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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The learning process

Farley has been very forward in dressage. That’s what being mudbound and pen bound for 2 weeks will do to you. It’s a nice change – I’m finally getting a real connection back to front, forward in front of my leg, and throughness. Even though I don’t love jumping the way I love dressage, it’s been worth the price of the jump lessons to get the impulsion in dressage.

Usually on gaits and movements we are hovering between a 5 and a 6. Farley, as an arab is non-traditional which means we start at a 6 or 7, not necessarily an 8 like the warmbloods that have been bred to suspend themselves around the court like carousal horses. Farley has to be MORE relaxed, with MORE swing, and have a better connection to look as good.

I fight tooth and nail for my 7’s. It’s a fact of life that I’m going to end up with 5’s, and if I can get a 7 for every 5, and 6’s everywhere else, that’s a 60%!

That’s why, when my trainer remarked that I had a solid 7 trot, I thought “why not try for the 8?”.

So I went for it.

There’s a lot more distance/change between a “7” trot and an “8” trot, than a “6” and a “7”.

I found out that Farley probably has an innate “7” trot. ME, as the RIDER influences whether that trot becomes a 6 or an 8.

After 18 months of dressage the puzzle pieces are finally coming together. Even before my trainer made suggestions I could FEEL that I needed a half halt or more outside rein or inside leg or inside bend or more forward. I worked on “plumping” that trot. I had to make sure my leg stayed long, the inside leg at the girth, the outside slightly back, that I wasn’t pulling on the left rein, that my elbows stayed soft, that my thumbs stayed on top, that I wasn’t tucking my chin, that my knees weren’t gripping, and that I wasn’t behind the motion. And this is the short list!

We never truly got to that 8 (unless it was a nice judge!) but I could feel it there – right below the surface. The best part about it was I could feel how to get it – I, as the rider, was having a significant impact and helping my horse be better than she could be on her own.

This concept has a correlation in endurance (you knew I was going there!). I think one of the “tricks” of endurance is having the experience to know where your horse’s starting point is. Is the horse a 50 miler that is doing LD’s because of the rider? Or is it a 50 miler horse that is doing 100 miles because of superior ridership? Or is it a 100 miler horse, who is only able to do fast 50’s because of superior riding? Having all the puzzle pieces fall into place takes time.

Endurance and dressage both have in common what EVERY learning process has in common. Namely the “4 stages”. I’m sure most of us have come across this in some variation at one time or another, but I don’t think there’s any harm in doing some review.

The 4 stages can be described as follows:

Unconscious Ignorance – You are doing it wrong and don’t even know it, because you don’t have the experience or knowledge to know better. Anyone learning something new falls in this category. Even if you have knowledge of something related (ie – coming into enduance from another discipline) you WILL spend a brief period of time here. Even people experiencing tremendous success can be in this stage depending on the talent of the horse and luck. People here usually don't seek mentors, and if they do, don't usually benefit greatly from them because they don't know that they don't know!

Conscious Ignorance – You know you are doing something wrong, and may even have a good idea what it is. But you don’t necessarily have the tools to fix it. People in this stage can benefit greatly from a mentor or trainer.

Conscious Knowledge – You recognize problems and inconsistencies and have the tools and knowledge to “fix” them. It takes conscious thought, and effort, but you can usually anticipate problems and take steps to prevent problems AND increase your chances of success (however you define that) even past the innate ability of your mount. People at this stage make the best mentors - they have the experience and knowledge, but are still having to make a conscious effort to put their knowledge into practice.

Unconscious Knowledge –At this level the horse+rider team can achieve things that perhaps neither of them would have accomplished by themselves. The team is more than the whole. They know what needs to be done before they *know* it and it seems to just happen. Most of us spend just brief periods of time at this stage. Those moments are magic and are why I ride. IMO these people make the WORST mentors and are NOT a good choice for the stage 1 and 2 people to try and emulate.

Most people move between stages as new situations present themselves. Moving between stages 3 and 4, and even stage 2, is natural and is the learning process. One word of caution – unless you are an Olympic level rider you probably don’t spend THAT much time in stage 4. So if you are sitting there patting yourself on the back for being at stage 4 for the last couple of years, you are tragically (oh gasp-the horror) probably in stage 1. (Tongue in cheek of course - but there is a kernal of truth there....).

Where are you in your journey with (insert choice of sport/hobby here) in relation to the idea above?

When I started endurance with Minx, I was definitely in stage 1. I think I moved out of that stage quickly, only because I was on an unsuitable horse who made it very obvious what I didn't know very quickly. In that way, I think people using non-traditional endurance horses have an advantage. I spent a good year in stage 2 with Minx. I was aware that what I was doing was wrong but didn’t have the tools to fix it. After getting Farley, I briefly slipped into stage 1 again – thinking that because things were going very very well that I was in stage 3. However, the success wasn’t necessarily due to any new applied knowledge – it happened because I switched horses and my new horses happened to have a talent for endurance. The first half of season 2009 is a good example of being in stage 1. Things were going well and continued to go well for ~300 miles before I moved into stage 2 in the latter half of 2009 after Farley's first and only pull. I think in 2010 I finally moved into stage 3, and even had some brief glimpses of stage 4. It’s a wonderful feeling.

By analyzing how I progressed in my learning, hopefully with my next endurance horse I’ll stay in stage 3, or move to stage 2, but can avoid stage 1 again. IMO, stage 1 is where most of the heart break occurs, not to mention injury to horse and rider. Understanding this progress also helps me when I've, for whatever reason, slipped back a stage and I'm struggling. As long as I continue to consciously seek knowledge and implement it, and then critically evaluate, I'm likely to emerge from the situation better equipped and even more capable.

I went through a similar progression in dressage. Currently I’m bouncing between 2 and 3, with brief glimpses of 1 still.

I want to hear how your journey is going! Whether it’s horses, music, or anything else!


  1. Love the post. Very true. Did you come up with those stages or someone else? Brilliant!


  2. I didn't comment on this because I am horrible at self-awareness. (I know, me realizing that is totally meta.)

  3. Interesting... but how do you answer it? All I know is that the horses teach me things all the time, and the more I listen to them, the more I learn! And whenever I think I've got it all under control and that I'm brilliant in any way - that's when I'm bound to be a bad handler/rider!


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