard work. Even the greats of the horse world worked very hard to get there and to keep themselves there.

As long as we are happy together...that's really the point, isn't it?

As long as we are happy together…that’s really the point, isn’t it? Oh well, yes, I’d like to make progress, too…and we are! Because Finn and I work hard at it.

In the end, what we all want is harmony with our horses, whether you trail ride, jump, ride dressage, or western.  Here’s a beautiful example from one of the great masters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1YO3j-Zh3g

9 thoughts on “Experimenting, making mistakes, and learning

  1. The frustrating days are fewer and further between for Clay and me right now, but it’s only because we have had some breakthroughs and are riding high on that. Next time our trainer comes, she is certain to shake things up and then begins the next long period of “Oh God, I know nothing!” in which there will be much fumbling and experimenting and cursing and Youtubing in order to try and figure our shit out. Such is very nature of Dressage, which is why we are CRAZYPEOPLE for doing it! 😉 Thankfully, both my pony and your pony seem at home in this discipline and eat it up- frustrating days and good days and everything in between. Clay doesn’t get bogged down by everything like I do. I’m always learning from him.

    I totally agree with you that good riding isn’t a skill you’re born with, but rather comes through tons of hard work and long hours spent living and breathing it. But as a riding instructor I have seem first hand that some people do have a more natural way with horses than others from the very start. The ones who aren’t as comfortable/confident in their own skin, aren’t as strong in their core from the get-go, and who are maybe discouraged a little by having to work harder than their peers, well, they are in for a tougher journey than some. But they can absolutely do it and excel at it.

    We all have something (usually multiple things) that could potentially hold us back if we didn’t work to overcome it…financial limitations, physical or height limitations (hello, ponies!), mental limitations (says the woman who went off course TWICE at the last show after spending HOURS memorizing my tests! Arg!), etc. Even all of the top riders in the world are up against something or another. The fact that life is natural and organic and we can’t (yet) just program in exactly what we’d like to happen is a beautiful thing. My students who work for it, overcome their greatest fears and limitations, and come out the other side are much more devoted to their sport in the end, and much more proud of themselves than the ones who kind of have everything handed to them.

    I read somewhere that in Europe the competition ring is very different than in the US because people there go to shows to learn, grow and school their horses rather than to prove something or win a ribbon. At shows in Europe you will see mistakes, you’ll see horses pitching a fit and their people calmly working through the issue because that’s exactly what they’re there for. No one is afraid to fail or look bad in front of others because it is accepted that the struggles, the training, the hard work and imperfections are all part of the journey. I sometimes wish our show culture here was more like that. Maybe people would be less hung-up on perfection and would embrace the process more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Tonia. I’m especially intrigued by your description of the difference between competitions in europe and in the USA. If only our competitions could truly be focused on growth for horse and rider, and not on accumulated points and ribbons (often to the extent that riders far under challenge themselves just to ensure a high score and blue ribbon).
      I agree with your comments, as well, that some people have natural empathy and a feel for horses and they are way ahead of the game in riding. However, in the interest of keeping the article to a length where a few people might read it – and also trying to emphasize the necessity of hard work over talent or inborn ability – I decided not to go there. I specifically wanted to encourage the person who is struggling to get back on that horse and keep working at it, not to feel “less that” or hopelessly ungifted (things many of us feel sometimes when we compare ourselves to truly great riders).

      Liked by 1 person

    • I feel your pain! Just had one of those lessons this morning. Five minutes into it, I was ready to say, “I think I’ll just be a trail rider from now on.” But we persevered and things got much better (after a little gritting of teeth and buckling down to more effort on my part). Riding is one of the most difficult things in the entire world!!!


  2. I totally agree! Riding is about showing up and doing the work, not about how talented or fancy the rider or the horse is. It’s taken me quite a long time to come to terms with this and just enjoy my riding journey-moving from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s