Add Purpose to your Practice

Incorporate the process of working in a specific, purposeful and strategic way to improve your horsemanship

Photo by Brett Sayles on

Have you fallen into a rut with your horse? You go to the barn and ride every night but the same problems keep cropping up and you can’t seem to get past them. Maybe you have tried the occasion lesson or even hired a trainer but you seem to have hit a plateau that you can can’t quite get over. Maybe it is time to look how you practice and how a shift in your mindset can have a huge affect on your ability to improve in the saddle.

The pitfall for many frustrated equestrians is that they are engaging in a type of practice that emphasizes a knowledge based approach which encourages building knowledge and turning that knowledge into mindless habits. Whereas a systematic approach that focuses on building a mental database of creative solutions to whatever scenarios may arise is the way that master horsemen approach learning. You hear it again and again when top professionals speak of the lessons they learned from this horse or that one. The experts are able to internalize those lessons and come up with a set of operating principles that allow them to solve problems on the fly.

As a novice rider I was taught to always think ahead of my horse and feel what they are telling you and then to solve the problem before it becomes a problem. Most horses telegraph well in advance when they need our guidance but we have not internalized those lessons well enough to respond in the way the horse needs and we wind up frustrated when the same thing goes wrong every time we are in the saddle.

I have a wonderful lesson horse that will reliably come off the rail into the middle of the arena at the exact same spot in every lesson. I think he is a great teacher, I can always count on this behavior and there is a simple remedy to fix it. I warn his first time riders where it will happen and exactly what action they need to take to stop the behavior and we even practice it ahead of time in an area where I know he won’t present the behavior. But every time, without fail it surprises his riders when he comes off that rail even though we have worked to build the skill and I have warned them about it. This behavior will frustrate some of his riders to the point that they don’t want to ride him anymore but others attack the problem and learn to overcome it. Those riders in the second group, without fail, tell me how much they learned from him and how learning to master him helps them in their riding now. Those are the riders that go onto become the horse people we all aspire to be.

This systematic approach that experts in their field use to push past the boundaries and reach the highest levels of their sport was uncovered by physiologist and researcher Anders Ericsson. His research has consistently found that once we reach a level of “acceptable” and automatic performance, additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.

As Ericsson describes in his 2016 book, Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise: “[We] assume that someone who has been driving for 20 years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five… But no.” In fact, the person who has done the same thing over and over for 20 years is more likely to be worse due to gradual deterioration.

In his book Ericsson defines three types of practice. 

1. Naive Practice – This is the practice we do when we are beginners, building the basic levels of knowledge to ride our horses. Things like balance, starting, stopping, steering, posting, etc. Everything is new and scary and our brain is naturally attentive to every detail as we work hard to understand the basics. Once we get past that first scary part and become good enough to stay on the horse and guide him through some basic moves, we repeat this over and over until it becomes automatic.

Once we become “good enough” and feel relatively confident guiding our horse around the ring or on the trail at a walk, trot and canter our improvement stalls. At this point, you have become comfortable managing a reasonably calm, well trained horse in whatever environment that horse is most comfortable in. You don’t push him to go past the scary end if the arena or take a new trail when hacking out. You certainly aren’t pushing yourself to try a more challenging mount or to enter a competition. You are are going though the motions and for many people that is fine.

For those of us got into horses because it is possible to constantly challenge yourself and improve your skills, it is a grand passion that you cannot pick up and lay down like a game of solitaire as Ralph Waldo Emerson says. This leads us to the next type of practice that Mr. Ericsson describes as purposeful practice. He says that “Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.”

2. Purposeful Practice – Here is how Ericsson summarizes purposeful practice, “Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.” There are 6 elements that define purposeful practice.

  • 1. Must have a specific goal
  • 2. Engage in focused practice
  • 3. Receive quality feedback
  • 4. Continual pushing out of your comfort zone
  • 5. Formulating creative solutions to work though any plateaus you hit
  • 6. Maintain your motivation

For us equestrians that next step usually involves some sort of competition and the involvement of trainers, instructors and/or coaches. When training for a competition our motivation is pretty easy to maintain when we don’t want to end up looking foolish in front of our peers or falling off our horses. For others that next step will be outside of the show pen and out on a trail, maybe it involves learning to traverse a tricky mountain pass or water crossing. Or becoming a true partner with our horse and building the kind of trust that will get you through those sticky situations. Incorporating the elements of purposeful practice will put the vast majority of equestrians on the right track to improve their horsemanship and thrive in competitive and challenging environments. But there is a third level of practice that can help you move up the ranks from handy amateur to confident expert. That rare horseman or woman who can apply their expertise to a wide variety of situations and horses. These are the top trainers and competitors that we see at horse shows. Mostly people who have  decided to make their living off of horses and the very few top amateurs competing at the highest levels in every discipline. These are people who have turned purposeful practice into deliberate practice.

3. Deliberate Practice – Includes all the elements of purposeful practice and adds the following three points:

  • 1. It is done in a well defined field where it is possible to differentiate between a novice and an expert.
  • 2. An experienced trainer or coach is involved, helping to tailor practice and learning techniques.
  • 3. They have learned to harness the power of mental models, or visualization, while they perform.

So what do you do if you have stalled out at either naive practice or purposeful practice and want to move up to the next level? Breaking out of whatever mindset you find yourself in is the short answer. Fortunately and Unfortunately our human brain is hardwired to turn repeated behaviors into habits. The more you do something, the more likely it is to become a habit.

If we can wire our brain unconsciously to pick up certain habits, we can consciously can rewire our brain to pick up new habits. This is where purposeful and then deliberate practice come in. The difference between “automatic” repetitive practice and the more purposeful “deliberate” practice comes down to knowing where you need improvement and focusing intensely on getting better in that area. instead of going out to the barn and doing the same thing over and over and over you will need to make the decision to set some goals that are just outside of your comfort zone and then engage all the elements of purposeful practice.

If you are interested in learning more about purposeful and deliberate practice would love to hear from you in our private Facebook community at

If you would like to start setting your goals today, enroll in our FREE course, Making Strides.

Published by TheMindfulEquestrian

Horse lover helping horse lovers.

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